My first byline appeared in Arkadelphia's Daily Siftings Herald when I was a boy. I wrote accounts of youth baseball games on notebook paper. My mother typed the stories, and I then delivered them to the newspaper's offices in an old building downtown. I was hooked.
Last week, GateHouse Media announced that it will shut down three of Arkansas' oldest newspapers--the Siftings Herald, the Hope Star and the Picayune-Times at Prescott. The closures will occur Friday. GateHouse is a large corporation that has been gutting newspapers across the country. The company is without question one of the worst things ever to happen to community journalism. Just a week earlier, GateHouse had announced that it would close the North Little Rock Times and the Lonoke County Democrat. It already had rolled the newspapers at Maumelle, Sherwood and Jacksonville into the Times. Down in southwest Arkansas, it had combined the Gurdon Times with the Picayune.
The Arkadelphia and Hope newspapers were published Monday through Friday for decades until GateHouse reduced the publication schedule to twice a week in November 2016. The Prescott newspaper began publication in 1878, a year after the county seat moved from Rosston to Prescott. It had long been a weekly. Now three contiguous counties--Clark, Nevada and Hempstead--with a total of almost 54,000 residents will experience a dearth of local news coverage. The watchdogs of school boards, city councils and quorum courts are gone. The chroniclers of high school sports teams are missing. To say that this is a sad thing for these counties is to understate the case. One or more entrepreneurs hopefully will step forward to fill the void.
In the case of the Siftings Herald, it's as if I've lost a member of the family. I've loved newspapers since I learned to read. I ran out to the driveway each morning to fetch the Arkansas Gazette. After getting home from school in the afternoon, I would await the arrival of the Siftings Herald. In high school, I was hired as sports editor of Arkadelphia's weekly newspaper, the Southern Standard, which no longer exists. My mother, father and sister had attended Ouachita Baptist University, and everyone took for granted that I would do the same. I was determined to be different. I applied for a four-year scholarship for aspiring sportswriters to Vanderbilt University, the Grantland Rice Scholarship. I was the first runner-up in the national competition. I was told that was an honor, but it didn't get me any financial assistance. I next set my sights on Ole Miss, where I had fallen hard for the town of Oxford, the beautiful campus and the pretty girls. I was offered an academic scholarship.
Soon after high school graduation, though, I was offered a full-time job as sports editor of the Siftings Herald. I decided to stay home and attend Ouachita, which turned out to be among the best decisions of my life. I worked early in the morning to put the sports pages together, attended class, returned to the newspaper office in the afternoon and covered sports events at night. I've never worked harder, and I've never had more fun.
I used the money I earned as sports editor and as sports director of the local radio stations to attend major sports events. The newspaper wasn't big enough to pay for travel, but I could get credentials through the Siftings Herald for events ranging from Dallas Cowboy home games to the Cotton Bowl, Sugar Bowl, NCAA basketball tournament and more. It was a glorious four years for someone who loved newspapers and sports.
My first job after graduation was as a sportswriter at the Arkansas Democrat. A year later, the offer came to return to the Siftings Herald as editor. I was the youngest daily newspaper editor in the state at age 23 and wrote five columns a week. I got that idea from the colorful Alex Washburn, who served as editor and publisher of the Hope Star for 54 years. Washburn wrote a daily front-page column titled "Our Daily Bread: Sliced Thin by the Editor." We got all of the state's daily newspapers at the Siftings Herald, and I would read Washburn's columns when the Star landed on my desk. When Washburn died in May 1983, the column on the left side of the front page was left blank. An editorial two days later quoted Washburn's philosophy when it came to editorials: "What good is an editorial if it is not controversial. My philosophy is that a bad editorial is better than no editorial at all."
Washburn had obtained a loan from his father in 1929 to purchase the evening Star of Hope and the morning Hope Daily Press. He consolidated them into the Star. In Arkadelphia, the Siftings Herald also resulted from the consolidation of two newspapers. The Siftings began in 1891 under the ownership of brothers Edward and Claude McCorkle. The Signal began in 1881, changed its name to the Clipper in 1882 and became the Herald in 1888. Edward McCorkle died in 1918, and son Philip McCorkle Sr. took over the Siftings. The man known locally as Mr. Phil then bought the Herald and combined the newspapers. When I was sports editor, I sat under a large framed picture of Mr. Phil.
Each afternoon, a prolific writer of letters to the editor named Mr. Lawrence would come into the office to buy a newspaper. He would always say the same thing: "Every night before bed, I drink a glass of warm milk and read the Siftings Herald so I can go to sleep with a full stomach and nothing on my mind." It never ceased to be funny.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 09/12/2018