Icon (Close Menu)


Arkansas Democrat’s ‘Improbable Life’ Subject of New Book

3 min read

Veterans of the Great Arkansas Newspaper War of 1979-1991 — those still living — will be particularly interested in the following item: “The Improbable Life of the Arkansas Democrat: An Oral History” is now available to order.

The University of Arkansas Press is publishing the book, by retired journalist Jerry McConnell. The UA Press website has a publication date of Jan. 5, though Amazon states that the book hasn’t been released. The book, $34.95, is available in hardcover from the UA press, according to its website, and from Amazon for preorder.

“Improbable Life” is something of a bookend to Roy Reed’s “Looking Back at the Arkansas Gazette: An Oral History,” published in 2009.

McConnell, speaking from his Greenwood home, said that UA’s Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral & Visual History decided to move first on the project on the Gazette, which closed in 1991, while those who worked there were still around, meaning either still alive or still in the vicinity.

“They thought they should go ahead and get that done while there were still a lot of them around and able to be interviewed, so that was the first project that they did,” McConnell said. “After they got well into that project, they decided that they should do one on the Democrat too.”

Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the newspaper that emerged after the Gazette closed and he bought its assets, funded much of the Arkansas Democrat oral history project and suggested McConnell to head it. The Arkansas Democrat gave McConnell his first newspaper job in 1951. He moved to the Gazette in 1955 but returned to the Democrat in 1971 as managing editor. In 1978, he moved to Oklahoma and worked for the Oklahoman and the Oklahoma City Times. He retired in 1991 at 64.

Segregated Newsroom

The book describes the heroics of the staff of the old Arkansas Democrat, before the Hussman family’s purchase of it in 1974, who labored under difficult conditions (no air conditioning for many, many years) and for notoriously low pay and few benefits (no health insurance, no sick leave, no retirement plan).

Ozell Sutton, who became the first black reporter to work for a white-owned newspaper in Arkansas when the Democrat hired him in 1950, described being segregated at first behind a line of desks in the newsroom.

Sutton, a Gould native who went on to become a civil rights activist and march with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, credited the isolation for his development as a journalist. “I was unhampered and unbothered by anybody — because nobody spoke to me at that time.”

There was one exception: journalist Bob McCord, who died in 2013.

Sutton, who died in December, scored a big victory at the Democrat when, through his stubbornness as much as anything else, he persuaded the newspaper to use courtesy titles (Mrs., Miss) for black women just as it did for white women.

But wait!

There’s more!

• Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sports Editor Wally Hall is candid about his sometimes poisonous relationship with his boss, the late editor and columnist John Robert Starr;

• Walter Hussman details the strategy that left him, the decided underdog, the victor of the newspaper war; and

• Charles Allbright, who died in October, describes the heavy drinking of the Democrat’s staff, noting, in discreet and understated fashion, that the drinkers served in “key spots.”

“Improbable Life,” based on our reading of the excerpts available on Google books, looks like a great read for anyone interested in journalism, Arkansas history and the glorious, inevitable intersection of the two.

Send this to a friend