Stephen Steed, a longtime Arkansas news reporter who built a reputation for skillful writing, fairness and empathetic interviewing over decades of work at the Arkansas Gazette, Donrey and Stephens Media and finally the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, died Sunday or early Monday at his home.
He was 62 and lived in Little Rock. For the past few weeks he had been working as the wire service editor for the Democrat-Gazette’s business section. He had been working from home amid long-term health problems and told several colleagues that complications from a leg amputation had hurt his ability to report in the field. The desk job was better suited to his condition, he said. At the time of his death, Steed was also being treated for cancer.
"He was probably one of the best writers I've ever known, a great storyteller," said Rachel O’Neal, who noticed Steed’s failure to clock in from home on Monday and discovered the body after driving to his apartment to check on him. "I’m still in shock," she said. "I have a brother, but Stephen was like another brother to me."
A business and farm reporter since joining the Democrat-Gazette in 2016, Steed was a proud native of Leachville in extreme northeast Arkansas, and was a childhood subject in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. He and both his brothers were all born on the same date in separate years.
"He loved that little factoid," said O’Neal, the former Democrat-Gazette business editor and now editor of the paper’s High Profile section.
She and every other colleague who spoke about Steed mentioned his legendary parties for reporters, editors, photographers and various amiable oddballs.
Steed studied journalism at the University of Arkansas and immediately impressed editors of the old Arkansas Gazette as a raw intern. As his old colleague Max Brantley wrote in breaking the news of Steed’s death for the Arkansas Times, "he was hired directly to a staff position about 40 years ago."
After the Gazette closed in 1991, subsumed by the Democrat-Gazette, Steed reported for Donrey Media and Stephens Media, which bought Donrey, before heading communications for the Arkansas House of Representatives, his last job before the Democrat-Gazette.
"He loved newspapers. He loved working for newspapers. And people loved him," Brantley told Arkansas Business in an email.
Brantley was a longtime editor and columnist for the Gazette.
"I really thought farm coverage turned out to be a great fit for him, no doubt owing in part to his Leachville upbringing." Leachville, in Mississippi County, is part of the Arkansas Delta, where soybean, cotton and rice fields stretch across the horizon.
In a note for the Arkansas Gazette alumni Facebook page, Brantley wrote "Muffle the drums and hang the crepe at Midtown Billiards," Steed’s old haunt on Main Street in Little Rock.
"He had an unbelievably eclectic collection of what I would call crap," O’Neal said. "He called them treasures, everything from a life-size head of Elvis to … what else, he loved Mr. Peanut. Johnny Cash and Levon Helm [both Arkansas natives] were his favorites. He was a pack rat in the very best way."
Brantley said he still treasures a paperboy’s bag that Steed gave him, one of his many finds.
Another former colleague, Arkansas Business Managing Editor Jan Cottingham, called Steed "the rarest of journalists," someone both loved and respected.
"Stephen loved Arkansas and could get anyone to talk to him," Cottingham said. "He was a fine writer and an accurate and fair reporter."
Cottingham recalled the newspaper parties as legendary. "I mean legendary," she emphasized. "Stephen was almost always in a good humor and encouraging despite his own personal, particularly health, problems. You always felt better after talking to him."
Brantley and Scott Morris, a former reporter who now is senior adviser on corporate affairs for Windstream, both agreed.
Morris, a UA journalism graduate a couple of years behind Steed, met him when Morris began his own Gazette summer internship in 1986."Stephen was one of the veterans who welcomed me with open arms," Morris said. "I really, really appreciated that, and I looked up to him and admired his work ethic. He had this incredibly open personality that helped him as a journalist. He could get anybody to talk about anything."
Steed always asked smart questions and had a "nice, easy writing style, very easy to read," Morris said. "The other thing was that he had a phenomenal memory. He could remember details from years and years ago."
Morris recalled that when he got his first front-page byline, "Stephen was one of the first people to congratulate me, and I remember to this day what he said: ‘It’s a kick in the head,’ he said. "And it always was."
Steed is survived by a sister and a brother, O’Neal said; funeral arrangements had not been finalized as of Tuesday morning.
Morris and Steed spent Saturday night at Steed’s apartment watching the Razorbacks’ victory over New Mexico State in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Both men suffered through much of the game with the Razorbacks shooting badly and struggling against the underdog Aggies.
"But by the end, of course, we were both celebrating, both very, very happy," Morris said. "I’m glad that’s my last memory. He was glad. You know, if he had to go, I’m glad he was so happy and pleased."