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Al Neuharth R.I.P.

Don SorchychNational news media gave extensive coverage to the death of Al Neuharth. Neuharth passed away at age 89. He was a long time CEO of Gannett Newspapers and the founder of USA Today.

While I was at Harris Corporation I often saw Neuharth because Harris built his text editing equipment and helped him establish satellite communication for printing around the country in the 80s.

Harris had the engineering and software expertise to do his text editing equipment, but unfortunately never had the marketing to become the word processer leader they could have become.

Al had an estate in Cocoa Beach, Fla. he named Pumpkin Center which had extensive beach footage.

I had a former activist friend in the fashion of Maricopa County resident Anna Marsolo. She never saw development she didn’t attack and try to stop. So he gave lots of press coverage of her successes.

As her children grew up she decided to become the first female vice president of Xerox. She soon became a sales manager and developed booming sales for Xerox.

Then she began getting calls from a reporter at Gannett. She feared a story about her activist accomplishments would damage her career with Xerox. She was friends with Neuharth’s second wife, State Senator Lori Wilson, and asked if I would go to Pumpkin Center and help plead her case with Neuharth.

bil canfield editorial cartoonOver cocktails at Pumpkin Center she laid out her fears. Neuharth listened intently and then said, “Don’t worry your pretty head. I will take care of it.” She never heard from any Gannett reporters again.

On the way home I inquired about whether a CEO should take action like that when he was preaching about honest journalism all the time.

A contemporary aside – she could not sell machines to the Melbourne Airport. She told me she visited with the airport manager, a crusty retired Navy captain. By the way, most four stripers are a big deal, except for Gabby Gifford’s husband. She asked why he wouldn’t replace his antique copy machines with her modern ones. He said, “Because I don’t like your politics.” I was on the Melbourne Airport Authority at the time and he confirmed the story with a chuckle. He was wrong, of course, and many of us told him so, but we all revered his work and accomplishments.

Neuharth was a bigger than life individual. I read his book, “Confessions of an S.O.B.” He pulled no punches and described himself almost honestly. He even provided in the book, unedited he said at the time, chapters about his first and second wives. Lori Wilson spared no punches and wrote, “That should have been a tip-off that Al was expecting bigger things of me (referring to his refusal to consider her using his last name). I realize now that maybe he never really wanted a wife so much as a power partner. He's charming, rich, challenging, and inspiring – a great catch, as long as you don't mind riding a roller coaster with a snake.''

We also had a close connection here.

Neuharth invited Karl Eller, a well known local entrepreneur, and his wife to visit Pumpkin Center. Eller had become a Gannett board member and Neuharth heard Eller and his wife discussing his plan to convince the board to make him CEO. Neuharth said in his book there was a malfunction of the intercom system but that the knowledge allowed him time to convince Eller to resign, and he did.

When KFNX 1100 AM (in our backyard) was being planned, the CEO was Eller’s right hand man. I asked him if the story of the malfunction was true; he said “Hell no.” He said he visited Pumpkin Center numerous times and heard maids chatting in guest rooms with the sound emanating from a library of books.

When Nueharth was involved with Harris Corp. he was scheming to get twice the bang for the buck. He started Florida Today while buying up all the weeklies in Brevard County and converting them to weekly shoppers. He planned to create state by state dailies but also the national paper which became USA Today so readers would have to buy both local and national versions to get their news. That idea didn’t work out, but USA Today did even though popular opinion was he would fail. After five years of losses he became profitable and USA Today is second only to the Wall Street Journal in circulation.

I have talked to publishers who compete with Gannett dailies and there is little to no respect for the brand. Neuharth’s long shadow permeates his legacies.

For example, look at the ultra liberal Arizona Republic. It once was a conservative paper until Gannett purchased it. Now it uses the word migrants to describe illegal aliens with no regard for the fact that illegals are costing us trillions, own our border, kill our border guards, bring in tons of illegal drugs and overwhelm our welfare systems.

Neuharth was a most interesting man but made no apologies for his lies, cheating and proving that sometimes the end justifies the means.

And his newspapers prospered in the past, although are troubled now.