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

A version of this article originally appeared in Arkansas Business on Oct. 22, 2001. It is being republished as part of Arkansas Business' 30th anniversary issue. You can access the digital edition for free here.

On Oct. 19, 1991, the newly christened Arkansas Democrat-Gazette landed on doorsteps and in the newspaper boxes of the state’s new media landscape.

The day before, Arkansas Democrat publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr. announced he had purchased the assets of the 171-year-old Arkansas Gazette, the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi River and Hussman’s foe in a brutal and costly newspaper war.

Hussman paid $68 million for the Gazette, which in its final years had been owned by Gannett Co. Inc. of Arlington, Va., the media giant that now owns 22 television stations and 99 newspapers.

Having whipped its nemesis, the Democrat-Gazette pushed ahead, working to take in advertising dollars left homeless when the Gazette collapsed and selling the mantra, “The Best of Both.”

Ten years later, it’s difficult to recall “The Best of Both” in terms any more meaningful than marketing. John Robert Starr, the fiery managing editor who personified the Democrat, is dead. John Brummett and Orville Henry, two writers whose defections from the Gazette to the Democrat made waves during the war, now work for Donrey Media Group, a scrappy competitor that was a nonissue in 1991.

Fewer viewpoints have been expressed as the newspaper has cut its opinions section; the “newspaper of record” philosophy that was the hallmark of the old Gazette is long gone; and the number of pages the newspaper produces on weekdays has decreased.

On the other hand, the Sunday edition has grown, and space devoted to news (as opposed to advertising) has remained formidable. The quality of reporting, many say, is good and generally focuses on local news.

While the newspaper might not live up to its “Best of Both” post-battle cry, it’s still better than most of its size in the region, said Pat Walsh, a Little Rock media consultant.

“I think they’re doing as good as anybody could logically expect,” he said, “and they’re turning out a helluva lot better paper than if Gannett had won.”

Best of Both?

Despite the Democrat-Gazette bashing in which many Arkansans — especially in the journalism community, especially Gazette alumni — regularly engage, at the end of the day the state’s largest daily paper still has knowledgeable champions who maintain that it is one of the best newspapers in the region.

“I think it still is one of the best newspapers around,” said Dr. Joel Gambill, chairman of the department of journalism and printing at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

“It has more news in it. The news hole is still large. I know it’s not as large as it used be, I know there’s economic reasons for that. But if you compare it to other newspapers that I see of its size, I think it probably has more news in it than almost any other that I see,” Gambill said.

Robert McCord, an Arkansas Times columnist, agrees. McCord is a former executive editor of the Democrat and was senior editor of the Gazette when the paper stopped publishing in 1991.

“I think their coverage is pretty good. And up until the economy got kind of bad, I thought the news hole was very good,” he said. “It had one of the largest news holes of any paper of its size that I ever see. And I was real proud of that.”

The most common gripe among readers in Little Rock is that the Democrat-Gazette has devoted too much space to northwest Arkansas news. In 2000, Hussman’s Wehco Media Inc. announced a unique alliance with one of its competitors in the region, Community Publishers Inc. of Bentonville.

The company, owned by the Walton family, agreed to insert editions of its Northwest Arkansas Times and Benton County Daily Record into the northwest edition of the Democrat-Gazette. While not an acquisition, Hussman said, the arrangement gave the organizations better footing in a battle with Donrey’s dominant Morning News, which has zoned editions throughout the area. The strategy might be working; the Democrat-Gazette recently took the lead over the Morning News in Sunday circulation.

Consequently, more Democrat-Gazette resources have focused on the “new newspaper war,” and stories from the front line have crept into the pages of the newspaper’s metro and state editions.

Still others credit the Democrat-Gazette in its early days but point to what they see as a decline in the last year.

Max Brantley, a former state editor and political columnist for the Gazette and now editor of the Arkansas Times, said cuts in staff and newspaper size have “put the lie to that statement” that the D-G offered the best of both.

The Democrat-Gazette has made the cuts perhaps because of the slow advertising market, perhaps because of the investment in the northwest war, Brantley said. In the last year, the Monday business section lost two pages, the comics section lost one page, the Sunday “Perspective” section lost pages, and the width of the newspaper has narrowed to save on newsprint.

“I think [Hussman’s] due credit for the resources he put in the paper but that in recent months it looks a whole lot more like papers you see in most of the rest of the United States,” he said.

The Ad Market

Nature abhors a vacuum, and newspapering is no exception. So in the absence of the Gazette, other media have rushed to claim ad dollars.

In post-war Little Rock, the monthly Arkansas Times was able to thrive as a free weekly. The Times of North Little Rock grew. Arkansas Business, which Starr credited with setting a new standard for business coverage for the dailies, prospered while the D-G’s business section was often criticized for its dearth of local stories.

But advertising became more expensive under the daily newspaper monopoly.

“I think that advertising prices were pretty depressed here in this market because of that competition,” said Frank Cox, CEO of Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods, the state’s largest advertising agency. “I’m not surprised prices went up after one paper prevailed.”

Higher rates sent smaller advertisers to the smaller publications. But rates for those papers increased as well, leaving some would-be advertisers unsure of what to do.

“I’ve heard from some merchants who just feel like they can’t advertise in a newspaper anymore because the rates are so high,” McCord said.

But John Signaigo, vice president and general manager for Clear Channel Broadcasting, which owns radio stations including KMJX-FM, 105.1, and KSSN-FM, 95.7, said the market was getting more expensive anyway.

“I think the natural progression of costs to produce the product have gone up. In order to cover cost, commercial time has to go up accordingly,” Signaigo said. “And I think that it’s been nothing more than that.”

Cox said he agrees that the loss of the Gazette was beneficial to other publications seeking advertisers. But with other advertising media emerging, the void would have been filled anyway.

“The Gazette and the Democrat deal, and the fact that one paper took the other one over, that was a small pimple in the cosmos with regard to the context of how media itself has changed in the last decade,” he said.

Cable television reached full force, and the Internet was coming to prominence by the mid-’90s. Digital cable now will give advertisers even more choices, and easier access to broadband Internet continues to fractionalize the ad market.

“I don’t think that there’s any way in the world that both of them would have remained,” Cox said. “... There weren’t enough dollars back then that were target newspaper dollars and were going to be targeted to newspapers to sustain both those newspapers. ...”

“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.

Brantley said Hussman’s “irrational competition” was hard to beat. That he was willing to spend what some estimate at more than $250 million of his own money to win is difficult to overcome, he said.

“Having a guy willing to spend that much money for however long — that’s pretty stout,” Brantley said.

Arkansas Newspaper History

1819 The Arkansas Gazette is founded.
1871 The Arkansas Democrat is founded.
1974 Walter Hussman Sr. buys the Democrat for $3.5 million.
1979 The afternoon Democrat becomes a morning publication, going head-to-head with the Gazette.
1984 The Gazette accuses the Democrat of unfair trade practices in a federal antitrust lawsuit. Later that month, Carrick Patterson becomes editor of the Gazette, which was owned by his family.
1986  
March The Gazette loses a jury trial of its antitrust lawsuit against the Democrat.
Oct. Gannett buys the Gazette from Patterson family for $51 million, launches full-scale newspaper war.
1989 Orville Henry, then 64, shocks readers by moving from the Gazette, where he had been sports editor for 47 years, to the Democrat. It is a major blow to Gannett Co. in the Little Rock war.
1991      
 
Oct. 18 The final edition of the 171-year-old Gazette is published. Hussman buys Gazette assets from Gannett for $69 million.
Oct. 19 Democrat-Gazette debuts, billed as “The Best of Both.”
1992 Hussman appoints Griffin Smith Jr. as executive editor of the Democrat-Gazette.
1998 Hussman’s Wehco Media purchases the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Free Press in April and the Chattanooga Times in November. Both papers are merged in January 1999
2000 Newspaper war in northwest Arkansas hits high gear as D-G and Walton-owned Community Publishers of Bentonville form unprecedented “alliance” to fight Donrey Media Group.

Since Then ...

2014: Frank Cox, now a spokesman for Hendrix College, was right back in 2001: the Democrat’s acquisition of the Gazette was “a small pimple in the cosmos” of the changing media landscape.

The question in 2014 is no longer whether a market can support two daily newspapers. With online news attracting more and more readers and siphoning off more and more advertisers at much cheaper rates than the cost of print advertising, the question now is: How many days a week can even one newspaper afford to report, print and deliver?

Since this article appeared more than a dozen years ago, Walter Hussman Jr. reached a truce with Stephens Media in northwest Arkansas, but virtually all general audience papers — including the Democrat-Gazette and those owned by the Stephens family — have made sizable staff reductions.

In 2008, Hussman was recognized as Publisher of the Year by the Editor & Publisher trade journal, in large part for his prescient (and contrarian) decision to charge readers for online news. In 2012, he was inducted into the University of Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.

In 2008, the old Arkansas Gazette building was converted for use by eStem Charter Public Schools.