BREVARD HISTORY: Al Neuharth’s Vision Leads Way In Creating Newspaper
By Space Coast Daily // May 11, 2016
HISTORY OF NEWSPAPERS IN BREVARD: PART II
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second installment of a three-part series examining the history of the news business in Brevard County and exploring where the future will take readers/viewers as new digital interactive technologies make printed newspapers obsolete.
BREVARD COUNTY • COCOA BEACH, FLORIDA – At the dawn of the Space Age in Brevard County, a visionary newsman was formulating a plan to bring information to a growing population here through one of the most ingenious and creative products ever devised.
Raised in rural South Dakota, Allen H. “Al” Neuharth learned quickly how to overcome adversity. Before he turned 2, his father died in a farming accident and his mother washed clothes to make ends meet for young Al and his older brother Walter.
By the time he was 11, Neuharth was delivering newspapers and then studied newspaper production as a teen while working in the composing room of the Alpena Journal and writing for his high school paper.
During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army’s 86th Infantry Division, seeing combat in France, Germany and the Philippines and earning a Bronze Star for valor.
Following the war, Neuharth was sports editor, managing editor and eventually editor of the University of South Dakota student newspaper.
By 1950, he was hired by the Associated Press as a reporter for the Sioux Falls area.
In 1952, Neuharth and his college friend Bill Porter launched SoDak Sports, a statewide weekly sports newspaper covering South Dakota.
The initial euphoria about the paper faded and within 18 months, the venture folded leaving Neuharth broke and without work.
“I thought I would make a clean break and so I came all the way across the country and got a job as a reporter for the Miami Herald,” Neuharth said.
Epiphany In Brevard
He slowly worked his way up the newsroom ladder of the Herald, and by the late 1950s was the paper’s assistant managing editor.
Part of his duties included supervising the Herald’s state coverage. On one of his trips up the coast, Neuharth visited Brevard County and, based on the steadily growing population and flourishing space industry, recognized the potential for a new newspaper.
“It was abundantly clear to me that the Herald needed to be covering the space program at Cape Canaveral,” he said.
Neuharth even suggested to the Herald’s owner, Jim Knight, that Brevard could support a new daily newspaper.
“He told me ‘Kid, we’re doing all right covering most of the state’ and left it at that,” Neuharth said. “But I became great friends with the original astronauts and Alan Sheppard was my best buddy.”
The Knight family also owned the Detroit Free Press and transferred Neuharth there in 1960 as assistant executive editor to executive editor Lee Hills.
Gannett Brass Recognize Neuharth’s Talent, Vision
Three years later, Paul Miller, the president and chief executive officer of the Gannett Company, brought Neuharth to Rochester, N.Y. to assume the role of general manager of the company’s flagship papers, which at the time were the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and the Rochester Times-Union in New York state.
Miller was determined to see Gannett expand. When he assumed leadership of the company in 1957, it owned 19 newspapers in four states, but none in Florida.
“He tried to buy some papers here and even tried to buy the Orlando paper at one time,” Neuharth said.
“He said every time he tried to buy a paper in Florida somebody else offered them more money. He was ripe for anything we could do down there.”
In discussing Florida with Miller, Neuharth shared his experiences working there and told him he thought Brevard County would make an ideal location to start up a brand new newspaper.
The suggestion met with Miller’s approval, although it was somewhat of a risk. Since 1940, only one daily newspaper — Long Island’s Newsday — had been created from scratch successfully.
Neuharth told Miller he thought a base for the new paper could be created by purchasing one or all of the three existing Brevard newspapers.
In Titusville, the Hudson family owned the Star Advocate, while the Perry family of Palm Beach County operated the Melbourne Times and Marie Ringo Holderman owned the Cocoa Tribune.
CLICK HERE: HISTORY OF NEWSPAPERS IN BREVARD: PART I
Cocoa Tribune’s Holderman Drives Hard Bargain
Miller then dispatched a number of envoys to convince Holderman to sell the Tribune to Gannett, but each returned home without an agreement.
Neuharth had met Holderman in 1959 while working for the MiamI Herald and asked Miller for a chance to convince her to sell.
He laid it on the line to Holderman, sharing with her Gannett’s plans to start a morning daily paper in Brevard County and that the company was willing to spend whatever it took to make the new paper a success.
He let her know the competition would be steep and would hurt her business, as she would not have the resources or manpower to keep up.
But he also praised Holderman’s product and suggested she could keep publishing the Cocoa Tribune as an afternoon daily as long as she wanted.
The turning point came when Neuharth extended an invitation for Holderman to visit Rochester to meet with company executives and learn more about them.
On the weekend of the Kentucky Derby in May 1965, Holderman, her two daughters and the Tribune’s managing editor John Pound all flew to Rochester aboard Gannett’s company plane.
There they were able to gauge Gannett’s enthusiasm for the new project in Brevard.
In a meeting, Pound informed Miller and Neuharth that Holderman would want at least $1.9 million to sell the Tribune.
“We told them that was a fair price and we certainly paid her more than she expected to get,” Neuharth said.
Ongoing Negotiations Result In ‘Offer You Can’t Refuse’
So with the Tribune now secured as a home base, Miller tasked Neuharth with the job of getting the new paper off the ground.
It was only a few months later when Neuharth convinced the Hudsons to sell Gannett the afternoon daily Star Advocate in Titusville as well.
“He said we could keep running our newspaper as long as we wanted to,” Bob Hudson said.
“Al told us about the plans for the new Gannett daily coming in and it was all for the best.”
Neuharth said the purchase price was about $1 million.
Considerable resources and manpower from Gannett poured into the project.
Throughout the fall of 1965, a cover story was circulated for competitors like the Orlando Sentinel Star and the Miami Herald indicating that Gannett was merely expanding the Tribune to include a Sunday edition.
Neuharth then went about recruiting for the new paper and hiring staff, many of who were transfers from other Gannett locations.
Journalistic Talent, Innovation Are Hallmarks Of New Publication
He brought in veteran newsman James D. “Jim” Head as the paper’s first executive editor and Maurice L. “Moe” Hickey as its first publisher.
Hickey assumed control of hiring editors and staff and also is credited with coming up with the new paper’s official name, TODAY.
With the project well under way, Neuharth then commissioned pollsters Lou Harris & Associates to find out what Brevard residents were interested in.
“Most of what we did was based on that research,” Neuharth said. “We found they were sophisticated and interested in space and a lot more.”
To appeal to the readers, Neuharth keyed on an organized content system with emphasis placed on separate sections for News, Local News, Business and Sports.
Advertisements were purposely left off the backs and fronts of the sections, so readers would find each section began and ended with actual news.
The brightest minds in the company offered suggestions for the new paper, including a breezy new design making it a quick and interesting read.
“Some of those ideas I thought were pretty good and some weren’t,” Neuharth said.
“The paper looked different from the other traditional newspapers of that time. It was designed to appeal to those who were in a hurry.”
Grand Promotional Experiment Big Win For TODAY
Before TODAY could be launched in March of 1966, another big decision had to be made.
Neuharth decided that TODAY would be delivered free to every household in Brevard for two weeks with an expectation that people would like and embrace the product and pay 50 cents for it thereafter.
The ultimate goal was to line up more than 20,000 subscribers by the end of December 1966.
Thanks to a massive promotional blitz and marketing buildup, on March 21, 1966 the first edition of TODAY rolled off the presses in Cocoa to widespread acclaim, and, some 10 weeks later, paid subscriptions exceeded 33,000.
Neuharth and his team never wavered from the vision and maintained patience.
Despite the loss of $2 million in start-up costs in 1966, TODAY turned a profit just 33 months later in 1968.
Eventually, Gannett also acquired the Melbourne Times, but for a much lower price than was paid for the Cocoa Tribune or the Titusville Star Advocate.
Earning the nickname “Florida’s Space Age Newspaper,” TODAY became Neuharth’s model for a new national newspaper he created in 1982 called USA TODAY, which quickly became the best-selling newspaper of all-time in America.
Neuharth replaced Miller as Gannett CEO in 1972 and held the job until his retirement some 17 years later.
In 1985, TODAY was renamed FLORIDA TODAY and redesigned to promote state and local news.
Paired with USA TODAY’s superb national and international coverage, the duo became a formidable 1-2 daily news combination for local readers.
Outstanding Leadership, Teamwork Pays Off With Coleman At the Helm
In 1991 a steady hand and visionary executive arrived to guide the newspaper. Publisher Michael J. Coleman, a veteran newsman and charismatic leader, was the face of FLORIDA TODAY in the community for 16 years. During that period, the newspaper experienced its greatest period of expansion.
Coleman started his career as a general assignment reporter for his hometown newspaper in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. in 1963 and was promoted to city editor and then managing editor there.
Gannett transferred Coleman to Port Huron, Mich. in 1977 to become that paper’s metro editor. Four years later he returned to Saratoga Springs as the newspaper’s publisher.
By 1986, Coleman was serving as president of Gannett’s newspaper holdings in the Midwest and publisher of the company’s newspaper in Rockford, Ill.
In May 1991, he was named president and publisher of FLORIDA TODAY and president of the Gannett South Newspaper Group, ultimately supervising 21 newspapers and other publications for the company.
During Coleman’s tenure at FLORIDA TODAY, the paper became a mainstay for news and information in the community.
Its circulation reached an all-time high, surpassing 100,000 copies in sales and subscriptions.
Advertising revenue soared to record levels, too.
“When I arrived here, the population was about 200,000 people,” Coleman said. “When I retired in 2007, it was more than 500,000.”
Coleman credits his team at FLORIDA TODAY for helping the newspaper achieve so much during his tenure as publisher.
“It’s a combination of hiring the right people and having people who cared about this community,” Coleman said.
Content Innovation, Community Publications Add To FLORIDA TODAY Popularity
As publisher, Coleman guided the newspaper through a period of change where a number of content improvements were added for readers such as a new health section and enhanced business and sports coverage.
“We also added to the non-daily product portfolio,” he said.
“When I got there, the paper published about 16 non-daily publications and when I left we had 32.”
Many of those community publications offered micro-community news, while FLORIDA TODAY concentrated on countywide coverage.
Monthly papers in Viera, Satellite Beach and Cocoa Beach prospered and became bi-weeklies and then full-fledged weekly newspapers.
Weekly community papers stretched from Palm Bay to Titusville and the line-up was enhanced in 2000 with the acquisition of the popular Space Coast Press, based in Merritt Island.
The Press was founded in 1989 by veteran newsman Barney Waters, who started in the newspaper business as a sportswriter for the Miami Herald. He served as managing editor for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and in the same position for TODAY from 1975 to 1978.
He left his newspaper job to create the popular Villa Roma restaurant on Merritt Island, but went back to work as editor of the Gannett News Service for Florida.
By 1989, he saw the need for a community paper on Merritt Island and remained its editor until the paper was purchased by John Barnes in 1993.
In 1997, Barnes sold the business to Tom Palermo (now SpaceCoastDaily.com publisher) and a group of local investors, led by the late prominent local businessman and philanthropist, Fred Gay.
In 1998, Palermo expanded the publication’s circulation countywide and renamed the paper Space Coast Press. Gannett then purchased the Press on July 1, 2000.
The community newspapers proved to be enormously popular, and virtually every community in Brevard had a local weekly or monthly publication to call its own.
Everything from church calendars to Little League results to wedding anniversary celebrations were published in the community newspapers, which eventually shifted from the broadsheet format to easier to read tabloid versions.
Even as those community efforts were launched, Coleman said the newspaper also was active in finding ways to recognize unsung local heroes and in performing charitable work.
“Two of the things I am proudest of during my time at FLORIDA TODAY are creating the Volunteer Recognition Awards and the Reaching Out Holiday Fund,” he said.
“The VRAs puts the spotlight on those who volunteer and do good things for the community.
“Couple that with our creation of the Reaching Out Holiday Toy Fund campaign that buys toys, books and school supplies for 35,000 needy children and they are something I am very proud of and very pleased that the community has stepped up to embrace these important events.”
Coleman Continues To Serve After Retirement
After retiring from the newspaper in 2007, Coleman remains active, assisting with a number of community organizations and non-profit groups and serving on the boards of Ron Jon Surf Shop, the Florida Bank of Commerce, Dentisply International of York, Pa., the Freedom Forum and the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
The Cocoa Beach resident also founded and operates a company called Cool Media Consultants in Brevard.
“I’m extremely proud of the product improvements made in my time at FLORIDA TODAY and the expanded role the newspaper took in the community,” Coleman said.
Yet, as Coleman departed FLORIDA TODAY on a high note, the newspaper industry nationwide, and here in Brevard County, began to struggle and adapt to a relentless and ever-changing scenario of emerging technologies, evolving reader preferences and a variety of advanced platforms for receiving news and information.
IN PART III – COMING: A shift in strategy for newspaper companies to cut costs, while giving away millions in bonuses to corporate executives and maximizing profit – along with the rise of the digital world – results in a firestorm of declining readership, major staff reductions and waning resources for traditional print newspapers.