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.

He has served as chairman of the board of the P.A.R.K. Foundation since its founding in 1993. P.A.R.K. is Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids, an after-school program for at risk teens founded by Keith Jackson, a former all-pro tight end for the Green Bay Packers. The Hussman Foundation funded the construction of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Learning Center for the P.A.R.K. program. The learning center provides computers and textbooks.

He is also a great supporter of the arts in Arkansas, serving on the Arkansas Arts Center board of directors from 1974 to 1977, on the board of the Arkansas Repertory Theater from 1988 to 1995 and on the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra Society board of directors from 1997 to 1988.

While on the symphony board, he started Pops on the River, a patriotic symphony concert and fireworks show on the Arkansas River in Little Rock. His company also donated over 40,000 square feet of space for the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock for 99 years.

In addition to being named Publisher of the Year, Hussman was the recipient of Little Rock Downtown Partnership’s Top of the Rock Award for 2008, was awarded the Lions World Services for the Blind’s Vision Award for 2008 and the Legacy Award from Junior Achievement for 2009. More recently, Hussman received the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in October 2009.

Hussman also has served as both president and chair of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. He was president of the Arkansas Symphony and chairman of the Anthony School board and the Gladney Society in Fort Worth, Texas.

He served on the board of overseers for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University from 2004 to 2011 and was on the University of North Carolina’s board of visitors from 1993 to 1997. He was chairman of the board of the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce in 1995, the year Pulaski County voters approved construction of the Verizon Arena. He also served on the Chamber’s executive committee and board of directors from 1992 to 1998.

Hussman has been a member of the board of trustees of the George W. Donaghey Foundation since 1989 and served as its president from 1998 to 2000.

Other awards given to Hussman over the years include being the first recipient of The Frank W. Mayborn Leadership Award from the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas’ Hero Award, the Arkansas Community Foundation’s Roots & Wings Award, the Rotary Club of Little Rock’s Businessman of the Year award and the Little Rock Arts and Humanities Commission’s Outstanding Individual Contribution to the Humanities award.

In its November 2009 cover story, Atlantic magazine listed Hussman as one of 27 brave thinkers who are shaping the future. In its January 2010 issue, Monocle Magazine (U.K.) gave its annual roundup of “20 heroes worldwide who deserve a bigger stage.” Hussman was one of two listed from the United States.

The Hussman saga has always been a family one, and the chapter about Walter E. Hussman Jr. is no different. He is married to Robena (“Ben”) Kendrick Hussman, who has served on numerous boards including president and chairman of the Arkansas Arts Center.

They have three children – their son, Palmer, and twin daughters Olivia and Eliza. They also have one grandson, Thad Hussman.

 

 

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