Kelly P. Kissel left Little Rock eight days ago after 24 years of covering Arkansas’ biggest news stories for The Associated Press. But in a manner of speaking, he gave his notice 12 years ago.
“When we started losing people at the bureau, I told an old manager that if we ever dropped to four people, it would not be the job that it once was,” Kissel said, describing personnel losses that have defined the news industry for years. AP’s Little Rock staff was 19, including technicians, when Kissel arrived in 1994. “I said if we got down to four, they could expect me to leave. We got down to four about a year and a half ago.”
Still, the stars had to align for Kissel to quit the AP and become metro editor of The Advocate of Baton Rouge, his hometown, where he’ll direct a team of three editors and 14 writers. The house he grew up in was vacated after his mother’s death in 2016, and his daughter had settled down in Baton Rouge with her family after graduating from Louisiana State University, Kissel’s alma mater. Then he learned the AP had a potential job opening in town.
The twist was that the AP staffer who left is married to the Advocate’s previous metro editor. Four friends alerted Kissel to her exit plans within a day or two, and he pounced. “On May 1 I didn’t even know about the job; by June 1, I’ve given my notice and am getting ready to walk out the door.”
He says he’s the only guy he knows who’s leaving a journalism job for another job in journalism. “Not very many people are doing that these days. Often we’re getting laid off, or getting frustrated and quitting.”
Baton Rouge clearly tugged at Kissel’s heartstrings. After his father’s chemical industry career took the family to Louisiana from Nebraska in 1968, Kissel’s mother took a switchboard job at a TV station. “I’d invariably end up in the newsroom,” he said, “and they’d let me hang out where the wire machines were.”
In those days, the teletype machines were spitting out momentous news, from the moon landing to Vietnam to Woodstock to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. “That was my introduction to the wire, and I wanted to know how to get a job doing this. Originally I wanted to be a jockey, because what kid doesn’t want to ride horses for a living? But I thought this is really neat, telling stories about things that have happened. I didn’t know it then, this idea that journalism is the first draft of history. But it’s true.”
Kissel, who turns 59 on July 11, started writing for The AP as a temp while still in college, and a trip to San Francisco for a national victory in the William Randolph Hearst Foundation’s college journalism contest in 1984 boosted his confidence. “I went back to AP and stayed for 34 years,” he said. After stints in Mississippi, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Kissel landed in Little Rock, where his colleagues would include a journalistic murderers’ row in Bill Simmons, Harry King, James Jefferson, Tom Parsons, Mary Freeman (now Mary Hightower of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service), Dennis Byrd and many others.
“In the late ’90s we were the center of the news universe here,” Kissel said. The Westside Middle School shooting in Jonesboro in March 1998 exploded as one of the first major modern school massacres, about a month before Columbine. Kissel resisted pressure from AP leadership in New York to frame the shooting, which killed five and wounded 10, as a story about Southern gun culture. A flood of shootings across the country showed that Kissel was right to doubt the regional angle.
The Whitewater affair and its tentacles stretching from Arkansas to the Clinton White House were big news for years, along with “countless awful tornadoes,” the 1999 crash of American Airlines Flight 1420 in Little Rock, which killed 11, and the sinking a month later of an amphibious boat filled with Hot Springs tourists, which killed 13.
Kissel also covered the 40th, 50th and 60th anniversaries of the Little Rock Central High integration crisis.
And, along the way, Kissel witnessed a dozen men die in the execution chambers of Arkansas and Oklahoma.
It came to bother him that he wasn’t troubled by the spectacle, so he sought out a priest. “I asked if witnessing executions as part of my job was sinful, whether I needed to confess about being a minor part of that process,” Kissel said. “The priest asked how I could be sure that God doesn’t want this. These people have committed this horrible crime of killing somebody. Who’s to say God doesn’t want to use this to work on that guy’s soul? So that’s the reason I don’t have a stand for or against the death penalty, even after seeing it carried out. God’s on a much higher pay grade.”