A little bit crazy

I read Making of McPaper one night last week, the quick-moving book about USA TODAY’s founding and a good night’s read if you take an ice cream break in the middle. Whether it was the story or the sugar-fueled Chocolate Fudge Brownie, it took me hours to fall asleep afterward.

Where to begin on my favorite parts… the chart showing the average newsroom age at the paper’s birth was 33… the “young geniuses” of the prototyping Project NN were younger still… the “line” and “service” differences… the ridiculous approaches to internal engagement, hitting the extreme here:

[Founder Al Neuharth] told them that USA TODAY’s loss for 1985 had to be under $75 million. To make sure it was, they would police all costs line-by-line. Before any new hires could be made, approval was required in writing from Neuharth or John Curley. Neuharth added a warning: Any deviation of more than 5 percent from the plan “will be considered unsatisfactory and the executives responsible for such deviation subject to dismissal.”

After this grim meeting, they adjourned for dinner to Bernard’s Surf, a Cocoa Beach restaurant that was locally famous as a hangout of the astronauts, a place where Gannett had hosted hundreds of company dinners — but never before or since a company dinner like this one. Neuharth had summoned them to town to shock them, and shock them he did.

The restaurant was run by a Jewish friend of Neuharth’s, Rusty Fischer. When the USA TODAY executives arrived at the Surf, the door to their private dining room was closed, and Neuharth was not around. Thirty minutes later, the door opened and there was Neuharth: He was wearing a crown of thorns. There was a huge wooden cross leaning across the wall behind him.

Neuharth and restauranteur Fischer had arranged the room so it resembled the scene of the Last Supper. Gannett executives were used to drinking Pouilly-Fuisse, but this long, sparse table had jugs of Manichevitz wine and pieces of unleavened bread on it. “I am the crucified one,” Neuharth told them. Then he presided at what he called, “The Service for the Passed-Over,” which he had based on the Jewish observance of Passover.

Neuharth had decided upon a loose, theatrical adaptation of two religious events, and the result was a mixed religious metaphor. He superimposed the service for the Jewish feast of Seder, a Passover ritual which commemorates the Jews’ escape of Egypt on top of a setting in which he played the role of Jesus at the Last Supper. “Passover” appealed to him because if USA TODAY did not cut its losses soon, they were all going to be “passed-over.” Then this meal at Bernard’s Surf might indeed prove to be their “last supper.” …

I don’t feel that I need to explain my art to you, Warren.

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