By the time Al Neuharth retired as chairman and chief executive officer of the Gannett Co. newspaper chain last March, he had whipped the oncesleepy, Rochester, N.Y.-based group into a multi billion-dollar media conglomerate. In his new autobiography, Confessions of an S.O.B., Neuharth boasts that from 1970 to 1989, Gannett made deals to acquire 69 daily news-
papers, 16 TV stations “and North America’s biggest outdoor business—now with 45,000 billboards in the U.S.A. and Canada.” Even more notably, Neuharth’s company launched USA Today, a national newspaper that was derided as “McPaper” by many journalists because of its lowbrow style. Noting its smudge-proof ink, media gadfly Linda Ellerbee commented that USA Today “doesn’t rub off on your hands, or on your mind.” But the jokes eventually stopped as USA Today headed towards a daily circulation of about 1.7 million, putting it in second place among U.S. dailies after The Wall Street Journal.
That was an impressive track record for a boy born on the wrong side of the tracks in Eureka, S.D.—and Neuharth misses no opportunity to crow about it in Confessions, an amazingly blunt hybrid of memoir, self-help and
inspirational tome. A career like his, Neuharth says, can only be achieved by an s.o.b., “someone who uses whatever tactics it takes to get the job done—to rise to the top. As nicely as possible. A little nastiness when necessary.” Clearly, he acquired that attitude early on. Neuharth describes how, when he was 6, he selfishly vetoed his mother’s remarriage and how, as a journalism student at South Dakoka University, he manipulated the campus newspaper to endorse his friend for class president. Neuharth recalls that he evolved from “a playful prankster” in childhood to “a mix of monkeyshines and Machiavellianism” as an adult.
Neuharth’s relentless drive— which carried him from a boyhood newspaper route to his roughly $5million retirement package-was paramount in his ascent of the corporate ladder. Failing at his first venture, a South Dakota sports sheet, he treated each successive job—and many bosses—as stepping stones. Neuharth reports one particularly distasteful incident in which he outmanoeuvred the boss who hired him at Gannett—eventually taking over the top slot himself.
Yet, for all the unpleasant aspects of his story, Neuharth’s candor and selfdeprecation are disarming. His account of how his ego led him to botch an attempt to merge Gannett and the CBS network is particularly frank. He even invited his two ex-spouses to write uncensored reflections on him. His second wife obliged by writing: “Al Neuharth is a snake. He’s sneaky and slithers around and sheds his old skin as he grows.”
To his credit, Neuharth was determined to advance women and minorities to leadership positions in the Gannett papers and broadcast stations. His innovative approach included tying the monetary value of every executive’s annual bonus to his or her success in implementing equal employment opportunity programs—hitting managers directly in the pocketbook.
Confessions of an S.O.B., written mostly in four-line paragraphs, reads like a collection of memos. But those tidbits are as tasty as cheese puffs—it is hard to stop at just one. Neuharth may not have brought analytical depth or scintillating prose to American journalism, but he has succeeded in creating a compellingly readable autobiography.
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