Al Neuharth and the pursuit of the mediocre
I once heard Ben Bradlee describe former Gannett CEO Al Neuharth as a “mountebank.” I rushed to the dictionary: “a person who sells quack medicines from a platform; a boastful unscrupulous pretender.”
How’s that for an epitaph: “Al Neuharth: Snake Oil Salesman.”
If you think I’m irreverent, consider the fun that some long-time Gannettoids had at Neuharth’s expense. Over the years, many placed pennies on the eyes of his ridiculously monumental bust at Gannett headquarters in Virginia.
Then there was the famous joke about Neuharth’s peculiar fashion sense, dominated by black, white, and fifty shades of grey: that when he wore a shark-skin suit, it was hard to tell where the shark ended and Al began.
I’ll give the devil his due. He created USA Today, a paper I’ve always enjoyed; he promoted diversity in news companies, especially on the television side; and he created the Newseum -- which, among its many other excellent features, sells my books in its gift shop.
That might seem like a large enough record for any media tycoon. But none of it can compensate for the dark side of his legacy. Leaving USA Today aside, I dare you to name one great Gannett newspaper.
There were once-great newspapers, such as the Louisville Courier-Journal, that retreated to mediocrity after their acquisition by Gannett. And I am not arguing that the chain did not acquire some newspapers and make them a little better. But, in spite of the great efforts and aspirations of many Gannett reporters and editors, some gravitational force constantly pulled Gannett newspapers back to the middle of the pack.
In a sense, the razzle-dazzle of USA Today can be seen as a Neuharth sleight-of-hand, a distraction from the editorial underperformance of Gannett’s rank-and-file newspapers.
There were other annoyances:
- By 1979, when I arrived at Poynter, Gannett owned 79 daily newspapers, adding to the concentration of ownership that the Hutchins Commission had once designated as among the greatest threats to a free and responsible press.
- At a time when newspapers were still flying high, Neuharth set a harmful precedent for all public media companies by insisting that his papers show a profit for Wall Street investors for each and every quarter. Short-term profitability -- the “net” in Gannett -- elbowed out long-term planning and investment in enterprising news.
- Managers of Gannett newspapers came to be seen as interchangeable parts, shuffled from one locality to another, seemingly on a whim. Under Neuharth’s regime, Gannett editors advanced without settling in and growing roots in the communities they served. Without such homegrown leadership, Gannett newspapers rarely reflected the distinctive quality of their geographic communities. No matter how much advertising they contained back in the flush years, the papers always felt “thin.”
It didn’t have to be that way, but Neuharth made it so. His high-flyin,' limousine-ridin’ approach to news-media leadership helped create an oligarchy atop Gannett that seemed to place more value on self-promotion and executive salaries than on a common good grounded in excellent news coverage. The result was a hegemony of mediocrity that remains Neuharth’s unfortunate legacy.
Al, the reporters and editors who worked for you deserved better. So did the communities they served.