200 years — from frontier days to present day
200 years — from frontier days to present day
The Arkansas Gazette, born in a log cabin near Arkansas Post, endures two centuries of news, duels, revolving owners and name changes.
There was a shootout in the streets of downtown Little Rock.
J.N. Smithee, the owner of the Arkansas Democrat, was hit but not seriously injured.
Arkansas Gazette owner John D. Adams was unscathed. But his hat didn’t fare so well. A pistol ball had blown a hole through the brim.
The shooting on May 5, 1878, was the last duel in Arkansas history.
But it was a harbinger of another battle that would begin 100 years later.
The Arkansas Gazette was born in 1819, a few months after the Arkansas Territory was established and 17 years before Arkansas became a state.
It was Arkansas’ first newspaper and long known as the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi River.
William E. Woodruff founded the Gazette in a malarial swampland less than a decade after the New Madrid earthquakes heaved the Mississippi River into reverse, scattering settlers to more placid ground in other parts of what would become the states of Arkansas and Missouri.
Woodruff was venturing into the wilderness, across the great river that divided the New World.
He was born on Dec. 24, 1795, 1,000 miles away on a small farm on Long Island, N.Y. After serving as a printer’s apprentice in Brooklyn, Woodruff made his way to Nashville, Tenn., where he worked as a printer for The Clarion and Tennessee State Gazette.
When Congress created the Arkansas Territory in March of 1819, Woodruff knew that the new state would need a newspaper and printing business.
Woodruff left Nashville in September of 1819 on what would be a six-week river trip to Arkansas via keelboat and pirogue. With him, Woodruff hauled a wooden press and other printing supplies.
There were about 30 houses at Arkansas Post and the towns of Arkansas and Rome, which were laid out in 1818 just north of the original post village.
In the town of Arkansas, Woodruff rented a two-room log cabin, which served as home and office. He decided to name his newspaper the Gazette, a popular newspaper name at the time.
The first issue of the Arkansas Gazette was printed on Nov. 20, 1819. It contained two poems and several articles that had been published in other newspapers between July 3 and Sept. 3.
In 1821, the territorial capital moved to Little Rock, and Woodruff moved the Gazette with it.
Pioneer publishing had its perils.
In 1828, a gunfight erupted in the Gazette office.
Deputy Sheriff John T. Garrett stormed into the office and fired both barrels of his pistol at lawyer Chester Ashley.
But he missed.
Woodruff had grabbed Garrett’s cloak collar, skewing his aim.
The lawyer fired back, hitting Woodruff.
“The bullet passed through the fleshy part of Woodruff’s upper right arm and lodged in the south wall under a map,” wrote Margaret Ross in Arkansas Gazette: The Early Years, 1819-1866.
Somehow, Garrett was shot in the stomach. He staggered across the street to a saloon and died.
A coroner’s jury couldn’t determine who fired the shot that killed Garrett, but it appeared that a gun underneath Garrett’s cloak had accidentally discharged. Two witnesses said Garrett’s clothes were on fire when he left the Gazette office.
Arkansas became a state in 1836. That same year, Woodruff sold the Gazette, only to reacquire it two years later. The pattern repeated itself a few years later. In 1853, Woodruff sold the Gazette for the last time to Christopher Columbus Danley.
Various men, including Woodruff’s son, owned the Gazette during the last half of the 19th century.
Other newspapers came and went in Arkansas. The weekly Gazette ceased publication from September 1863 to April 1865 because of the Civil War. It resumed publication after the war as a daily newspaper, except on Mondays. The Gazette began printing a Monday paper in 1879.
The roots of the modern Arkansas Democrat date back to the 1870s.
In 1878, James Newton Smithee bought the printing presses of the defunct Evening Star newspaper and published the first issue of his Arkansas Democrat on April 11, 1878, although there had been another newspaper in Arkansas by that name, according to the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
The Gazette was critical of its new rival, saying the Democrat was publishing lies and that Smithee wouldn’t be able to compete with the older, established paper.
Less than a month after publishing his first issue, Smithee and Adams fought a duel near Main and Marham streets in Little Rock.
A week after the gunfight, Adams and his business partner sold the Gazette. Smithee bought it in 1882.
In 1902, a controlling interest in the Gazette was purchased by Fred W. Allsopp and Judge Carrick W. Heiskell of Memphis, a former Confederate colonel, and his sons John Netherland (also known as J.N.) and Fred.
J.N. Heiskell became editor, Fred Heiskell managing editor and Allsopp business manager. The Heiskells later bought Allsopp’s interest in the paper, making the Heiskell family the sole owners.
J.N. Heiskell receives a Columbia Journalism Award.
In 1926, former business manager K. August Engel became principal owner, president and general manager of the Arkansas Democrat. He continued in that capacity until he died in 1968.
In 1930, Engel bought a former YMCA building at Capitol and Scott streets to serve as the Democrat’s newsroom and printing plant. (That same building houses the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s newsroom and offices today.)
In 1950, Ozell Sutton was hired by the Democrat. He was the first black person hired as a reporter at a major newspaper in Arkansas and the first or second in the South, wrote Jerry McConnell in The Improbable Life of the Arkansas Democrat.
For decades, the Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Gazette had a friendly competition, wrote McConnell.
The Gazette was Little Rock’s morning paper, and the Democrat was delivered in the afternoon. For a couple of years in the early 20th century, the two papers had some of the same owners, including J.N. Heiskell.
In 1958, the Gazette won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis the previous year.
The Gazette demonstrated “the highest qualities of civic leadership, journalistic responsibility and moral courage in the face of great public tension during the school integration crisis of 1957,” according to the Pulitzer Prize Board. “The newspaper’s fearless and completely objective news coverage, plus its reasoned and moderate policy, did much to restore calmness and order to an overwrought community, reflecting great credit on its editors and its management.”
The Gazette’s executive editor, Harry Ashmore, also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1958 for editorial writing — “for the forcefulness, dispassionate analysis and clarity of his editorials on the school integration conflict in Little Rock,” according to the Pulitzer board.
While the Gazette’s stance against segregation garnered national journalism accolades, it cost the paper subscribers in Arkansas, resulting in the Democrat taking the Sunday circulation lead from 1958-61, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.
In 1974, WEHCO Media Inc., headed by Walter E. Hussman Sr., bought the Arkansas Democrat for $3.7 million. His son, 27-year-old Walter E. Hussman Jr., became the newspaper’s publisher.
“Look, this is a long shot,” the elder Hussman told his son. “The Gazette puts out a really good newspaper, so that’s a problem. You’re going up against a really good newspaper.”
The younger Hussman had moved back to Arkansas after working at Forbes magazine in New York City, where he was earning $9,000 a year in 1970 (the equivalent of about $61,000 today). He planned to continue working as a journalist, but his father asked him to come back to Arkansas and work in the family business. Soon, he was running the company’s newspaper in Camden.
Hussman learned that he enjoyed working on the business side. In 1973, his father put him in charge of the company’s other papers in El Dorado, Hot Springs, Magnolia and Texarkana.
Then the Arkansas Democrat came up for sale. The paper was struggling, like most afternoon papers in the country.
WEHCO bought the Democrat in March 1974.
Hussman said the Democrat had lost money for the four or five years before WEHCO bought it.
“But it wasn’t losing a whole lot of money,” he said. “It looked like it could be turned around.”
That appealed to Hussman, who’d earned a master’s degree in business administration from Columbia University in New York City.
The Hussmans decided to give it three years to make the Democrat profitable. Advertising and circulation quickly improved, but by 1977 the newspaper still wasn’t making money.
Hussman approached Gazette Publisher Hugh Patterson about a joint operating agreement under federal law designed to preserve failing newspapers, but Patterson rejected the offer on three separate occasions.
Hussman said he and his father considered closing the Arkansas Democrat, but they decided instead to make one last-gasp effort to save the newspaper.
“Basically, we figured we can’t be a complement to the Gazette anymore,” Hussman said. “We’ve got to be a substitute.”
They visited several other newspapers that had turn-around success and borrowed ideas from some of them. Then they implemented their own plan at the Democrat in December 1978, starting with free classified advertising.
Hussman began circulating a morning edition of the paper outside Little Rock and increased the size of the news hole by 60% the first year. By October 1979, he had shifted the Democrat to morning circulation in Little Rock, too.
Hussman doubled the size of the newsroom from about 50 to 100 employees and hired John Robert Starr to be managing editor. Starr was a former Associated Press bureau chief in Arkansas who was living in Tennessee.
“Bob Starr was an extremely competitive guy,” Hussman said. “He did not like to get beat on a story.”
The Democrat began selling display advertising for $1 an inch, compared with about $8 an inch at the Gazette.
Hussman said he wanted the Democrat to have more pages than the Gazette every day, so he figured it was better to have large display ads from department stores like Dillard’s, J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward than to run more copy from wire services like The Associated Press.
“Our newsprint ink was about 72 cents an inch,” Hussman said.
Free want ads drove readers — and paying advertisers — to the Democrat’s classified section, which became a major marketplace for car buyers and sellers, in particular. Circulation increased as a result.
DEMOCRAT TURNS CORNER
By April 1984, the Democrat was making a profit. In December of that year, the Gazette sued WEHCO Media, saying the company was trying to drive it out of business with predatory pricing.
The case went to trial in 1986, and WEHCO won.
“The jury verdict was that, no, we had not violated any antitrust laws, and we won resoundingly,” Hussman said. “To be engaged in predatory pricing, it’s generally a bigger competitor that does it to a smaller competitor. This was the case where the smaller competitor was supposedly using predatory pricing against the bigger competitor.”
Hussman said the Gazette’s attorneys tried to portray WEHCO as a larger company because of its cable television businesses, but he didn’t have access to any of those funds under WEHCO Video’s loan agreement.
“We had borrowed millions of dollars to build out cable franchises in towns like Hot Springs; Longview, Texas; Vicksburg, Miss.; and others in our cable companies, and the bank restricted any transfer of funds to our newspapers,” Hussman said.
He said the year the newspaper war started, in 1978, WEHCO’s newspaper businesses had $16.6 million in revenue, compared with $22.5 million for the Gazette. By 1983, the year before the Gazette filed suit, WEHCO’s newspaper businesses had passed the Gazette in revenue, $32.8 million to $28.5 million.
Hussman said the Gazette was increasing its revenue every year. In 1984, the Gazette still had 64% of the market and was making more than $1 million in annual profits.
In 1986, the Gazette was sold to Virginia-based Gannett Co., the nation’s largest newspaper chain, for about $60 million.
Gannett started a circulation war in an attempt to drive the Democrat out of business, Hussman said. Gannett also changed the look of the gray Gazette — adding color photographs and a focus on feature stories.
Hussman said the first big shock came when Gannett ran a photo on Page 1 of the mayor of Eureka Springs in a bubble bath.
As the Gazette went soft, the Democrat went for harder news.
The Democrat passed the Gazette in Sunday circulation early in 1990, and about a year later, Gannett began calling Hussman to talk about the possibility of a sale.
They struck a deal in July 1991. On Oct. 18, 1991, after Gannett was unable to find a buyer, Gannett closed the Gazette and Little Rock Newspapers Inc. bought its assets and name.
Hussman bought the Gazette’s assets, name and subscription list for $68 million and published the first issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Oct. 19, 1991. Hussman said he hired more than 100 Gazette employees. Gannett laid off most of its Gazette employees as a result of the sale, although some of them got jobs at other Gannett papers.
“I had grown up admiring the Arkansas Gazette,” Hussman said. “I thought it had been a great newspaper, and I wanted to perpetuate their name. And that’s why we changed the name of the newspaper to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.”
Hussman said Gannett lost about $110 million on the Gazette during the five years it owned the paper, and the losses were increasing each year, from $10.3 million in 1987 to $29.9 million in 1990, the last full year of Gannett ownership.
“The fact that the losses were increasing every year, and they were losing market share every year, is why I think they decided to call it quits,” Hussman said.
Ernie Dumas — who worked at the Gazette for 32 years as a reporter, editor and columnist — said Patterson probably regretted his decision not to enter a joint operating agreement with the Democrat.
“For those who say it must have been avarice on Patterson’s part, I have to remember that it was Hugh Patterson, accompanied by Harry Ashmore, who told his father-in-law, Ned Heiskell, in 1957 that he should risk his newspaper’s well being by taking a highly resented moral stand to obey the law and end segregated public education in Little Rock,” Dumas said. “That stand cost the paper millions and gave new life to the floundering Democrat. In more ways than one, it was THE critical event in the paper’s long history.”
John Brummett, a former political columnist for the Arkansas Gazette and now a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said the Gazette took a noble stand by supporting desegregation in 1957.
“The important thing is not how you’ve been raised or what your natural cultural influences are, but whether when history meets you, do you know and do you do the right thing?” Brummett said. “And bless their hearts, they did. They earned the feeling of superiority to the other newspaper.”
But by the 1980s, the Gazette’s air of superiority had turned into something more like arrogance, Brummett said. And the competition was intensifying.
“As much as I loved the Gazette and am proud that I worked there, and I do believe that it was a far superior product, it got bitten by its own arrogance,” Brummett said. “It simply did. If you get elitist or start feeling superior or comfortable and contemptuous of things you think are less than you, you’re often going to meet a bad fate.”
Hussman said many people tell him that the Democrat-Gazette is one of the best newspapers in America.
“In terms of the size of our news staff, with over 100 people in Little Rock, and the number of pages of news we publish each week, there are few newspapers in markets our size, or even in larger markets, that even come close,” he said.
Hussman said Arkansas would have a very different state newspaper if Gannett had come out on top.
“I have had people say if Gannett had won the newspaper war, Little Rock would probably have the same type of newspaper Gannett publishes today in towns like Shreveport, Jackson and Memphis, with smaller news staffs, less local news and USA Today pages,” Hussman said.
“Financially, we might have been better off if we had never bought the Democrat,” he said. “But I think we made a real difference in Arkansas, in keeping a good newspaper here.”
Hussman said some people have asked whether the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette should be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Arkansas Gazette.
“There are so many newspapers in America with a hyphenated name,” he said. “So are those newspapers legitimate successors to the previous papers? I think so. That’s why we thought we ought to celebrate the 200th anniversary. The Gazette won those Pulitzer Prizes, had all those great moments in history. I think it’s worth celebrating.”
Historical information for this article came from the archives of the two Little Rock newspapers and from two books: Arkansas Gazette: The Early Years, 1819-1866 by Margaret Ross and History of the Arkansas Press for a Hundred Years and More by Fred W. Allsopp.