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MASTERSON ONLINE: Deserved gratitude

by Mike Masterson | November 19, 2022 at 4:29 a.m.

Very near the top of my list of gratitudes this Thanksgiving is Walter Hussman Jr. and all he's brought to my life and career.

We were both 26 when we first met over lunch at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs where he offered me a job that would lead to the executive editorship of that city's daily paper, the Sentinel-Record.

It was initially apparent that Walter and I shared much in common, including putting the wants and needs of readers above everything else. We were young and filled with the fearless idealistic energy mid-20s young men often exhibit.

Walter also said he didn't know if his father had any sacred cows in Hot Springs. But if so, we'd ship them to the slaughtering plant together.

I've written previously about the day I took a well-documented story to Walter for his approval about a former public official allegedly taking bribes.

He read the story aloud to the paper's attorney, who advised against publishing it. After that call, he smiled and said: "It strikes me if attorneys ran newspapers we'd never publish anything. Let's run it."

That's how Walter's attitude encouraging First Amendment journalism has remained through the years. Such a readers-come-first attitude from a publisher is the stuff of journalists' dreams.

For the next seven years we published stories exposing everything from corrupt practices in the municipal court and sheriff's office to a judge slumlord and an incarcerated innocent Black mason who was freed.

If a story was important for the public to know, and we could prove it, the presses rolled. Walter never once pulled back on his commitment to honest, fair and assertive journalism.

Then came the rainy night in 1974 when Walter asked me to meet him at the office to write a story for the Associated Press.

Acting against the advice of his father, he'd just purchased the afternoon-circulated Arkansas Democrat plagued by labor union issues and steadily dwindling advertising and circulation. By anyone's assessment, it was a risky venture. But anyone wasn't Walter Hussman Jr.

He immediately set about to completely reform the product, turning the Democrat into a morning paper and spending whatever necessary to compete for subscribers and advertisers with the long-successful Arkansas Gazette.

He opened up the Democrat's classified ad section by making many ads free of charge. He greatly enlarged the sports and news staffs while adding many pages.

Like Rocky Balboa, his Democrat pulled itself off the canvas and began to land knock-down punches, ultimately emerging by October 1991 (after defeating the publicly held Gannett that by then had purchased and then closed the Gazette) as the only statewide paper.

He purchased all the Gazette's assets and incorporated its name as a tribute to that paper's many outstanding journalistic contributions into the masthead of his paper.

When I left Hot Springs in 1980 to join the Los Angeles Times, it became evident I was too much a maverick to fit well in that enormous paper.

So when the Chicago Sun-Times called and offered an investigative reporting slot, I accepted, having no clue that the then-nationally respected blue-collar paper would sell within a year to a notorious publisher whose focus was on sensationalism.

Most of the newsroom soon bailed for other metro papers. Walter offered me the chance to return to Arkansas and do investigative reporting projects for the Democrat and the other Arkansas daily papers of his WEHCO Media chain. I came home.

As in Hot Springs, not once did he urge me to back away from pursuing truth in highly controversial cases involving the likes of James Dean Walker, Marvin Williams, Ronald Carden and failures in the state crime lab. I can only imagine the irate phone calls and comments he received asking him to rein me in.

I spent a year investigating the death in custody 20 years earlier of young Black veteran Williams of Menifee. Two white Conway policemen who arrested him for supposedly being staggering drunk and claimed he had fallen on the jail steps and injured his head (despite negative blood alcohol and a fatal skull fracture behind his ear; read Ronnie Williams' book "Markham Street") were indicted by a grand jury. only to later be found not guilty by a white jury.

After sitting with the paper's attorney through a seven-hour deposition in federal court, a note from Walter showed up on my desk the next week. It was a copy of a bill from our attorney's firm for thousands of dollars. Walter's response: "Mike--Sometimes the price of publishing truth can be expensive."

The negative outcome at the Williams' trial soured me on the state of justice in my state. When the Arizona Republic came calling three weeks later, I accepted the offer to rebuild its disbanded investigative team with mixed emotions, knowing I'd never work for another publisher with Walter's grit and support. I've never known Walter Hussman to use his position as publisher of the Democrat-Gazette to aggrandize himself or further his personal agenda, which wasn't the case in Arizona.

He clearly stands head and shoulders above others I've worked for when it comes to promoting quality journalism, believing that if both sides of a story are compared, readers are best served by deciding the truth for themselves.

Don't take my word. Ask anyone whose worked for Walter over the years. Most have remained loyal for a reason, and I have no doubt their experiences will have been exactly like mine.

I wouldn't return to my native state until 1995 for the editorship at the Northwest Arkansas Times in Fayetteville when that paper was in a heated circulation war across northwest Arkansas with the Democrat-Gazette and two other dailies.

At that time, I remember David Radler, arrogant publisher of the Times and a 135-paper national newspaper chain, flying the company's DC-9 plane into Fayetteville from his Chicago headquarters for a staff meeting where he bragged about how much his publishing empire had earned the previous year, saying, "Walter Hussman is a financial pipsqueak."

Having worked for Hussman, Radler's smear felt like a slug to my gut. So I offered my unsolicited assessment, which, in effect, went: "With all due respect, the fundamental question when you're dealing with the Walter Hussman I know is not how much your stockholders are pleased to earn; but rather how much they are willing to lose. Hussman sacrificed millions to win wars with the Gazette, then Gannett after that media giant purchased, then closed, the Gazette when it took heavy losses fighting him."

Radler thanked me for my observation then promised everyone at the Times he would never ever sell the paper. He did.

In 2001, Walter asked me to join his organization for a third time to write the column you're now reading three times weekly. My only marching order was to "write must-read columns for our readers." Only the readers can decide if I've even come close after two decades.

I can, however, assure you Walter has remained rock-solid as ever behind my efforts, including a number of controversial ones, including the death of Marshall's Janie Ward, Belynda Goff's freedom from prison and saving the Buffalo National River from pollution.

Now, all these decades after Walter and I shared the lunch that changed my life and that night when his Democrat ownership began, he's announced his retirement as publisher by the end of this year.

He will retain his position as president and CEO of WEHCO Media, which publishes 10 daily newspapers serving three states, as well as eight English-language non-daily newspapers and two Spanish-language publications.

Walter leaving the publisher's role is a loss for our state and its paper, yet I realize change is inevitable. And he will retain a hand from afar through the overall WEHCO operation.

I'll remain deeply thankful for all he's done in supporting me while building what many today call the finest daily paper in the nation. All Arkansans who appreciate still having a statewide paper should be thankful for Walter's courage, determination and ingenuity as he and his managers made the paper's transition from newsprint to digital that became absolutely necessary to survive in an ailing industry.

And he did it the right way, even providing subscribers with new iPads. There will always only be one Walter Hussman Jr., and our Arkansas is a much better place for having him.

By the way, nothing spoke clearer of Walter's support after all these years than on Sept. 6 when he drove from Little Rock to see me ring the bell symbolizing the end of my radiation treatments at the Claude Parrish Cancer Center in Harrison. No doubt he had plenty of business on his plate that day. Yet there he was, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me.

So thank you, Walter Hussman, for the extremely good fortune that knowing and working with and for you has brought to my life and the lives of all Arkansans.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Print Headline: Deserved gratitude

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