USA TODAY publisher believes publication's success is proof that ? 'Anything is possible' Al Neuharth (right) presents USA TODAY publisher Tom Curley with the Allen H. Neuharth Award for Excellence in Journalism. Curley is the 15th journalist to receive the honor, presented annually at The University of South Dakota. by David Lias When the first issues of Al Neuharth's USA TODAY rolled off the presses 20 years ago, the Associated Press noted that this new, colorful, national newspaper was being printed from coast to coast on rented presses.
"The AP writer's focus on rented made that lead, providing the single descriptive word that simultaneously illuminated and delivered a tone of skepticism," Tom Curley, USA TODAY's publisher, told his audience during a lecture Tuesday night in the Wayne S. Knutson Theatre. "Yes, everything at USA TODAY was rented, even the staff."
Curley was in Vermillion Tuesday to receive the Allen H. Neuharth Award for Excellence in Journalism.
USA TODAY was greeted with denial and derision, Curley said. It was the first publication of its kind, launched at a time when the newspaper industry was losing revenue and readers.
But those rented presses made USA TODAY possible, he said.
"By avoiding massive capital investments on machines such as presses, personkind's oldest medium � written communications � could be reborn initially across a land mass as vast as the United States, and shortly after around the world."
"Tom and I have a relationship much like many of you in the audience have," Neuharth said in an opening statement at Tuesday's ceremony. "You have a student/teacher relationship which is much like the relationship I've had with Tom Curley through the years. "Twenty-one years ago, when we began planning USA TODAY, Tom was one of my five key students � young whiz kids that I brought together � to help us decide if we could pull this thing off," Neuharth said.
The USA TODAY founder said he naturally felt he knew a lot more about the newspaper business than his young staff. "Tonight, I can guarantee to you that I'm going to present to you a former student of mine who is a heck of a lot smarter and has accomplished a heck of a lot more than his teacher did," Neuharth said.
Curley remembers 20 years ago how Neuharth, then Gannett chairman, convinced his young colleagues that USA TODAY couldn't afford to waste money on presses.
"Money had to be conserved to get readers used to something they had never seen before � a national newspaper � and that would take time and we would have to stay the course," Curley said.
Today, the largest newspaper in the United States owns no presses.
"Human resources people call this 'job knowledge,' but it was much more," Curley said of Neuharth's insights as USA TODAY was born two decades ago. "It was the birth of a spirit within USA TODAY that would guide it through its rockiest days, and I fervently hope, through all of its days.
"It is a spirit," he said, "that says, 'anything is possible.'"
USA TODAY became fair game to critics in its early days because of its unique style and dramatic innovations.
Inside the offices of the newspaper, the focus was always on journalism, Curley said.
The newspaper was launched at the same time as CNN, the Macintosh computer, ESPN and MTV. And over half of the people in the United States lived in place different from their places of birth.
"Gannett had to reach that market or eventually be superceded and fall from its leadership position," Curley said. "Everything Al did was to get us out of the box. If you understand that, you understand why USA TODAY attempts to remain different, and perhaps, even as former journalist Phil Meyers says, 'defiant.'
"That proud defiance came from Al, and has guided our thinking about developing the newspaper ever since," Curley said.
Neuharth shouldered the criticism that rained down on USA TODAY in its early days. And at times when the newspaper was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, Curley said, he presented each staff member with USA TODAY rings as a sign of commitment.
Now, it second generation, the once widely-criticized newspaper acquired a voice of authority. "Enterprise began to flourish, respect for the newspaper grew, and the competition learned from USA TODAY's successes," he said. "Our challenge today is to rebuild a distinctive freshness."