REX NELSON: A 30th anniversary

Last Tuesday marked the 30th anniversary of the first issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. My memories of the Great Little Rock Newspaper War remain so vivid that they don’t seem so distant.

I had worked at the Arkansas Democrat as a sports reporter, assistant sports editor, and Washington correspondent for much of the 1980s. By the end of the newspaper war, however, I was the editor of Arkansas Business. We rushed to cover the events of October 18, 1991, the day Walter Hussman Jr. announced that the Gazette had ceased publication. The Democrat would be called the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette from the next morning.

“Today is the first issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a combination of the 120-year-old Arkansas Democrat and the 171-year-old Arkansas Gazette,” Hussman wrote in the October 19 edition of the newspaper. newly baptized. “Little Rock and Arkansas were served for over a century by what had become two of America’s best state newspapers. Starting today, readers will get the best of both newspapers in a daily edition. Today is also the culmination and the end of perhaps the most intense press competition ever in the newspaper industry. “

On the death of Democratic publisher K. August Engel in January 1968 (Engel had joined the newspaper in 1911 as business manager and bought a majority stake in 1926), his nephews Marcus George and Stanley Berry took over the business. democrat. George was editor, while Berry was editor.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Gazette, which had suffered commercially from its progressive editorial positions during the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis in 1957 (the Gazette won two Pulitzer Prizes in 1958) , has regained his role as leader of the state. newspaper.

By the time George and Berry sold the newspaper in 1974, the Democrat was steadily losing circulation. The Gazette’s circulation was 118,702 at the time, nearly double the Democrat’s 62,405 subscribers. The Gazette had about three times the Democrat’s income.

The Democrat’s new owner was a southern Arkansas company run by Hussman’s father. The company already had dailies in Texarkana, Hot Springs, El Dorado, Camden and Magnolia. The purchase price was $ 3.7 million.

Hussman graduated from New Jersey prep school in 1964 and the University of North Carolina in 1968. He went on to earn an MBA from Columbia University and was 27 when he became Democratic publisher.

Young Hussman grew up in Camden, working in his father’s newspapers. In Little Rock, Hussman faced a formidable challenge: exploiting a declining afternoon newspaper. In 1974, 34 American cities had separate newspapers that competed against each other, compared to more than 500 in the 1920s.

For years, the Democrat’s journalists had worked behind the scenes of the better-paid, better-known Gazette reporters and editors. Sometimes their job was to rewrite stories from the Morning Gazette for the afternoon Democrat.

After Hussman bought the newspaper, well-known Democratic columnists included Bob Lancaster, who provided biting and humorous coverage of the Arkansas Legislature, and sports columnists Fred Morrow and Jim Lassiter, who criticized the Razorbacks of the ‘University of Arkansas much more than the Gazette sports columnists.

In 1977, Hussman approached the owners of The Gazette and sought a joint operating agreement in which the newspapers would share circulation and commercial operations while maintaining separate editorial teams. The owners of the Gazette refused. Hussman responded by expanding the news space and offering free classifieds, something the Gazette did not equal until December 1987.

Hussman also hired the former Little Rock bureau chief for the Associated Press, an aggressive reporter named John Robert Starr. The number of reporters rose from 57 to 101. In 1979, the Democrat gradually switched to morning publication. It all started with a morning edition available only in Pulaski County. The last afternoon edition of The Democrats was published on October 7, 1979.

Hussman began using color in the Democrat in 1982, five years before the Gazette.

Of the growing newspaper warfare, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Quill magazine noted in 1981: “Arkansas has not seen such turmoil since. [Gazette editor] Harry Ashmore and Governor Orval Faubus got started in the late 1950s. “

Starr was quoted in the article as saying, “The Democrat may still be a dog, but at least he’s barking.”

A March 1983 Wall Street Journal article on the newspaper war said, “Sometimes it seems like the gray old lady in this town is being assaulted by a street brawler. “

In December 1984, The Gazette filed an antitrust complaint against the Democrat’s owners, accusing that they “conspired with each other and with others with the specific intention of monopolizing” the newspaper market in Little Rock. The trial has not started for over a year.

In March 1986, a court jury for U.S. District Judge William Overton ruled that the Democrat was innocent of allegations he attempted to shut down the Gazette through unfair business practices.

By the end of the year, the Patterson family of Little Rock had sold the Gazette to Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain. Despite investments from the new Gazette owners, the Democrat continued to make circulation gains. By April 1988, the Sunday Democrat had reached a circulation of 192,000 copies, doubling its circulation a decade earlier. For the first time since Hussman’s purchase, the Democrat had more than 40% of the Little Rock newspaper market.

A further boost for the Democrat came in May 1989 when the Dillard department store chain, the Gazette’s largest advertiser, stopped advertising in the Gazette after a dispute over the price of the ads.

For Arkansas readers, however, the most telling sign that the tide was turning was the August 1989 defection to Democrat Orville Henry, the sports editor of the Gazette for 46 years and the most famous newspaper columnist of. the state. Henry’s movement in the streets was a sure sign that the Democrat was winning.

In July 1990, when Gannett hired the third editor of The Gazette in as many years, the Democrat overtook the Gazette in Sunday circulation for the first time since the 1960s. The Gazette continued to have over broadcast during the week.

Starr told Advertising Age in August 1990: “There was no way the Democrat could have won unless the Gazette made all the wrong moves. I think they made all the wrong moves. . “

In October 1990, another popular Gazette columnist, John Brummett, resigned. His columns soon began to appear in The Democrat.

Advertising Age reported in December 1990 that the Democrat was the fastest growing newspaper in the country, while the Gazette lost the most circulation. The writing was on the wall. Gannett, a state-owned company, could no longer justify Arkansas’ massive financial losses to shareholders. The Gazette should be closed.

Hussman wasted no time inflating the staff of the New Democrat Gazette. In April 1992, he hired Paul Greenberg, editor of the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial page and national columnist, Away from Pine Bluff Commercial. On June 23, 1992, Starr announced his retirement. Little Rock attorney Griffin Smith Jr., who had served as the newspaper’s part-time travel editor while practicing law, was appointed editor. He served until his retirement in April 2012.

It was Smith who hired me away from Arkansas Business in 1992 as the first political editor of the Democrat-Gazette, primarily to oversee coverage of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Clinton had announced his candidacy while standing on the steps of the Old State House in downtown Little Rock on October 3, 1991. He had grown up in Hot Springs reading the Gazette and had dealt with reporters and columnists. of the Gazette during his 12 years as governor. It turned out that the Gazette would only cover the first 15 days of his presidential campaign.

Rex Nelson is editor-in-chief at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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