The umbrellas and the stars came out on a rainy Nov. 21 at the Statehouse Convention Center as Bill Clinton and a parade of venerable newspaper folks threw a 200th birthday party for a state treasure, the old Arkansas Gazette.
But before the 42nd president defended the crumbling newspaper industry as a bulwark against authoritarianism, Arkansas’ journalism and business elite saluted the paper they read, worked for and, in many cases, competed against.
The president praised Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. for keeping the old paper’s legacy alive, and Arkansas Times contributor Ernest Dumas joined others in praising the last Little Rock daily standing. But the whole evening carried a tension between Gazette veterans, who were rightly proud of the paper as one of the state’s outstanding institutions, and the Arkansas Democrat veterans who worked for its successor after Gannett Co. shut down the “oldest paper west of the Mississippi” 28 years ago and attached its name to the hybrid model.
Dumas, the Gazette’s best political journalist of his age, recognized the last few lions in attendance from the Gazette’s finest moment, 1957-58: octogenarians like Ray Moseley, Gene Foreman and Bill Lewis who reported the truth about integration while Publisher Hugh Patterson and owner and editor J.N. Heiskell ultimately stood for the rule of law.
The law at the time compelled letting black students into Central High School.
The Rev. Dr. Christoph Keller, dean and rector of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, prayed for the future of forceful journalism, naming off publishers, Pulitzer winners and plain old reporters who colored a great Southern paper’s history. Names like Harry Ashmore, Orville Henry, Paul Greenberg, John Brummett.
Clinton, who has his own complicated history with the press, looked out at Hussman, a son and grandson of Arkansas publishers and a wizard at turning hardship into success over 50 years in the newspaper business. Hussman bought the old Gazette’s assets from Gannett in 1991 and started printing its hybrid successor the next day.
Plea for the Future
The former president also pleaded for the paper’s future, asking the crowd to subscribe, and praising Hussman’s business plan to save it. By New Year’s or soon after, the paper will publish a print edition only on Sundays, delivering the news other days via a digital replica edition on iPads supplied by the company to subscribers.
“We don’t know if it will work; you don’t know if it will work,” Clinton said, looking down directly at Hussman’s table. “But it’s better than doing nothing.”
Why? “Because knowing is better than not knowing,” the former president said in a rambling, personal and intimate talk before old friends. He acknowledged the necessarily adversarial relationship reporters must have with political leaders, but said he couldn’t stay mad at columnist Rex Nelson, for example, “because he’s just too funny.”
Clinton ruminated on Arkansas history’s crossroads with the Gazette, the importance of newspapers to an informed electorate and the explosion of misinformation in the internet age. He grew vehement recounting how Russian media operatives planted “outrageous” lies about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, including the preposterous allegation that she ran a child trafficking ring out of a Washington pizza parlor.
“Both technology and the movement toward authoritarianism all over the world today are driving us to the point where ordinary people may find it impossible to tell fact from fiction, or truth from a bald-faced lie. If that happens, then it will be impossible to sustain meaningful democratic governance.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin is “playing the long game,” Clinton said, describing a tactic of sowing a blizzard of conflicting accounts aimed to make news consumers doubt if they can ever really know the truth.
“Their real goal is to break the conviction that we can know, and we can act on what we know, and we can predict the consequences of acting on what we know. In other words, the essence of freedom.”
Dumas described the paper’s demise at the hands of a company that’s back in the news. “If Walter did not prevail in those last five years ... I doubt very much that we would be here celebrating the birthday of the Gazette,” Dumas said, “because I think it would be unlikely that we would have a newspaper many of us would want to celebrate, if, indeed, there would be anything that we could call a metropolitan or state newspaper.”
Gannett and GateHouse
Gannett closed last month on its $1.4 billion merger with the GateHouse chain, creating the nation’s largest newspaper company with 550 publications nationwide.
Gannett, as the new company is called, carries forward a GateHouse legacy of creating “synergies” (read layoffs) that have squeezed acquired properties for profits while depleting staff and resources.
Nine old GateHouse publications remain in Arkansas, led by the Times Record of Fort Smith and the Pine Bluff Commercial. Others include the Paris Express, the Charleston Express, the Booneville Democrat, the Hot Springs Village Voice and the Press Argus-Courier of Van Buren. Other properties have been closed or sold off, and Greenwood Life is now a monthly magazine. The White Hall Journal is now printed within the Pine Bluff Commercial, according to Ashley Wimberley of the Arkansas Press Association.
The old Gannett had only one newspaper in Arkansas, the Baxter Bulletin in Mountain Home, where Editor Sonny Elliott just gave notice that he’s going back to his old employer in town, radio station KTLO. Elliott had been with the Bulletin since March 2016, part of a staff of six: two reporters, a sports reporter and two circulation workers. “The advertising department was sent to a hub system around June of this year,” he told Arkansas Business.
The newspaper business has suffered severe revenue declines for at least a decade, and deep cuts at the new Gannett are expected if the company is to reach a goal of $300 million in annual budget cuts.
If estimated job cuts take place, 3,500 to 4,000 layoffs could amount to a 10% loss of the entire newspaper job force in the United States. Fewer than 40,000 newspaper employees remain on the job these days.
“Thank God you didn’t lose the newspaper war to Gannett,” Clinton told Hussman, suggesting the USA Today publisher would have put movie reviews on the front page.
Not long afterward, his listeners filtered out into the rain carrying commemorative Democrat-Gazette umbrellas.