By - Dexter Hutchins

(FORTUNE Magazine) – FEW WHO KNOW the chairman of the Gannett Co. would quarrel with this assessment by a friend: ''Al Neuharth wants to go down in history as the dominant figure in journalism of his generation.'' That immodest goal continues to elude him, but not for lack of effort. Fiercely competitive and at times seemingly ruthless, Allen Harold Neuharth, 62, has made Gannett the world's largest newspaper chain (93 dailies from St. Thomas to Guam) and the most profitable U.S. publisher. He has also put bronze busts of himself in the lobbies of USA Today and Florida Today, the two Gannett papers he started from scratch. Skeptics used to say that Gannett, with earnings of $253 million on $2.2 billion in revenues in 1985, had grown too large to grow fast, even by acquisition. Neuharth proved them wrong in 1986. Last February, less than seven months after acquiring the 222,000 circulation Des Moines Register, he picked up the 680,000 circulation Detroit News. Then he bought the Louisville Courier-Journal and Times (with a combined circulation of 291,000) from the fractious Bingham family in July (see following article). In December he acquired Little Rock's Arkansas Gazette. Preparing for retirement in 1989, Neuharth relinquished the title of chief executive in May. But he still makes many of the decisions as head of a new oversight committee of the board, and he runs USA Today, the nation's second largest daily (circulation: 1.5 million, up 8% from 1985), and the Detroit News. ''These are our two biggest and our only money-losing ventures,'' he says. ''I make the final decisions. If they fail, I still get the blame.'' Analysts say USA Today may show a profit in the fourth quarter of 1987. Neuharth, who squeezes pennies and underpays many of his company's journalists, collected $1.3 million in salary and bonuses in 1985. He loves the trappings of success -- flashy jewelry, fancy offices, limousines, and corporate jets. ''He's the only man I know who runs a half-hour in the morning and then takes a limousine to a meeting in the next block,'' a colleague once said while introducing him at a publishing convention. The Gannett chairman grew up poor in South Dakota. His father was killed in a farm accident when Neuharth was 2, and his mother took in laundry to help support him and his older brother. The hard life made him determined to succeed. After working his way up at the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, Neuharth moved to Gannett in 1963. Three years later he launched Florida Today, the most successful new U.S. daily in several decades. He took charge as Gannett's chief in 1973. HIS FIRST MARRIAGE ended in divorce, after 26 years, in 1972. In 1973 Neuharth married Lori Wilson, a former Florida state senator. Wilson adopted the signature colors of Neuharth's wardrobe -- he rarely wears anything but black, gray, and white -- and went to work for Gannett as a consultant. That marriage ended in divorce, in 1982.

Neuharth is a notorious practical joker. His first wife was arrested when he reported that a rental car had been stolen. Last year, after a college chum ribbed him about his limousines, Neuharth had the man met at an airport by a battered pickup truck loaded with chickens and pigs. Many who have dealt with him find Neuharth ''utterly charming,'' as an executive of another company puts it. His subordinates often use stronger words. Says one longtime associate: ''He comes across as an absolute loner who will run over anybody or anything in the search for profits for the company and glory for himself.'' Neuharth tends to be a browbeater who often circles passages in memos and sends them back to the authors with his trademark rebuff: Please explain. Says Neuharth: ''I'm a handson manager. I will use whatever methods seem most likely to bring results. Sometimes it's bantering, sometimes it's badgering.'' Pressure-cooker management is bound to blow gaskets once in a while. The Register Publishing Co. of New Haven, which bought the failing Hartford Times from Gannett in 1973, charged that Gannett overstated the Times circulation to get a higher price. A federal judge agreed, saying the company ''knew the Times had been fraudulently inflating its circulation figures.'' The verdict was upheld on appeal. ''We do not agree there was fraud committed,'' says Neuharth. ''Maybe Al has been rough on people in his business relationships,'' says Gordon Aadland of Centralia, Washington, the man treated to the ride in the pickup truck. ''The Al Neuharth that I've known for four decades is not Attila the Hun, although maybe a little of the Great Gatsby. People might say, 'Well, sure, but he's your longtime friend.' But the fact he is still my friend is part of my belief.''