Al Neuharth is dead.
It’s about damn time.
Amid the fawning praise offered up at his passing, it might be good to include a word or two of truth.
At least the truth as I know it.
And that is that he was a vile, loathsome man, so driven by ego and arrogance as to leave a bad taste in the mouth of the people he walked on even decades after he left their lives.
He hurt people, a profession and a community I love, and if memories and people have passed, I will stand as a witness in their absence.
He mocked and ridiculed people for his own perverse enjoyment. Many of those people were employees who gave years of their lives and sacrificed their families to prosper Al Neuharth and serve his every whim.
He advanced himself by backstabbing and betraying people who had mentored and supported him. He was a Judas who would take everything he could from people above him until he had positioned himself to mercilessly destroy them.
He considered himself too good for Rochester, New York, and stole from it – to satisfy his personal desires – the headquarters of the Gannett newspaper chain and the Gannett Foundation. That meant the elimination of hundreds of local jobs and the death of a local industry.
He infused the Gannett Corporation with his own hateful brand of management, spawning a generation of leaders who were failed journalists and failed people. His ruthlessness became the pattern after which too many small people built their careers. It hurt the performance of scores of newspapers and made miserable the workplaces of thousands of employees.
His artificial scheme for diversifying the Gannett workforce resulted in tokenism, division and lower-quality employees and products. His “All-American” program, which based management bonuses on the number of minorities hired and the number of minorities included in newspaper stories, institutionalized a new racism in which skin color became a journalistic trump card.
And it didn’t work.
It didn’t generate quality employees, and it created a strident strain of racial advocacy that abandoned journalistic objectivity and divorced many Gannett papers from their suburban readership.
Diversity is essential, but Al Neuharth did diversity wrong, and his papers and his industry suffered because of it.
He praised himself for promoting women in newspapering, but his feminist bona fides might be cheapened a bit by his famous demand of “tits above the fold” – meaning that when photographs of women were on the front page of the paper, their breasts should be positioned in the upper half of the page, so as to be visible to passersby in corner paper boxes.
He was much ballyhooed for creating “USA Today,” a paper that was, under his hand, a money-sucking flop. An entire chain was bled dry to pay for Al’s folly.
It was only after he was divorced from the paper, and it began following traditional newspaper practices, that it became the steady, useful paper it is today.
The original “USA Today” conceived by Neuharth was a wreck. Based on the idea that newspapers must become more like televisions, it gambled on the assumption that Americans were dumb.
It was a losing bet.
But Al Neuharth bled the other Gannett properties to bail out his baby.
Thankfully, the paper long years ago opted for substance and sound reporting. It is a fine paper today, but its form today, for those who remember, is a page-by-page repudiation of what it was at its founding.
Speaking of bleeding Gannett, what Al Neuharth did to the Gannett Foundation should have landed him in federal prison.
Created by Frank Gannett – a good man, American and newspaperman – the foundation was built on the riches of Mr. Gannett and was designated by him to be a fund to each year make financial contributions to worthy causes in communities served by Gannett newspapers. For decades, his wealth was a giveback to the towns that prospered his newspapers, and it was used for an incredible amount of good.
The Gannett Foundation was an example of American corporate largesse and caring.
Then Al Neuharth came to town.
He took over the foundation, fired its stewards, renamed it, repurposed it and pillaged its funds.
He threw Frank Gannett’s wishes to the wind, essentially stole Frank Gannett’s money, and set about tickling his own fancy. He renamed it the Freedom Forum, gave it some asinine mission involving the human spirit, thumbed his nose at philanthropy to Gannett communities, and built himself a giant museum near Washington, D.C.
It was nothing short of theft.
I also hold him partially responsible for the impending collapse of American newspapering. Gannett was the largest and most dynamic American newspaper chain. It had the resources and people to invent the way forward. Instead, he bled it financially, dumbed down its journalism, set it off on crusades of political correctness, and left it stiff and irrelevant as technology gutted the business model.
I only met Al Neuharth once, but he didn’t meet me. We shook hands, but he never made eye contact. Instead he was staring intently, as he did much of the evening, at the breasts of a female co-worker. She was revolted by his attention.
One particular thing that let me to loath Al Neuharth was the disrespectful way he treated a man named Vince Spezzano. Mr. Spezzano was the son of the Italian immigrant who ran the elevator at the top of the Retsof salt mine. He went to college and became a reporter and signed on with Gannett when it was a family. Then Al Neuharth came along, and made great sport of treating Mr. Spezzano like a clown. More than once, he publicly set out to humiliate him, just for personal amusement. Vince Spezzano had a good run as a Gannett executive, but the price he paid was being the brunt of Al Neuharth’s cruelty.
To his great credit, Vince Spezzano never let that crap roll downhill. He was a kind man, and he hired me. And my last conversation with him, long after his retirement, with his dear wife at his side, in a dirty urban Wendy’s, was about his wonder, even then, at why Al Neuharth had been so cruel to him.
So on behalf of Mr. Spezzano. On behalf of the pressman who used to curse his name, and the drivers who hated taking him to his afternoon assignations. On behalf of the secretaries and reporters and ad saleswomen who felt uncomfortable around him. On behalf of the city he abandoned and the foundation he pillaged. On behalf of the memory of a truly great newspaperman – Frank Gannett – and the dozens of communities whose newspapers he gutted.
On behalf of the truth.
Let me say that the title of his memoir only got it half right.
He was an SOB, just like he said.
But he was also a bastard.
And it might be petty to bring it all up 25 or 30 years later, but Al Neuharth was a petty man. And if nobody else remembers or will speak the truth, I do and I will.
Al Neuharth is dead.
It’s about damn time.