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My first job at a daily newspaper came during my freshman year of college when I was hired as the sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald, which sadly no longer exists.

I covered sports for that newspaper from 1978-81, wrote sports stories for a time after graduation for the Arkansas Democrat, then returned to the Siftings Herald to serve as editor in 1982-83.

The Siftings Herald was owned at the time by the Freeman family of Pine Bluff, whose flagship paper was the award-winning Pine Bluff Commercial. The third newspaper the Freemans owned was in Yazoo City, Miss.

The Commercial was our big brother. Its publisher, Edmond Wroe Freeman III, and its editorial page editor, Paul Greenberg, were considered legends in our newsroom even though they lived and worked an hour away. We anxiously awaited the print copies of our newspaper that Freeman would mail back after marking mistakes and writing comments in the margins.

One of the pleasures of being the Siftings Herald editor was getting to read Greenberg’s columns in advance before placing them on our editorial page. We relished the stories of how Freeman and Greenberg might argue for an hour over the wording of a sentence.

For many of the Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University students who passed through our newsroom, a job at the Commercial was something to which to aspire.

Freeman was born into a newspaper family at Pine Bluff on May 31, 1926. After spending a year at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., he served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and then studied philosophy at the University of Chicago. He returned to Arkansas to work for the family-owned newspaper and was soon attracting talented journalists from across the country.

When it was announced on the final day of August that Gannett had sold the Commercial to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and its parent company, WEHCO Newspapers Inc. of Little Rock, I was glad to see the 94-year-old Freeman quoted in this newspaper.

He said: “A community needs its newspaper. Local news is extremely important. Without it, people don’t know what they need to know about the things that affect them the most. Mr. [Walter] Hussman has done a great job with the Democrat-Gazette, and I’m so glad he’s got the Commercial and to hear what he plans to do with it. I wish him all the luck in the world.”

Later in life, it became my pleasure to get to know Ed Freeman’s wife, June Glory Biber Freeman, a force of nature who was inducted in 2017 into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.

She was born June 10, 1928, in Newark, N.J., and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Chicago, where she also completed two years of graduate work. It was in Chicago that she met Ed Freeman, who somehow convinced her to move to Arkansas.

She became a strong advocate for the arts and wrote a column for the newspaper known as “Artline.” She served on the boards of the Arkansas Arts Council, the Arkansas Arts Center, the Mid-America Arts Alliance and the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas.

The Commercial was established as a weekly newspaper on April 18, 1881, by a feisty military veteran and former actor named Charles Gordon Newman. He operated the newspaper until his death in 1911 with the exception a short period when Chester Flourney published the paper in 1882. The Commercial became a daily for a time in 1887 and then permanently in 1888. In 1940, it began publishing a Sunday edition that was widely read throughout southeast Arkansas in towns such as Dumas, Warren, Star City and Fordyce.

Greenberg, who was born in January 1937 at Shreveport, came to Arkansas in 1962 to work for the Commercial. His parents had owned a shoe store and other small businesses along Texas Avenue in Shreveport. He lived with his family above the family store, graduating from that city’s C.E. Byrd High School in 1954. After attending Centenary College in Shreveport for a time, he graduated from the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in 1958 and a master’s degree in 1959. He later pursued postgraduate studies at Columbia University in New York City.

Greenberg worked at the Commercial until 1992 except for a period in 1966-67, when he wrote editorials for the Chicago Daily News. He was among the Southern journalists who became recognized nationally for courageous stands during the Civil Rights era, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in 1969. He was a Pulitzer finalist in 1978 and 1986 and also served as a Pulitzer jurist. Hussman hired him in 1992 as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s editorial page editor. Greenberg wrote his final column before full retirement in late 2018.

At the Commercial, Greenberg worked with gifted journalist Patrick Owens, who would go on to a long career at the Detroit Free Press and at Newsday on Long Island.

Following Owens’ death at age 72 in 2002, Greenberg wrote: “I felt the old feelings he always aroused in me, strong as ever: admiration, laughter but, mainly and overwhelmingly, envy. Sheer, consuming, shameful, absolute envy of his talent. His casual, impromptu, speedy, gruff talent. Patrick J. Owens had talent to burn, which he did, prodigiously. Pat Owens was my first boss in the newspaper business; I’d understudied him at the Commercial. He was going off on a Nieman Fellowship, and I desperately wanted and needed his job for the year he’d be gone. An Irishman who claimed to be Welsh, he’d never even gone to college, at least for not more than a few weeks—in Montana.

“His first real classes would come as a Nieman fellow at Harvard after winning one national award after another in his first, what, nine months at the Commercial? Every day Pat would shuffle in, the very picture of the word slovenly, plop himself down in front of a typewriter, maybe clean an ear with his pencil, and then insert an endless roll of copy paper into his typewriter and in an hour or two clack out enough short, Menckenesque masterpieces to fill the next day’s editorial column. Then he’d go out for a few beers. While I had to sweat every word. Still do. It’s not fair! I wasn’t just envious of Pat. I was jealous, too, of his fast friendship with the publisher of the Commercial during its golden rebirth under Ed Freeman.”

McGehee native Joe Stroud, who was editor and senior vice president of the Detroit Free Press from 1973-98, had his first job in journalism as a reporter at the Commercial. A Hendrix graduate who also had a master’s degree in history from Tulane University, Stroud went on to work at the Arkansas Gazette and the Winston-Salem Journal before joining the Free Press in 1968 as associate editor. He was a Pulitzer finalist in 1982 and won the William Allen White Award for Editorial Excellence five times.

Yet another famous journalist who passed through the Commercial’s newsroom was Gene Foreman, who grew up in rural Phillips County and graduated from Elaine High School in 1952, then graduated from what’s now Arkansas State University at Jonesboro in 1956. He was managing editor of the Commercial and the Arkansas Democrat before moving to Newsday as its executive news editor.

Foreman joined The Philadelphia Inquirer as managing editor in 1973 and continued to manage newsroom operations until his retirement in 1998. He helped lead the Inquirer to 18 Pulitzer Prizes during his 25 years there and is considered to be among the giants of American journalism.

The struggles of the newspaper industry during the past couple of decades aren’t a secret. I had believed Pine Bluff was about to be a town without a daily newspaper (meaning that the entire southeast quadrant of the state would be without a daily newspaper).

Thanks to Hussman’s vision (and use of modern technology), one of the South’s most historic small newspapers will live on. I’m glad Ed Freeman and Paul Greenberg are around to see it.

—––––– –––––—

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

Print Headline: Journalistic proving ground

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