Monday, August 30, 2010

Neuharth: Jeep ad 'low point' of any decision made

Following is text of the sharply worded letter USA Today Founder Al Neuharth wrote to Publisher Dave Hunke about the paper's publishing a Jeep ad that obscured the entire front page last month. This text originally appeared in today's New York Times.

July 16, 2010

Dear Dave:

There’s room for argument over which have been USA TODAY’s best front pages in its 28 years history. There is no doubt which has been its worst!

Turning last Monday’s entire front page over to an ad for Jeep was the low point in any decision any USA TODAY publisher has ever made.

The comment by Advertising EVP Lee Jones that “The look and feel will be very close to the way the paper looks” is equally unbelievable.

I’ve never received as many sad comments from past or present USA TODAY or Gannett people as I have this one.

If I had been Editor John Hillkirk (who is not among those I’ve heard from) I would have led the entire news staff walking out in protest. If such a stupid decision is ever made again, I hope that will be the result.

That would leave those who apparently don’t understand what a newspaper is to try to put one out without a news staff.


Al Neuharth

cc: Craig Dubow, John Hillkirk, Lee Jones


  1. Thanks for posting the text. Al is completely over the top. Instead of trying to be instructive (why does he think it matters that the front page is covered up?) he goes for a cheap "worst mistake ever made" shot. I am sure that was all it took for Hunke to stop listening. And his editorial revolt comment: does that mean he supported the Detroit strike in '95? Did he write a letter then?

  2. Neuharth is very political.

    How do you embarrass Hunke? Make sure this letter gets in the hands of The New York Times.

  3. There's no fool like an old fool!

  4. This 85-year-old has more sense and guts than the entire newsroom management team. I'd love to hear what Al thinks about the plan for more layoffs and this so-called reorganization that lacks any specifics. Well, the one specific we do know is that the newspaper is being torn down in a disgraceful way that insults the intelligence of readers and breaks the hearts of many staffers. Brilliant move, Hunke. McPaper is now McDisaster, and most of the damage is self inflicted by people with no real interest in media, let alone newspapers. The lines between news and advertising have been blurred, and the champions of that movement aren't just Hunke and the bean counters. They are editors who sold their souls. You know who they are. No need to name them. They scoff at being portrayed as sellouts, but that is precisely what they are. They forgot the reasons they got into this once honorable profession and they have turned their backs on many of their friends and colleagues. So go ahead, flame against Al. But I'd take Al in a street fight against any of these cowards in editorial management.

  5. Good for Neuharth for a. writing this letter and b. seeing it got to the NYT. It was a disastrous mistake to give the front page to Jeep, and I believe they learned that when the unsold newspapers came back the next day. Funny thing is that there wasn't any public uproar in the USAT newsroom. People here are so beaten down they would accept the sale of their birthright. Maybe old Al heard this and decided to go public.

  6. Thing is, Al is right. It was a terrible call.

    But this is a guy who has been phoning in his columns for years now. Did you read the warmed-up crap he dished out as a filet this week? It was quite literally a column about absolutely nothing.

    It was the sort of crap an intern might put out before being advised by an editor that they hadn't done half the work required to actually get into the paper.

    All of that is to say that while Neuharth may be right about the Jeep ad, he's in no position to talk.

    Don't believe me? Here's Neuharth's latest "gem".


    More of us try to live according to rules — at home, at work, at school, especially at play. Some of us don’t know exactly where the idea of rules came from, but many or most adults say it’s “according to Hoyle.”

    The 241st anniversary of the death of the “rules man” is this Sunday. Edmond Hoyle died Aug. 29, 1769, at the age of 97 in London, where he lived most of his life.

    If you really think about it, Hoyle didn’t “invent” rules. He just took some things that had been spelled out in the Bible and other books and refined them for specific games.

    The first edition of “Hoyles Games,” published in 1746, dealt with card games. Whist was the most popular among them.

    Since Hoyle’s death, many dozens of different game rules have been published. Most of them use the phrase “according to Hoyle.”

    Hoyle is often cited as the source for rules about poker, especially in Las Vegas where it is legal. That’s despite the fact that poker wasn’t invented until about 50 years after Hoyle died.

    I’ve followed — or made — rules most of my life. It started when my widowed mother spelled out rules for my brother Walter, 9, and me, 2, after our father died. She enforced them strictly but fairly.

    In my more than 80 years since then, I’ve come to these firm conclusions:

    # You can’t play by the rules unless you know exactly what they are.

    # Most rules — for fun or family or school or work — should be put in writing so there is no misunderstanding.

    Webster’s dictionary says a rule is “a prescribed guide for conduct or action.”

    Obeying rules should be rewarded, as much as disobeying them should carry penalties.

  7. When trust breaks down, the media is in trouble. It doesn't matter what platform the news is delivered on. Stupid decisions are stupid decisions, and the public is catching on to what newspaper brands have become or are trying to become. Have you seen the poll numbers about media credibility lately? Not even newspapers do well in these surveys anymore.

    Whether it's Jeep ads covering up page 1 or monetizing editorial content online, this trend of blending news and advertising will lead to further mistrust of the media. Further mistrust will cut into profits.

    I sense we will eventually come full circle and return to the principles of journalism. But in the meantime, brands like USA Today seem determined to erode what they worked very hard to fortify for over three decades. On that point, Al was correct.

  8. Why didn't they just sell the bottom half of the front page? Single copy still good, and the advertiser gets a premium spot. The articles above the fold could be used to write a bunch of puff pieces about the product to be made to look like a real news story.

    Jeep could buy the bottom of all section fronts, for that matter, and have glowing stories written by "journalists" that apply appropriately to the corresponding news ring.

    1A: Jeep... once used by the military, now a wonderful family car (sidebar) Obama buying a Jeep for when he gets out of office
    Money: Jeep sales expected to be exceptional this year (subhed) Jeep ad campaign working wonders
    Sports: Jeep now a favorite car of professional athletes
    Life: Jeeps are great for trips with the kids (sidebar) Several Jeeps spotted in parking lot at Justin Bieber concert

    Vertical content. Mission accomplished.

    It's coming...

  9. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Neuharth. He systematically built something because he saw a unique market for it. He didn't follow, he led. He didn't play catchup, he made competitors catchup. He appointed people who were good at ironing out the details and then left it to them to execute the plan. He respected journalists and took care of those who worked hard. His methods were unconventional, yet in many ways "old school." He was charismatic and wasn't afraid to spend or lose money in order to create something that would ultimately become a huge revenue producer for Gannett. For better or worse, you knew where you stood with Mr. Neuharth. That rubbed some people wrong, but pissing people off is sometimes a necessary ingredient of leadership. Overall, however, the man was loyal to those who were competent and dedicated. He not only had professional respect for many people, he also took a personal interest, genuine interest, in the lives of his staffers. He was essentially everything current USA TODAY editors and upper management are not.

    If the bottom line is what matters most, then I would say Mr. Neuharth's methods are head and shoulders above those who have been in charge during the last several years. While the media landscape has changed, there is no disputing that USA TODAY has done nothing to inspire much confidence of late. It has laid off or forced out some of the best and brightest while coddling the unproven. It has watched its readership decline and pages shrink, not so much because of the economy, but because USA TODAY leaders don't really concern themselves with details of any new initiatives. And its answer to those things has been to throw more people overboard and put all the eggs into the digital basket. That basket is filled with people who might know a thing or two about programming and page views but who have little knowledge of editing, reporting, ethics and integrity, let alone making money. By nature, these are not the kinds of people who will inspire the troops. They don't have what Mr. Neuharth had. Too bad those on the board of directors and over in the Gannett tower can't see how almost every decision made in the last two years has only dug a deeper hole for this company. This is the direct result of having incompetent, selfish and untrustworthy leaders. It has snowballed to the point where I am not sure it can be reversed.

    The lack of accountability has worked its way into almost every editor and mid-manager's office. We have at least one high-ranking person in the newsroom who apparently is the new darling. One problem. He's a horrible communicator who struggles with writing. Yes, he can barely compose a short e-mail. A dirty little secret that he hides rather well. And he isn't the only one who struggles with basic English and the principle of journalism.

    This is the post-Neuharth USA TODAY. A place of smoke and mirrors, little direction and now under the thumb of corporate like never before. I credit some with understanding we need to change, but it's pathetic seeing how that change is occurring.

  10. Weren't there two Jeep wraps, or was the first one such a milestone in crossing the line, it just felt like two?

    Coming next: sponsorship of bylines and stories, brought to you by the good folks at Procter & Gamble and Hunke's favorite; Jim Beam.

  11. Al should protest by pulling his Friday column and refusing to take his $100,000k for life fee from Gannett.

  12. Hey Al:
    Did you always follow the rules with "Boom-Z-Boom, LOL!?

  13. Are you in the business of making money or making journalism? All News outlets are in both. It may be one of the few businesses that has to balance the Yin and the Yang. When times are tough the business side wins. When times are good, the journalism side wins. The pendulum will swing back. It's just that since times are tough, the business side has to kick in to keep the baby alive, to live another day.

  14. Where is the line?

    When Lee Jones walks into your office and says that a $2 million ad spot will save x number of editorial jobs, what is the guy supposed to do?

  15. It only took 28 years to transform an innovative, oft-imitated quick-read newspaper to an "all about the brand" marketing sell sheet to a TMZ sell-out.
    The Jeep Edition reminds me of D.C.'s soccer team, the VW United:

  16. He still has more of what it takes to be a successful newspaper than most have in their pinky. Though I don't always agree with his political views he knows what a good product should be. Over half the papers I put out that day came back. True I normally run 25-30 percent returns but can nay paper afford to lose anymore business> It's almost like they WANT to kill newspapers. Bad enough people aren't buying the 8-10 page flyers they call a newspaper, covering up the front page only makes it worse.

  17. Al's not perfect, and he is a business guy, which makes it all that much sadder when he becomes the voice of reason.

    He should realize, however, that he played a role in all this. He may not have gone this far in his day, but he certainly helped chip away at the standards that used to be seen as respectable journalism. It's just that Gannett has finally gone too far for even him.

    On another note: You can really tell the company is in turmoil now. Al may not run the company, but he still seems to have a little clout. You can always tell an organization is taking its last gasps when the people up top start quarreling amongst themselves. Maybe everyone is realizing that they've cut so deep that they no longer have viable products. Now they have to either make the bold move of cutting themselves and their astonishingly high salaries or throw up their hands in surrender.

  18. Short memories, people. Who ground down Gannett papers by sucking out 30% margins? Neuharth. Who stacked up layers of expensive regional apparatchiks? Neuharth. Who built the Gannett Air Force? Neuharth. Who busted unions every chance he got? Neuharth. Who shuffled editors every couple to encourage replaceable cogs? Neuharth. Who gamed quarterly earnings so they rose steadily and Wall Street would coo and demand it of every other journalism company? Neuharth.

  19. Cut themselves? Cut their salaries/bonuses? No way that'll ever happen. The corporate tail waggers are going to grab and stuff into their pockets every dime they can suck from this company. They're doing that right now.

    Anyone who disputes that ignores the substantial bonuses and raises for the big guns whose only achivement was eliminating jobs so an ill-advised and burdensome debt could be paid.

    And what what about the local dead wood? The executive editors, the senior managing editors, the news vice presidents, and the publishers all continued life as always with raises and bonuses and jobs intact as they chopped their staffs like good Gannett tail waggers.

    The fact of the matter is that the company has eliminated a lot of good people and in the process has decimated its product.

    But then again, as Hunke was quoted saying, it's not a newspaper business anymore. He could have taken that further. It's not a news business anymore.

  20. I must have missed Al's announcement that he was withholding his byline (and refusing his paycheck) in protest of the wrap ad.

  21. Al Neuharth is a pompous ass. Let's not forget how he sapped the community papers to launch USAT. The papers paid the salaries of "loaners" to USAT for god knows how long, and while nothing was too good for USAT, the community papers were shipping more and more of their revenue to corporate.

    All that said, however, the man was still far superior to anyone at or near the helm of Gannett today.

    And let's not forget how Al Neuharth hijacked the Gannett Foundation to start his Freedom Forum or whatever it's called that has since degenerated into that ripoff Nauseum.

    Al Neuharth has been living on the fat of the farm longer than anyone. Don't hold him up as a shining example of journalism at its best. In the long run, he bears a lot of responsibility for where journalism is today. And the downhill slide began with McPaper.

  22. Jeep ad probably saved some jobs..... So get over it.

  23. What was the revenue from the Jeep ad? Is this a continuing stream or a one-shot deal? How much money's involved here that it saved jobs? Has there been an interest expressed by potential advertisers for a similar deal?

    I'm not being a wise guy, I'd just like to know. Maybe the whole front page could be an ad every day with a table of contents on top telling readers where to turn for stories.

    I mean, why not? Hunke himself said he wasn't newspapering anymore. Why not really turn the table? USAT could be the biggest shopper the industry's ever seen!

  24. Jeep ad probably saved some jobs..... So get over it.

    9/02/2010 11:51 AM

    Well put. It was cash in hand. Unless someone has a better idea to generate cash they should just shut the f%&$ up.

    Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way. I'm sick of the complaining and bitching with no solutions. Your solution is to bitch and complain.

  25. A better idea for generating cash has been repeatedly been suggested on this blog to no avail.

    That suggestion is to improve the content with substantive news coverage instead of fluff and mandated gadgets that don't work.

    If GCI wants people to pay for a product, it has to make the product worth buying. The company can't continue to cut and cut while uping the price.

    The customer is king is retail because businesses recognize that a single bad shopping experience can drive a customer away forever.

    Unfortunately, that doesn't bother Gannett.

    And an earlier post was legitimate in asking the long-term strategy of covering the front page with an ad. What was the revenue, and how many jobs were saved?

    I think the answer is that the revenue was substantial and it had negligible impact on jobs. Its impact on editorial quality is obviously a negative one.


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