Arkansas Business Hall of Fame 2012: Walter E. Hussman Jr.

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Monday, Jan. 30, 2012 12:00 am  

Walter HussmanPublisher, Arkansas Democrat-GazettePresident/CEO, WEHCO Media, Inc.

Walter E. Hussman Jr.
Publisher, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
President/CEO, WEHCO Media, Inc.

Bret Schulte, writing in the American Journalism Review, pretty much summed up the media-empire-building career of Walter E. Hussman Jr. “Put simply,” Schulte wrote in his article entitled Against the Grain, “Hussman doesn’t lose.”

Hussman took over as publisher of the Arkansas Democrat when it was about 100 years old and he was just 27. The Democrat was losing money – and market share to the rival Arkansas Gazette – each year. And it wasn’t just market share. At that point, the Democrat trailed the Gazette in just about everything.

But it had a secret weapon. A new publisher. Who didn’t lose.

After a protracted, heated newspaper war, legal battles and even a change in ownership by the Gazette, Hussman’s Democrat eventually emerged the winner in the Little Rock market and bought the assets of the rival newspaper in 1991, creating the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Hussman, a third-generation newspaperman, was born Jan. 5, 1947, in Texarkana and grew up in Camden. His father, Walter E. Hussman Sr., was publisher of the Camden News from 1949 until 1981. His grandfather, Clyde Palmer, was publisher of the Texarkana Gazette from 1909 until 1957.

Hussman Jr. attended the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey before earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from North Carolina and an M.B.A. from Columbia University in New York. He worked for a brief time as a reporter for Forbes magazine before returning to Arkansas in 1970 to work in the family business.

In 1974, Hussman persuaded his father to buy the afternoon daily in Little Rock, starting the saga that now has the statewide Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in an enviable position relative to many other newspapers.

In many ways, Hussman cleared his path to success by trying a lot of different things to see what worked best. That doesn’t mean his decisions were random or that any of them were done on a whim. It was just that Hussman didn’t hesitate to adopt practices that others were not sold on yet. If he saw something that potentially could help his newspaper succeed, he tried it. As former presidential Chief of Staff Thomas M. “Mack” McLarty has said of Hussman, “Walter clearly has the heart of a lion. There are few in the media business more courageous that Walter.”

Some of those adopted practices are now commonplace in the newspaper industry, including free classified ads and a paywall for online news. Some doubt his continued belief in news printed on paper, but the Democrat-Gazette keeps moving forward with strong statewide circulation and advertising and pages stuffed with news about Arkansas. Every Sunday, the Democrat-Gazette reaches a higher percentage of its local households than any other newspaper in the country.

Hussman has served as chief executive officer of WEHCO Media, which operates 13 daily newspapers, 11 weekly newspapers and 13 cable television companies in six states, since 1981. Hussman was named Publisher of the Year in 2008 by Editor and Publisher magazine. He was a member of the board of directors of The Associated Press from 2000 to 2009 and C-Span from 1995 to 2003.

Hussman is recognized, although he never has pursued the limelight, as a champion of public education and after-school programs in Little Rock and the state of Arkansas. The Hussman Foundation has contributed significant funding to promote charter schools and for funding teacher and staff incentives at Meadowcliff Elementary and other schools in the Little Rock district. He and Jim Walton were founders of the eStem Charter Schools in downtown Little Rock.



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