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From now until November, this newspaper is celebrating the Arkansas Gazette's 200th anniversary with articles and events. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is reprinting a historic page each day for 200 days. The celebration will culminate with a dinner on Thursday, Nov. 21, in the Wally Allen Ballroom of Little Rock's Statehouse Convention Center.

No history of the Gazette would be complete without recounting the history of the Arkansas Democrat, its competitor for decades. While the Gazette's birth has been written about extensively--William Woodruff arrived in the Arkansas Territory in 1819 in search of government printing work and published the first issue of the newspaper at the territorial capital of Arkansas Post on Nov. 20 of that year--the birth of the Democrat is more complex.

The newspaper had its roots in the turbulent Reconstruction era. A newspaper first known as The Liberal became The Journal and then The Chronicle. Finally it became The Evening Star, having passed through several owners and editors by 1875.

On April 11, 1878, Col. J.N. Smithee acquired the newspaper and renamed it the Arkansas Democrat. Smithee, who had served in the Confederate Army, immediately launched an attack on the Gazette. Throughout 1878, Smithee criticized the Gazette editorially concerning the newspaper's position on the repudiation of state debt. The Gazette replied in editorials that the name Democrat was simply a cover for the Republican Party.

Smithee was a colorful character who had a gun battle in downtown Little Rock with Maj. John Adams, one of the Gazette's owners. Neither man was seriously wounded, but it marked the start of a competition between the two newspapers that lasted more than a century.

Smithee had been born into a poor farming family in 1842 in what's now Sharp County. He only had three months of formal education and became an apprentice at the Des Arc Citizen at age 12. When he was 18, Smithee bought into the Prairie County Democrat and became a strong advocate for secession.

After the Civil War, he was a typesetter in Memphis for a time before moving to Little Rock to serve as the Gazette's printing foreman. He later was an editor and owner of the newspaper. Smithee sold the Gazette in 1874 when he was elected to the post of commissioner of immigration and state lands. He was re-elected in 1876.

Smithee, who became chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party in 1878, was charged with a conflict of interest by a state board of printing commissioners that year and forced to sell the Democrat less than a year after purchasing it. The newspaper's buyers in September 1878 were James Mitchell, a former Gazette editor, and Gen. W.D. Blocher, a former Gazette owner. Smithee, meanwhile, returned to the Gazette as editor from 1896-99.

Democrat ownership changed hands three times between Mitchell's death in 1902 and the emergence of K. August Engel in 1926.

Engel, who had joined the Democrat as business manager in 1911, bought the controlling interest in 1926 and owned the newspaper for 42 years. In 1930, Engel acquired a YMCA building at Capitol and Scott streets in downtown Little Rock and converted it into the newspaper's headquarters. Though the building no longer houses the Democrat-Gazette presses, it remains the home of the newsroom and business offices. Engel, a bachelor who lived in a downtown hotel, took an active role in editing the newspaper.

Even though it was an afternoon newspaper, the Democrat briefly overtook the morning Gazette in circulation following the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School. The Gazette won two Pulitzer Prizes in 1958--one for meritorious service and the other for executive editor Harry Ashmore's editorial writing--but many Arkansans were outraged by the positions the newspaper took against Gov. Orval Faubus and switched to the Democrat. In the first quarter of 1960, the Democrat had a daily circulation of 88,890, compared with the Gazette's 88,152.

Upon Engel's death in January 1968, his nephews Marcus George and Stanley Berry took over the Democrat; George was the editor, Berry was the publisher. By the time George and Berry sold the newspaper in 1974, the Democrat was steadily losing circulation. The Gazette circulation was 118,702 at the time, compared with 62,405 for the Democrat. The Gazette also had three times the Democrat's revenue.

That's when the south Arkansas newspaper company operated by Walter Hussman Sr. purchased the Democrat. The elder Hussman sent his 27-year-old son, Walter Hussman Jr., to Little Rock as publisher. The challenge faced by the Hussman family was a formidable one. By 1974, only 34 U.S. cities had separately owned newspapers that competed against each other, down from more than 500 in the 1920s.

For years, Democrat employees had labored in the shadows of the better-paid, better-known journalists at the Gazette. At times, their jobs consisted of rewriting stories from the morning Gazette.

The Democrat, though, produced a number of well-known and well-read columnists. The best known was Karr Shannon, a columnist from December 1944 until August 1971. He wrote a column titled "Run of the News." For most of those years, Shannon produced between 600 and 700 words seven days a week, 50 weeks a year.

After the Hussman family purchased the newspaper, well-known Democrat columnists included Bob Lancaster, who provided biting, humorous coverage of the Arkansas Legislature, and sports columnists Fred Morrow and Jim Lassiter, who criticized the University of Arkansas Razorbacks much more than Gazette writers did.

After the Gazette's owners rebuffed the Democrat publisher when he suggested a joint operating agreement in which the two newspapers would share circulation and business operations while maintaining separate editorial staffs, the younger Hussman responded by expanding the amount of space devoted to news while offering free classified ads, something the Gazette wouldn't match until December 1987.

Hussman also hired the former Little Rock bureau chief for The Associated Press, an aggressive newsman named John Robert Starr, to run the newsroom. The number of reporters increased from 57 to 101. The final afternoon edition of the Democrat was published on Oct. 7, 1979.

With both newspapers publishing in the morning, the great Little Rock newspaper war was on. Quill magazine said in 1981, "Arkansas has not seen such fussin' since Harry Ashmore and Gov. Orval Faubus went at it in the late 1950s."

Starr was quoted in the article as saying, "The Democrat might still be a dog, but at least it barks."

A March 1983 Wall Street Journal article on the newspaper war said, "Sometimes it seems as if the gray old lady of this city is being mugged by a street brawler."

Hussman and the Democrat won the newspaper war after a dozen years of morning competition. The Gazette and Democrat published their final editions on Oct. 18, 1991. The first edition of the Democrat-Gazette appeared the next morning.

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

Editorial on 05/19/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: The dog barks loudly

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