10 Years After the War: Is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Really ‘The Best of Both'?

by Lance Turner  on Monday, Mar. 31, 2014 12:00 am  

Walter E. Hussman Jr. is publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and president of Wehco Media. (Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

“One of those newspapers was destined to not be there,” he said.

The Gray Lady Dies

With a decade between us and the final volleys of one of the nation’s biggest and last Great Newspaper Wars, some of its soldiers and armchair generals seem certain about the factors that led to the Gazette’s demise.

The blame usually begins with Gannett Co.

The newspapers had bumped heads over Arkansas breakfast tables since 1979, when the Democrat went from an afternoon to a morning production cycle. In October 1986, Gannett Co. bought the Gazette from the Hugh Patterson family for $51 million, and an all-out war began.

The chain brought in outsiders to run the newspaper. Decisions went through myriad committees and decision-making bodies, Walsh said. Publicly traded Gannett, with responsibilities to shareholders, wasn’t as lean as Hussman’s private enterprise, nor did it know much about its readers.

McCord said Gannett had little enthusiasm for politics and government reporting, which didn’t fit a newspaper that had built its reputation as the state’s “newspaper of record” and won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis in 1957.

Instead, Gambill said, the newspaper became feature-heavy and lost its focus. Its emphasis on entertainment, reader polls (a la USA Today) and surveys seemed out of place.

“And old-timers like me don’t really have a high regard for that kind of business,” McCord said.

“This is the thing that can happen in any branch of the industry,” Walsh said. “It can happen in radio, it can happen in television, it can happen in the newspapers: where you get so big that any local feelings are not reflected within the property that you operate.”

In the end, however, it was Hussman’s faith and money — aided by Starr’s personality and drive — that made the Democrat’s victory inevitable.

“I think Walter Hussman was, in hindsight, brilliant in all the strategies he used to win that war,” Frank Cox said.



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