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Sara-Ellen Amster, Ph.D. Headshot

So Long Al Neuharth -- and Thanks for My First Job. . .

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The nation -- or should I say the USA -- lost a very important figure in journalism's evolving story this past weekend.

I was sorry to hear of Al Neuharth's passing, but determined to write about the way his form of journalism had influenced me for the better, whehter or not I liked his methods at the time. OK, at the time, just having graduated from an Ivy league college, I was kind of resistant to his so-called vision. I wasn't even sure I wanted to show my new newspaper to fellow seniors.

This was even though Neuharth's company, Gannett Co., gave me my first full-time newspaper job. The media mogul died at 89 in his favorite locale, Cocoa Beach, having expanded his company's reach to include 93 daily newspapers and having pioneered the best-selling USA Today, especially admired by Wall Street.

I write this blog not only to say thank you but also to tell him I'm sorry I ever doubted him -- even if the sentiments are if a bit too late.

When I walked into the offices of FLORIDA TODAY in 1989, I wondered what type of news job I had taken. The building in Melbourne, Fla., looks a lot like the Space Shuttle crossed with Disney's EPCOT Center theme park.

It is an architectural wonder, the floors and walls an inviting peach color.

For a 21-year-old kid who wanted to be a journalist, I felt lucky to work for Gannett Company. Actually, I felt lucky to have a job. I had read Peter Pritchard's The Making of McPaper and viewed Al Neuharth as similar to Oz -- the man directing things as if by kingly decree. At the time, Frank Vega was publisher and I knew the policy was to write "tight and bright,"

I planned to follow orders. I did not like the small-town sensibilities that allowed for a prayer on the editorial page. Now my concerns seem less relevant and somewhat unjustified.

OK, back then, I was a bit put off by the need to write short. I really thought and still do that people want to read, so I went to work in Melbourne, Fla. and lived in Satellite Beach near Patrick Air Force Base, almost wishing that the newspaper looked less like USA TODAY and more like itself.

My goal was always to leave as soon as I could, but now I see how important the experience of working for the Orange paper as some called the newspaper in those days, was to my overall development as a news reporter. Why couldn't I see that?

When I did move on to the News-Journal, another Gannett paper in New Castle, Del. I wrote at first as if each word was a scarce commodity and could not be squandered. Each evening when I filed my stories, the desk editor at FLORIDA TODAY would tell me the precise number of lines I needed to write and insist on no more or fewer.

This is an experience that I remember as painful at times, but one I would not trade for anything. I loved my beat covering education in Brevard County, Fla. I remember that I was very committed to the highest ideals of journalism at that time (I still am) and very sure that every story needed to be the best it could be. The idea I had was that some reader somewhere would cut my work out and hang it on the refrigerator -- especially the stories I wrote about the Space Shuttle in which I had to interview those bystanders who had come to see its liftoffs.

I know this period was a waning era for print journalism but one in which it was about to become something entirely more effective and interactive on the Internet. Stories on the Web don't necessarily need to be short but they do need to be worth reading. What's more, no ink rubs off on your hands.

So I thank you Mr. Neuarth for your influence on my career. Even though I am an academic now, your journalism will continue to inform the way I see the field as it develops. The look of USA Today and its TV-like boxes paved the way for the type of journalism the public really wanted -- the type that is mobile and flexible as to form and delivery.

Al Neuharth is dead but his legacy lives in the way the news industry pays more attention to its consumers. Viewers and readers are still a news outlet's lifeline. Technological changes have not weakened the news but will strengthen it beyond even Neuharth's wildest imagination. Neuharth's memory will live forever, even if no one ever finds the time capsule he sent up with astronauts along with a copy of Cocoa Today to bury on the moon.

Neuharth dreamed big and his contribution to this Earth lives on.