A few weeks ago at the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, Max Brantley snapped a picture of the racks that once held newspapers for diners in the breakfast room. Envision Agatha Christie, just off the Orient Express, poring over The Times of London. But in Brantley’s shot, the four spindles stand bare.
The written news, like the old soldiers of MacArthur’s barracks ballad, seems to have just faded away.
“Sign of my times,” the senior editor of Arkansas Times wrote on Facebook. “And, despite having worked for newspapers for at least a limited degree since 1966 and years of avidly seeking them out wherever I might land, I no longer look for them. Habit broken. Generations have never formed the habit. Sad.”
Arkansans who still follow local news will be forced to break a half-century habit soon, perhaps in January, as the Brantley era of Arkansas journalism draws to a close.
The graveyards are full of indispensable folks, it’s true, but the former Arkansas Gazette reporter, columnist and editor — not to mention the first editor of Arkansas Times when it became a weekly newspaper in 1991 — has been crucial to local news with his Arkansas Blog, an unflinching and news-breaking report in a format it turns out the old newspaperman was born for.
“I’m nearing the end of my string I think,” Brantley told Arkansas Business this week. “In January I will have been working here [in Little Rock] for 50 years and that seems a good stopping point, though I likely will contribute in some fashion when I’m not traveling, as I hope to do.”
Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, precisely at mid-century, 1950, Brantley chose his vocation as a boy, pursued journalism in esteemed programs at Washington & Lee University and Stanford and battled through a terrific career in Little Rock.
The son of a stockbroker and dietician, Brantley loved newspapers even as a lad and admired the Arkansas Gazette on summer visits to an aunt in Huttig (Union County). She subscribed to the paper, which was based in Little Rock but had a statewide edition with sturdy readership.
Hired on a strong recommendation from Stanford’s Bill Rivers, Brantley went to work in January 1973 for legendary Gazette City Editor Bill Shelton. Brantley wrote, edited and persisted as the Patterson family played defense in fierce competition with Walter Hussman Jr.’s Arkansas Democrat, then sold the morning paper to the Gannett chain in a $60 million deal in 1986. Brantley stayed on and wrote columns, often "liberal" in viewpoint, as Gannett poured millions into the Gazette but somehow missed its crucial news essence. The paper lost readers until Gannett sold its assets to Hussman in 1991.
The Gazette’s name lives on in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and Brantley, still gruff but maybe mellowing in his 70s, toils on for Arkansas Times. And while the Times still has him, it’s marketing him.
Brantley’s blog is a major driver of digital subscriptions for the Times. Roughly 3,000 have signed up at $110 a year, and some subscribers give more in the form of donations, happy to pay a little extra for local reporting.
Hale-Shelton Joins Staff
A recent letter to readers featured Brantley and a couple of new hires, veteran reporter Debra Hale-Shelton and master’s graduate Mary Hennigan from the University of Arkansas. Times Founder and Publisher Alan Leveritt reminded reader of Hale-Shelton’s scoops at the Democrat-Gazette before that job ended, including reports on misused funds at the University of Central Arkansas and the bribery scandal that entangled former state Senator Gilbert Baker and Circuit Judge Mike Maggio, who went to prison.
“While newspapers are shrinking and laying off reporters throughout Arkansas, we are adding writers like these, thanks to our paid subscribers,” Leveritt wrote. Both will be covering politics and the upcoming elections, he said, and subscribers will get “get full access to Arktimes.com along with Max Brantley’s Arkansas Blog, absolutely the best breaking news and commentary site in the state.”
Brantley said paid subscriptions have helped the Times survive, and that the goal now is to "draw on that for more reporting resources."
“We have a pretty good reach digitally already. The more the better,” he continued by email. “But the big thing is continuing local journalism. It has shrunken in Arkansas considerably, along with readership. The old days aren’t coming back. What do the new days hold? Good question. As I often say, I’m glad to be going out rather than coming in.”