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For those of us who competed on either side of the Great Little Rock Newspaper War, it was a momentous moment on a recent Thursday night at the Statehouse Convention Center.

Former President Bill Clinton stood at the podium of the Wally Allen Ballroom as a crowd of more than 900 people looked on. He glanced down at Walter E. Hussman Jr., the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and said: "Thank God you didn't lose the newspaper war to Gannett."

Thank you, Mr. President.

I had a lot of friends lose jobs on that day in October 1991 when Gannett closed the Arkansas Gazette. Though I had earlier worked at the Arkansas Democrat as a sportswriter, assistant sports editor and then as the Washington correspondent for four years, I was the editor of Arkansas Business when the newspaper war ended. We were determined to cover both sides of this story. Many of my Gazette friends lashed out at Hussman and his Democrat rather than directing their anger toward Gannett.

I grew up reading the Gazette. I knew by 1991 that there was no way Arkansas could support two statewide newspapers. I also knew that the state would be better served with a newspaper owned by someone who lived in Little Rock rather than one owned by a giant public company that had to answer to shareholders around the world.

I always felt that the Gazette I grew up reading died in 1986 when it was purchased by Gannett. Legendary Arkansas journalist Ernie Dumas, who spent decades as a political and editorial writer at the Gazette, said as much on that Thursday evening. But to hear Clinton say, "thank God you didn't lose the newspaper war to Gannett" was a bit jarring.

I left Arkansas Business in 1992 to become the Democrat-Gazette's first political editor. In that role, I supervised the newspaper's coverage of Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and then the coverage of his presidency. I thought about the many long phone calls and terse emails from campaign and White House staffers about various aspects of our coverage.

Clinton, mind you, usually reserved his frustration for those over on the editorial page staff. Still, it was an adversarial relationship more often than not between this newspaper and the Clinton administration.

I appreciated it when the former president said in his speech that I was someone he couldn't stay mad at for long. I've always felt the same way about him. Even when I disagreed with a position he took or felt he had embarrassed us, I enjoyed time spent with him.

The event that marked the 200th anniversary of the Gazette's founding at Arkansas Post was no different. It was a night for celebration. We celebrated the history of the Gazette and what it meant to this state. And we celebrated the Democrat-Gazette and Hussman's efforts to put out the last truly statewide newspaper in America.

The story of the Gazette was a story of persistent, courageous publishers. The newspaper was founded by William E. Woodruff, born in 1795 on a small farm on Long Island. His father died when Woodruff was 12. Two years later, his mother apprenticed Woodruff to Alden Spooner, a printer who published the Suffolk Gazette. Woodruff's apprenticeship ended when he was 21.

Woodruff worked as a journeyman printer for book publishers in New York before heading west in 1818. He worked for newspapers in Louisville and Nashville and was encouraged to move to Arkansas when Congress created the Arkansas Territory in March 1819.

The first issue of the Gazette was published on Saturday, Nov. 20, 1819, at Arkansas Post. The newspaper moved to Little Rock along with the territorial capital in 1821 and stayed there until the Gazette published its final issue on Oct. 18, 1991. The first issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was published the next day.

Woodruff knew there would be business opportunities in Arkansas as a government printer. In 1821, he published the first book printed here, a 152-page volume titled Laws of the Territory of Arkansas.

Hussman chose to speak during the anniversary celebration about two Gazette publishers, Woodruff and John Netherland Heiskell, who became the Gazette editor in June 1902 when the Heiskell family bought a controlling interest in the newspaper. His brother Fred became the managing editor. Ned Heiskell would spend the rest of his life at the newspaper. He died of congestive heart failure in December 1972 at age 100.

"When William Woodruff arrived at Arkansas Post in 1819 and established the Arkansas Gazette, he was only 24 years old," Hussman said. "He had already ventured halfway across the country from his home in Long Island, eventually floating down the mighty Mississippi in a pirogue. When Ned Heiskell arrived in Little Rock from Tennessee with his brother Fred and family, he was only 30 years old. Both young men were seemingly following Horace Greeley's famous advice in an editorial he wrote in the New York Tribune--'go west, young man.' But with William Woodruff, he went west almost 50 years before Greeley wrote that editorial.

"It appears that both young men were entrepreneurs. They both were pursuing their dreams, encouraged by the great American free enterprise system to try to make their fortune in a new place. But I'm sure neither saw the troubles they were to experience in their futures.

"I'm sure William Woodruff would have never dreamed an assassin would come into his office trying to kill his friend Chester Ashley. Then Ashley would accidentally shoot and wound Woodruff. Then the would-be assassin would depart the Gazette offices with his clothes on fire. Today's tumultuous arguments on social media seem tame compared to newspaper editors dueling with pistols on the streets of Little Rock."

Hussman noted that Heiskell "probably never imagined the acrimonious reaction by so many readers to his editorial stand urging one of the great principles of America, the rule of law. Woodruff would eventually tire of all the fights and controversies and sell the Gazette, only to re-acquire it, sometimes involuntarily, and sell it again. Heiskell endured reader and advertiser boycotts and what must have seemed like endless controversies. But he fought the good fight, winning Pulitzer Prizes, and he persevered to the very end, staying the course as editor-in-chief until he was 100 years old."

Like Woodruff and Heiskell, there were troubles in Hussman's future he could never have foreseen. No could could have predicted the almost total collapse of the business model that sustained newspapers for decades. At the risk of sounding like the company man, I can tell you that the adjectives I applied to Woodruff and Heiskell--persistent and courageous--also apply to Hussman.

Please understand that those of us who inhabit newsrooms never want to be seen as company men or women. We refer to those on the business side of the operation as "suits" and, much like college professors with tenure, take great pride in our independence.

It's impossible, though, not to admire Hussman for his audacious experiment designed to prevent newsroom layoffs. That experiment will result in an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that is a digital-only product six days a week with a print edition on Sunday (the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will continue to print papers seven days a week).

To see what a Gannett newspaper based in Little Rock would have looked like, just visit bordering states where newspapers such as The Commercial Appeal at Memphis and The Times at Shreveport are shells of their former selves.

Clinton got it right when he said, "Thank God you didn't lose the newspaper war."

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 12/01/2019

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