Al Neuharth was born into a German-speaking family in rural South Dakota. Neuharth’s parents were Daniel J. and Christina, who married on January 11, 1922. Daniel died when Al was two. Al needed to help his family survive the Great Depression. He worked on his grandfather’s farm. As a youngster, he also delivered the Minneapolis Tribune but he gave that up for a better paying job in the meat industry, sweeping up in the meat plants and slaughtering animals. Neuharth graduated high school from Alpena High School in Alpena, South Dakota, where he worked for Allen Brigham, owner of the local newspaper, the Alpena Journal. At the age of 19, Neuharth served in the Army during World War II. As a member of the 86th Infantry Division, Neuharth was deployed to France, Germany and the Philippines.
After the war, Neuharth attended the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he edited the school newspaper, The Volante. He maintained an affiliation with the university and had an office in the Contemporary Media and Journalism building, The Al Neuharth Media Center, until his death in 2013. Neuharth founded the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Scholarship, which is awarded to graduating high school students who exemplify the qualities of a “free spirit” and aim to pursue a career in journalism.
Neuharth and fellow USD alum Bill Porter founded SoDak Sports, a weekly newspaper devoted to covering the sports scene in South Dakota. Despite its initial popularity, the weekly SoDak Sports went bankrupt in a year’s time, losing Neuharth the $50,000 he had borrowed. After his failure, Neuharth went to the Miami Herald, where he made his way up to assistant managing editor. In 1960, the Knight newspaper chain (later a part of Knight Ridder), which owned the Herald, sent him to its Detroit Free Press, which was fighting an uphill battle with the Detroit News, which Neuharth would later buy while at Gannett.
After Neuharth decided that he could go no further in the Knight organization due to the Knight family’s control, in 1963 he accepted Gannett head Paul Miller’s offer to move to Gannett’s headquarters in Rochester, New York, first to run its paper there, the Democrat and Chronicle; he took charge of Gannett Florida in 1966. He started Today in Cocoa, Florida, which eventually became Florida Today. The color schemes used in Florida Today became an inspiration for the initial format for USA Today. He then ran the boardroom under Miller, whom he eventually succeeded in 1973. He helped to build Gannett into the largest newspaper company in the United States. During his tenure, Gannett revenues expanded 1,450%. In 1979 Gannett owned 78 daily and 21 weekly newspapers, seven television and over a dozen radio stations, outdoor advertising plants, and the Louis Harris & Associates research firm. The reason Gannett purchased Harris was because the firm was doing extremely expensive research for Neuharth to determine the advisability of starting a new national newspaper.
Neuharth served as chairman of the board of the Gannett Foundation upon his retirement. The foundation was founded by Frank Gannett, founder of the newspaper chain. Neuharth took control of the foundation and removed the CEO and installed his own top executive. He then renamed the foundation the Freedom Forum. Neuharth served as the chairman of the Freedom Forum from 1991 until his death in 2013.
Each year, the Freedom Forum gives out the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media. Past winners include Walter Cronkite (1989), Carl T. Rowan (1990), Helen Thomas (1991), Tom Brokaw (1992), Larry King (1993), Charles Kuralt of CBS (1994), Albert R. Hunt and Judy Woodruff (1995), Robert MacNeil (1996), Cokie Roberts (1997), Tim Russert and Louis D. Boccardi (1998), John Seigenthaler (1999), Jim Lehrer (2001), Tom Curley (2002), Don Hewitt of CBS (2004), Garrison Keillor (2005), Bob Schieffer of CBS (2006), John Quinn and Ken Paulson (2007), Charles Overby (2008), Katie Couric (2009), Brian Lamb of C-SPAN (2011) and Marilyn Hagerty of the Grand Forks Herald (2012).
Neuharth had two children from his first marriage on June 16, 1946, to Loretta F. Helgeland. He was divorced by 1973. He married his second wife, Florida State Senator Lori Wilson, in 1973. Their marriage lasted seven years. His final marriage was to Rachel Fornes, a Cocoa Beach, Florida, chiropractor. They adopted six children. Neuharth also fathered an out-of-wedlock daughter, Rosamunda Neuharth-Ozgo, but never acknowledged her. Neuharth died on April 19, 2013 at his home in Cocoa Beach, Florida, at the age of 89.
- March, 22, 1924
- Eureka, South Dakota
- April, 19, 2013
- Cocoa Beach, Florida
- Eureka City Cemetery
- Eureka, South Dakota