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OPINION | REX NELSON: The local paper

by Rex Nelson | October 17, 2021 at 1:43 a.m.

Louie Graves, who's in his 70s, has spent a lifetime in the newspaper business. As I enter the Main Street offices of the Nashville News-Leader, I spot Graves at a computer terminal in the corner, hard at work.

High school football season is about to begin on the day of my visit, and few things are taken more seriously in this southwest Arkansas town than high school football.

"We print scores from every season in Nashville Scrapper history," Graves says. "Did you realize the first Scrapper game was played in 1910?"

In 1950, Louis "Swampy" Graves, Louie's father, purchased Howard County's oldest continuous business, The Nashville News, and moved to Nashville. Swampy, who had been a World War II Flying Tiger, wrote a popular column titled "Facts and Fancies" and grew the newspaper's circulation with lively coverage of news and sports. He and his wife raised 10 children along the way.

"I was in the first grade when we came here from Texarkana," Louie tells me. "My dad had been sports editor of the Texarkana Gazette."

Louie and his wife, the late Jane Graves, joined the newspaper staff in the early 1970s. Louie's brother Lawrence started the Murfreesboro Diamond in 1975.

In 1979, the late Ray Ross of Glenwood partnered with the Graves family to purchase the assets of the Glenwood Herald along with Mount Ida's Montgomery County News. Ross later sold his shares to Graves Publishing, which was owned by the 10 siblings.

In 2003, Louie and Jane Graves opened the Nashville Leader to compete against the family-owned Nashville News. The News, founded in 1878, had been Louie Graves' place of employment since he was in high school. Disputes with his brothers and sisters led Louie to start the Nashville Leader along with John Schirmer.

In a 2009 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story, John Krupa wrote: "The Leader and News now vie for supremacy in the town of 4,800. It's unusual in Arkansas to have two local newspapers in a town as small as Nashville. It's downright odd for the competing publishers to be brothers. . . . While newspaper wars used to be more common in rural Arkansas, the vast majority ended with one newspaper folding or the two merging."

The Nashville newspaper war came to an end in 2016 when Graves Publishing sold the News along with the Murfreesboro, Glenwood and Mount Ida newspapers to Schirmer. The Nashville newspapers were combined. The News-Leader is now widely recognized as one of the best weekly newspapers in the state.

Louie still writes a popular column. He notes that most counties in south Arkansas lost population between 2010 and 2020, with Howard County losing almost 1,000 residents. That makes it difficult for rural newspapers to turn a profit. He also talks about changing reading habits.

"It's bad," he says. "Kids don't hold newspapers, magazines or books in their hands anymore. They read on their phones. People used to buy newspapers to see things like engagements and weddings. We don't have any of that anymore. Of course, we've also been our own worst enemy in this industry. Quite frankly, a lot of newspapers haven't been good for a long time."

Louie studied at the University of Arkansas under legendary journalist Ernie Deane and spoke at the graveside service at Lewisville in Lafayette County when Deane died in 1991. Schirmer, meanwhile, studied under the highly respected Bill Downs at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia.

In an era of declining print media, the last remaining presses in this part of the state are at Nashville and Mena. The News-Leader's press prints publications from as far away as Ashdown and Arkadelphia.

Having cut my teeth at weekly and daily newspapers in Arkadelphia that no longer exist, I remain convinced that the Arkansas towns that do well in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century will have strong news coverage--someone to keep an eye on the city council, county quorum court and local school boards. Much of that coverage might be online if entrepreneurs can figure out how to monetize it.

GateHouse, a newspaper chain that later combined with Gannett, was among the worst things ever to happen to community journalism in Arkansas. Three years ago, GateHouse left much of southwest Arkansas with limited news coverage when it closed publications at Arkadelphia, Hope, Gurdon and Prescott. The Daily Siftings Herald, where I had served as sports editor and managing editor, was among the victims.

Earlier this year, a former Siftings Herald reporter named Joel Phelps began an online news source, Phelps studied journalism at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia and later worked at a GateHouse hub designing pages for multiple newspapers.

Phelps can now be seen driving a black Prius around town with The Arkadelphian emblazoned on the side. He races from event to event while also relying on communications students at Henderson and Ouachita. The website is supplemented by Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

With Arkadelphia no longer having a print newspaper (Clark County does have a weekly newspaper based at Amity), the student newspaper at Henderson, The Oracle, began printing a community edition. Henderson officials recently announced that The Oracle will use stories in the print edition each week.

The partnership gives readers in the college town the best of both worlds: a weekly print newspaper and an online site that updates each day.

It will take this kind of creativity for community journalism to survive at a time when rural Arkansas is bleeding population. Of the state's 75 counties, 53 lost population between the 2010 and 2020 census.

Arkansas has a rich newspaper history.

"Arkansas was relatively slow to develop, even after it became a state," wrote the late Dennis Schick, who headed the Arkansas Press Association for many years. "For most of its history, it has been characterized as small, rural and poor. These elements directly affected how media developed. Well into the 20th century, Arkansas was still a state of small communities.

"In each of its 75 counties, county seats attracted people and businesses. In some counties, in fact, two county seats were designated due to large distances across counties. . . . For years, one of the major benefits of publishing a newspaper was that of being designated the official--and often the only--printer in an area. That meant additional revenue from job printing as well as from government sources such as the printing of public notices."

Arkansans are well aware of the history of the Arkansas Gazette, which began at Arkansas Post in 1819 and moved to Little Rock in 1821 when the territorial capital moved. According to historian Michael Dougan of Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, the first newspaper war in the state began when the Arkansas Advocate at Little Rock started publishing in March 1830.

"It was as much a printers' war as a newspaper war since newspapers were so wrapped up in legal and offical printing," Schick wrote. "The newspapers tried about anything to be named the official printer, including bribes and aggressive bidding. A third newspaper, the Political Intelligencer (later changed to The Times), compounded the competition when it appeared in Little Rock in 1834.

"By the time Arkansas became a state in 1836, there were only four newspapers in the state -- the three Little Rock newspapers and the Arkansas State Democrat (later changed to the Southern Sentinel) in Helena. Even though the Sentinel only lasted until 1841, Helena continued to be an active newspaper town for years due in part to its strategic location on the Mississippi River. By 1860, Arkansas had three dozen weeklies but no dailies."

Now, rather than having newspaper wars, Arkansas communities are fortunate if they still have one weekly newspaper. The so-called news deserts are real. And they're bad for Arkansas.

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

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