Three years ago this month GateHouse Media shut down three of Arkansas’ oldest newspapers, the Daily Siftings Herald of Arkadelphia, the Hope Star and the Picayune-Times of Prescott.
It was like a dagger to the journalist’s heart of Rex Nelson, the columnist and political author who got his first bylines in the Siftings Herald as a lad in the 1970s with sports stories typed by his mom and hand-delivered to the hometown paper.
“I was hooked,” Nelson wrote in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, calling GateHouse, the national news chain now called Gannett, “one of the worst things ever to happen to community journalism.” He described a business model of acquiring and milking dry small newspapers across the U.S. at the expense of community knowledge and spirit.
By September 2018, GateHouse had already closed the North Little Rock Times and the Lonoke County Democrat, in addition to papers in Maumelle, Sherwood and Jacksonville. The Gurdon Times had been folded into the Prescott Picayune, a paper dating back to 1878. One of the broadsheets that eventually became the Siftings Herald was founded in 1880.
The GateHouse housecleaning is now nearly complete. Of the more than two dozen Arkansas newspapers once owned by GateHouse/Gannett, only the Southwest Times Record of Fort Smith and a handful of diminished weeklies remain. Gannett sold the Baxter Bulletin in Mountain Home just last month to Phillips Media Group of Harrison.
The 2018 casualties left Clark, Nevada and Hempstead counties with little organized coverage, an area of 54,000 people. “The watchdogs of school boards, city councils and quorum courts are gone,” Nelson vividly wrote. “The chroniclers of high school sports teams are missing. One or more entrepreneurs hopefully will step forward to fill the void.”
Three months ago, Siftings Herald and GateHouse veteran Joel Phelps stepped up with Arkadelphian.com. He’s promoting it as a professionally edited 24/7 community news source, and he hopes to make it profitable. His wife, Natalie Scrimshire, is an associate librarian at Henderson State University, Phelps’ alma mater, which along with Ouachita Baptist University make Arkadelphia a perpetually youthful town of about 11,500.
Avoiding the heavy focus some web oulets put on police news, Phelps modeled his site on Mike McNeill’s successful MagnoliaReporter.com, 75 miles south. “We cover the police, but Arkadelphia is not a hotbed of criminal activity,” said Phelps, 35. “MagnoliaReporter.com has more of a balanced approach to news for the community.”
Phelps, a Sparkman High School graduate who studied print journalism at Henderson, got his first job at the Gurdon Times, then spent a decade at the Siftings Herald, mostly as a reporter. After three years at a GateHouse hub that designed pages for several papers in Arkansas and Louisiana, Phelps found a different way to make a living out of dead trees.
“I took vocation at a lumber mill, where I was supervisor,” he said. From that vantage, he saw new buildings going up in Arkadelphia and sensed a change. The town was ripe for a news site.
“So I left the lumber industry and decided why not do this?” Phelps said. “There’s so much going on, and the local people need to be informed. It’s a media desert, so to speak.”
McNeill, whose site in Magnolia celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, became an email mentor, offering advice “every step of the way.” Phelps also tossed kudos to the Southern Standard, a weekly in Amity, about 30 miles west of Arkadelphia, and the Henderson Oracle’s community edition for offering weekly news coverage in the region.
“Arkadelphian.com can get the news out immediately, so people do not have to wait. There’s a great need for community news.” Phelps hopes to meet that need by reporting on government bodies, the colleges, police and courts, and of course local sports.
Eventually, Arkadelphian.com will require advertising support from local businesses, Phelps said, but he believes it’s his job to prove his readership’s value.
“I’ve partnered with both Ouachita and Henderson student news organizations, and it’s a great arrangement where they have permission to use my content in their print newspaper, and the Oracle gets a tab on my website. I will push that student journalism to my readership,” he said.
“Chris Babb at OBU and Steve Listopad at Henderson are teaching community journalism, and Babb has an up-and-coming sportswriter, Chase Hartsell, who is covering Arkadelphia High School Badger football for me. He’s just a sophomore but has a bright future.”
Sort of sounds like an OBU grad called Rex Nelson.