When Walter Hussman Jr. and Eliza Hussman Gaines sat down for an interview in late October, neither father nor daughter resisted suggestions that Gaines would succeed her father as publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Hussman had announced his retirement plans, saying that he’d end his 48-year run as the newspaper’s publisher by the end of the year, and Eliza is year into her tenure as executive editor.
As anticipated, Hussman announced Tuesday to the newspaper staff that Gaines would be stepping into his shoes; he’ll remain as chairman of Wehco Media, the chain based in Little Rock that owns the Democrat-Gazette and about a dozen other newspapers, as well as cable television franchises in several states.
The succession keeps the publisher’s post in family hands. Hussman has been publisher since he and his father bought the afternoon Arkansas Democrat in 1974, starting a reign that would see him challenge the dominant Arkansas Gazette as the state’s top newspaper, and eventually prevail in a long news and advertising war when the Gannett Co. shut down the Gazette and sold its assets to Wehco in 1991. The first edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was published the next day. (Disclosure: This reporter was one of the editors who put that edition out.)
Walter Hussman Sr. had inherited a chain of south Arkansas papers from his father-in-law, Clyde Palmer, and Gaines’ succession puts a fourth generation of the family in charge as the paper expands on a new publication system that prints a paper basically one day a week, on Sundays, and delivers the news to some 35,000 subscribers daily in the form of a digital replica read on devices or on iPads that the company supplies as long as people keep up their $34-a-month subscriptions.
Gaines will take over on Jan. 1. In the Democrat-Gazette’s coverage of its own story Wednesday morning, Hussman said he hoped the paper’s legacy as part of a family business will “continue for many years after I’m gone.” Hussman is 75; his daughter 35.
The first woman to lead the newsroom, Gaines will now be the first to oversee daily operations. She told employees the paper’s readers will remain her focus.
“We’re a subscription-driven business and our future depends on our readers,” she said, declaring that now “is the time to take bold action, to try new things and to learn more about our readers so we can match their wants and needs.”
Keeping the paper robust is crucial at a time when the United States is rapidly losing unique news sources, Gaines said. “We know that cities without a newspaper have more crime, higher taxes and less government transparency. I don’t want that for our communities. Our industry faces challenges, but I’m confident in our future.”
As a family-owned newspaper, the Democrat-Gazette is something of a relic, Hussman conceded. In fact, the decline of family ownership is an established trend among all U.S. businesses, he said, citing Cornell University data showing that the 40% of entities that remain family-owned after one generational transition fall to 13% after two transitions and to a mere 3% after three changeovers.
A former editor of the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record and a journalism graduate and master’s holder from the University of North Carolina, her father’s alma mater, Gaines has a background in audience development with a reverence for her father’s contributions to publishing.
“I’ve learned a lot, starting from hearing about the very beginning of his career and the decisions he made,” Gaines said in the October interview. She said when she reached a career crossroads after college, she turned to her father with questions about what would become of her creative drive if she turned from writing and editing to the business side of journalism.
“There was… a kind of flip of the switch for me” when Hussman told her she had no idea how much creativity is required to thrive in the business world. “I do have that passion for journalism, and my passion for business has grown,” Gaines said.
“I’m inspired but the same things he has cultivated, like being truthful and fair and accurate in providing local news to our readers.”
She said that the future will certainly require yet more innovations like the ones her father employed to keep the Democrat afloat in the 1970s and 80s.
“Looking forward, we might not have a newspaper in printed form forever,” Gaines told Arkansas Business. “I think we’ll just have to see how people are consuming the news. But the thing that will always stay the same whether we’re on an iPad, a website or in print, is the content. That’s what matters most.”
She doesn’t expect her father to micromanage from his perch as company chair, Gaines said. “Not at all. I will say he’s a really good mentor because he doesn’t micromanage; he suggests occasionally and just gives me his thoughts. But he never says you have to do this, you have to do that. He leaves the decision up to me.”
One immediate change came in the form of a note to the newspaper staff after the succession announcement. It outlined better employee benefits, including more paid vacation days based on seniority, a paid parental leave policy and a new paid personal day per year, as well as an employee assistance program.
“The three men who came before me — my great-grandfather, my grandfather and dad — have operated their newspapers using one principle, to put readers first,” she said, the Democrat-Gazette said in reporting her remarks. “I promise to do the same as your publisher.”