Sometimes Dreams Fade Before the Dreamer

Editor's note: One day before we remember our veterans who have died to protect our freedom, we pay homage to a few business leaders who have recently passed away.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- One point drummed into my head during journalism school was that you're not a "real journalist" unless you work for a daily paper, that a journalist is someone who works for someone who buys ink by the barrel.

As I started my career, it was drummed into my head that America's status as a technology power rested on our making the most-necessary parts, the semiconductor chips, here at home.

Both these ideas seem quaint today, so the fact that the men behind those ideas died within 14 months of one another somehow seems fitting.

Former Gannett ( GCI) Chairman Al Neuharth, who passed away last April, was an avatar of the first idea. I still have my first-day copy of his USA Today, acquired at one of several parties staged to celebrate the event, up in an attic somewhere.

Neuharth was the very picture of a great newspaperman, the kind of guy you'd expect would be played by Humphrey Bogart. He was a public man who reveled in his notoriety, a journalist who rose through the ranks to become a publisher, then the hyper-acquisitive head of Gannett, and finally the creator of "America's Newspaper," launched at a time when even I could see the days of print journalism were numbered.

Neuharth saw "professional journalists" as a noble breed, above the fray, unbiased umpires, both priests and spies, whose first loyalty was to readers. This made him a hero to young people like me.

Yet even as he called us to this work, he knew, because he was a publisher, that his first loyalty was to advertisers, just as we knew that defying readers' prejudices was a sure way to get fired. There's one set of rules for working journalists, who are "people who work for people," and another for those they work for, who are governed only by the ethics of business.

Neuharth sold an image: Be like me. But even as he sold it (he retired from Gannett 1989), the image was disappearing like a fog, or a dream. It deserves note here that Gannett has survived the decline of print, and now includes a number of interesting Web properties.

By 1989, I was deep into my career in technology journalism, and Micron ( MU) was a very important company on that beat. Steve Appleton, who started on the Micron factory floor in 1983, the same year I became a tech freelancer, became president of Micron in 1991, and CEO in 1994.

Like Neuharth, Appleton was a larger-than-life character with a big idea, namely that America needed to survive in the commodity end of the microchip business. That we could survive.

Micron makes memory chips, which have a brutal product-and-profit cycle. It took a man with iron nerve and discipline to pilot such a company far from Silicon Valley, and piloting planes was one of Appleton's escapes from those tensions. It was a small plane crash that took his life, in February of 2012, explained here by Bloomberg. He was 51.

Even before his death, however, it was apparent that Appleton's dream required adjustment. Made in USA alone wasn't good enough. Appleton took over rival, Texas Instruments' memory chip business in 1998, and that of Toshiba in 2001, then cut his Boise workforce repeatedly to reduce costs.

This continued after his death. Wikipedia says Micron is now the largest shareholder in Inotera, a Taiwanese memory chip maker, and last year it bought Japan's Elpida out of bankruptcy. It now holds 24% of the global memory chip market, although most of those chips are actually made in Asia.

Still, it's the image that counts. USA, USA, USA. And USA Today. And it's the image that remains after the men who crafted those images are gone from us.

At the time of publication, the author had no investments in companies mentioned here.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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