Eliza Hussman Gaines turned her pale blue eyes toward her father in the Wehco Media boardroom in Little Rock when the question arose: Will she be succeeding him as publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette?
Walter Hussman Jr., chief of the paper since he and Walter Sr. bought it in 1974, is stepping down in the wake of turning 75. He’ll remain as chairman of Wehco, which has 10 dailies in several states.
“There will be an announcement by the end of the year,” Hussman said, but neither he nor his daughter shot down the idea. Gaines, a University of North Carolina graduate like her dad, became the paper’s executive editor this year and was managing editor before that.
It’s a natural Hussman progression for generations to follow their elders in publishing. Gaines’ grandmother Betty Palmer met Walter Hussman Sr. in journalism school at Missouri. Betty’s father was Clyde E. Palmer, who had built up a small chain of south Arkansas newspapers — buying one, the Texarkana Courier, for $900 during a train layover back in 1909.
Gaines sat with her father a few weeks ago for what amounted to his exit interview, a fascinating review of his half-century of newspapering, including the Democrat’s longshot triumph over the venerable Arkansas Gazette in the great newspaper war of the 1970s and ‘80s. But that’s another story, scheduled for the Nov. 28 issue of Arkansas Business.
For Gaines, the paper isn’t her only new baby. She gave birth to Walter Hill Gaines, to be known as Hill, on March 22, making her a mother of four. After a few months of maternity leave, she has helped establish a more nurturing environment at the paper, which maintains a relatively large news staff as Arkansas’ last statewide newspaper.
Walter Hussman said he thought Gaines was doing a terrific job, but conceded, “I’m her dad. You should go ask Nat Lea or Alyson Hoge.”
Managing Editor Hoge called Gaines “positive, kind, supportive,” with a positive vision for the future of the paper and Wehco. “In this era, when the news business is so criticized and its perceived outlook is so gloomy, it’s refreshing to see someone determined to see it thrive.”
Gaines showed her human touch during the pandemic, and the newsroom now celebrates staff birthdays, work anniversaries and new employees, Hoge said.
Lea, a nephew of Gaines’ mother, Ben, is Wehco’s CEO. He praised her news judgment and understanding of “the many ways our readers access our reporting in various forms and is committed to presenting it in the best way for each of those forms.”
That would include the report delivered on company-provided iPads, a circulation tactic that has attracted about 35,000 readers paying $34 a month. The paper is also hiring, featuring want ads for reporters, editors and office positions.
“I’ve learned a lot from my father’s career, and as an English major, I faced the decision of what I wanted to do with my life,” Gaines said.
That, too, followed dad’s footsteps. As a 24-year-old Columbia University MBA graduate writing for Forbes, Walter Hussman Jr. had to weigh returning to Arkansas to join the family business against his bachelor’s life in New York. First he wasn’t tempted, but the option wouldn’t last forever. If he didn’t return, a sale was probable. After choosing Wehco, Hussman found fulfillment and business decision-making and innovation. Creativity, he said, isn’t the sole province of the newsroom.
“I had a similar conflict,” Gaines said. “I worried that if I got into the business side, I wasn’t going to be able to be creative. But he said, ‘You have no idea how creative you’ll have to be in the business world.’ And that was kind of like a switch that flipped on for me.”