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USA Today founder Neuharth dies

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Before joining Gannett, Neuharth rose up through the ranks of Knight Newspapers. He went from reporter to assistant managing editor at The Miami Herald in the 1950s and then became assistant executive editor at the Detroit Free Press.

Neuharth launched USA Today, the nation's most widely read newspaper, in 1982 as chairman and CEO of the Gannett Co. newspaper group. Photo: The Associated Press

Allen H. Neuharth was born March 22, 1924, in Eureka, S.D. His father died when he was 2. He grew up poor but ambitious in Alpena, S.D., and had journalism in his blood from an early start. At age 11, he took his first job as a newspaper carrier and later as a teenager he worked in the composing room of the weekly Alpena Journal. His ambition already was noticeable.

"I wanted to get rich and famous no matter where it was," Neuharth said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. "I got lucky. Luck is very much a part of it. You have to be at the right place at the right time and pick the right place at the right time."After earning a bronze star in World War II and graduating with a journalism degree from the University of South Dakota, Neuharth worked for the AP for two years. He then launched a South Dakota sports weekly tabloid, SoDak Sports, in 1952. It was a spectacular failure, losing $50,000, but it was perhaps the best education Neuharth ever received.

"Everyone should fail in a big way at least once before they're forty," he said in his autobiography. "The bigger you fail, the bigger you're likely to succeed later."

Neuharth married three times. His first marriage to high school sweetheart Loretta Neuharth lasted 26 years. They had a son, Dan, and daughter, Jan. He married Lori Wilson, a Florida state senator, in 1973; they divorced in 1982. A decade later, he married Rachel Fornes, a chiropractor. Together, they adopted six children.

After he retired from Gannett, Neuharth continued to write "Plain Talk," a weekly column for USA Today.

He also founded the The Freedom Forum, a foundation dedicated to free press and free speech that holds journalism conferences, offers fellowships and provides training. It was begun in 1991 as a successor to the Gannett Foundation, the company's philanthropic arm.

Jim Duff, president and chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum, said, "Al will be remembered for many trailblazing achievements in the newspaper business, but one of his most enduring legacies will be his devotion to educating and training new journalists," according to the post on the Newseum website. Duff added, "He taught them the importance of not only a free press but a fair one."

With his entrepreneurial flair, Neuharth put the Freedom Forum on the map with Newseum, an interactive museum to show visitors how news is covered. The first museum in Arlington, Va., was open from 1997 to 2002. It was replaced by a $450 million facility in Washington that opened in spring 2008. There was also the Newscapade, a $5 million traveling exhibit.

In a June 2007 interview in Advertising Age, Neuharth was asked about the future of printed newspapers amid the upheavals of the news business.

"The only thing we can assume is that consumers of news and information will continue to want more as the world continues to become one global village," he said. "The question is how much will be distributed in print, online and on the air. I don't know how much will be delivered on newsprint. Some will be delivered by means we can't even think of yet."

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