If Alyson Hoge was biding her time to become managing editor of the only paper she ever worked for, she sure did a lot of biding.
Forty-three years’ worth.
When Hoge started as an obituaries clerk at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1979, Jimmy Carter was president, Iran held 52 American hostages and “Three’s Company” was the top sitcom in the land. In fact, the Little Rock paper wasn’t even the Democrat-Gazette then. It was the Arkansas Democrat, which had to win a long and bitter newspaper war with the Arkansas Gazette to add the second name to its masthead.
Hoge helped bring that about in 1991.
At the end of February, Hoge will officially become managing editor, stepping in for Eliza Hussman Gaines as she exits on maternity leave. Gaines, a daughter of Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman Jr., will return in September as executive editor. The only staffer on the paper with more seniority than Hoge is the critic Eric Harrison, who is pushing 45 years of service.
“The top priority is that I want us to be the No. 1 source of news for the people of Arkansas,” said Hoge, 63. “It’s vital for us. I want Arkansans to wonder what the Democrat-Gazette has today. What will it tell me that I didn’t know before?”
Over the decades, Hoge has been a reporter, Capitol correspondent, city editor, state editor and deputy managing editor. In two different eras, she led the copy and design desks, where her son, Michael Hoge, now works. Lately she has overseen the paper’s political report and its extensive coverage of COVID-19.
In a conversation last week, Hoge talked with an old colleague about how competition forged her career, what she sees as the journalistic mission now, and what’s ahead for newsroom staffers as they — fingers crossed — start returning to Capitol Avenue and Scott Street after a couple of years working from home. She also touched on the digital revolution in the news industry and the Democrat-Gazette’s bold shift from home delivery to publishing a digital replica of the printed paper for subscribers who get free use of a Democrat-Gazette-owned iPad.
Strange as it seems, offering the loan of an iPad rather than a weekday paper on the doorstep has succeeded enough for the paper’s parent company, Wehco Media of Little Rock, to roll out the program at its other Arkansas papers and in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where it owns the Times Free Press. The commitment in Chattanooga alone involved investing more than $4 million for the iPads and $1.7 million for the kind of one-on-one tutoring on the devices that helped sell the program in Arkansas.
(Reading the paper on the iPad, I’ve found since trying a subscription, is far more intuitive than you might think, and extra photos and pages that come with the limitless digital space buttress a still-enviable local news, sports and business report.)
“I hear frequently from readers, especially those that have been readers of other papers in other locations, that they like our product — particularly on the iPad,” Hoge said.
Whatever the platform, she wants an aggressive report. Her early mentor was the prolific and bombastic editor John Robert Starr, whose ego was matched only by his competitive zeal. Starr, who wrote a column 365 days a year, retired in 1992, the year after the Democrat subsumed the Gazette.
“My formative years at the newspaper were constant competition,” Hoge said. “I started in ’79, and the newspaper war ended in ’91, so for the first 12 years it was always a case of what did they have opposed to what we had? How did we get beaten on that story? And so on. We had to have more stories than they did, and more pages than they did. And that competitive drive to be the first to tell the story is still there.”
Another top mission for Hoge is to continue following the money, particularly when it comes from taxpayers. “That was ingrained in me too from my early days, that there are billions of dollars in public funds spent, and to the best of our ability we need to tell the people how it’s being spent. They are stewards of the people’s money, and it’s crucial to hold public officials accountable.”