KORRIE WENZEL: Newspaper managers still ask, ‘What would Al do?’

During an event last spring, I stood before National Honor Society inductees and congratulated them on their exceptional academic achievement. The stammering speech was sincere but typical -- you know, work hard, have goals and so on. It focused ...

Korrie Wenzel
Korrie Wenzel

During an event last spring, I stood before National Honor Society inductees and congratulated them on their exceptional academic achievement.

The stammering speech was sincere but typical -- you know, work hard, have goals and so on. It focused on Al Neuharth, media mogul and founder of USA Today.

Neuharth and I grew up in the same county, albeit two generations apart. As a young reporter, I once covered Neuharth for a couple of days during one of his cross-country caravans, and on my desk is a framed letter he sent that offers congratulations for receiving my first publisher job back in 2010.

The speech last spring told the students how Neuharth gloriously failed at his first venture out of college, but also how he used that experience to build an empire at the media company Gannett. It’s good fodder for a conversation with young upstarts.

Coincidentally, Neuharth died the day after my speech -- April 19, at the age of 89.


He grew up in small-town South Dakota and worked with the Herald’s Marilyn Hagerty at the University of South Dakota student newspaper. In the 1950s, he formed a statewide sports weekly called SoDak Sports that had great readership but lousy revenue. It went belly-up in a little more than a year.

But Neuharth didn’t sulk. Instead, he rode that experience into a life at the pinnacle of American media during the pre-Internet heyday.

Several books adorn the new publisher’s office here at the Herald, but books about Neuharth are never out of reach. On a cold and rainy afternoon, it’s easy for the mind to wander and think about whether Neuharth’s hard-line business style would work in tomorrow’s -- not today’s -- media world.

He could be a jerk. His autobiography is titled “Confessions of an S.O.B.” and in it, he discusses his sometimes underhanded tactics. Once, before he pitched an idea at a company meeting, he formed a small group that he ordered to stand the moment he sprang his announcement. He placed them at varying spots in the room, so it would spur a standing ovation. It worked.  

He screamed and shouted obscenities at subordinates and could be downright cruel.

An old hand at the Rapid City (S.D.) Journal once told me that when he was young, he worked for Neuharth at SoDak Sports. Back then, writing was done with actual typewriters, on actual paper. When the young reporter handed Neuharth the typed version of a story, Neuharth looked at it and screamed “Do it again!” He emphasized the point by ripping to shreds the reporter’s only copy.

Those days are gone, and that style just doesn’t work anymore. Here at Forum Communications Co., we are emphasizing a new culture initiative our owner hopes will make FCC a great place to work. It’s still new and multi-layered, but the idea in a nutshell is to improve communication between all levels and to create an atmosphere that is inviting while still professional. 

We do this because we realize that younger generations coming into the workforce will expect it, and also because we realize old-school management tactics don’t work any more. At least not in the long run.


Ping-pong tables and TV rooms with resting couches are not out of the question, and I wonder what Neuharth’s ghost will think if it someday eerily wafts through during the Herald’s in-house Olympic Games or trivia tournaments.

Meanwhile, Neuharth had great ideals that still resonate. He was passionate about providing news. He believed that no newspaper is perfect, and warned that a newspaper whose managers are content is a newspaper bound to fail. He was absolutely consumed by quality control and immediately addressed problems. He openly stole ideas that worked at other newspapers because in the end, readers deserve a great product.

Now these Neuharth traits should be pushed and promoted and live on forever.

Mistakes still will be made. It’s possible I have put too much interest in emulating Neuharth and his approach to newspapering.

I have thrown fits and screamed. I have been a menace. I pout and micro-manage. Shortly before the birth of my second son, I dropped my contracting wife at the hospital and returned to the newsroom to finish a story I thought was important.

Today’s, and especially tomorrow’s, newspaper managers must retain Neuharthian expectations but achieve them through modern, acceptable methods. Our industry absolutely depends upon it.

Neuharth has now been dead a year, but anyone interested in this business should bone up on his life story. Those of us entrusted to save the newspaper industry can learn a lot.

In the end, the moral of Neuharth’s professional life should be thus: Neuharth’s sneaky business practices and screaming tantrums shouldn’t and can’t happen today, but his drive and passion to create great newspapers always should be emulated.

Opinion by Korrie Wenzel
Korrie Wenzel has been publisher of the Grand Forks Herald and Prairie Business Magazine since 2014.

Over time, he has been a board member of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., Junior Achievement, the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, United Way, Empire Arts Center, Cornerstones Career Learning Center and Crimestoppers.

As publisher, Wenzel oversees news, advertising and business operations at the Herald, as well as the newspaper's opinion content.

In the past, Wenzel was sports editor for 14 years at The Daily Republic of Mitchell, S.D., before becoming editor and, eventually, publisher.

Wenzel can be reached at 701-780-1103.
What To Read Next
Get Local