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Questionable contender.

Questionable Contender

At a recent press conference at the Arkansas Democrat, about 50 people squeezed into a conference room with cameras clicking and video tape rolling. Rumors were rampant and media observers wondered if the papers had reached some agreement that might end the newspaper war. The news, however, wasn't quite that big.

Or was it?

For more than a month, word had been circulating that columnist John Brummett might be making another move. Back in October, he left the Arkansas Gazette after 12 years and went to work for Arkansas Writers' Project, publisher of Arkansas Times and Arkansas Business.

Brummett hardly had time to plug in his new Macintosh computer before rumors surfaced that he might go to work for the Democrat or, at least, write columns for them part time.

The Democrat sat tight, hoping to strike a deal, and the Gazette, still smarting over Brummett's loss, tried to pretend whatever he did was inconsequential. Spectrum Weekly reported Nov. 14 that Brummett was talking with Democrat publisher Walter Hussman and managing editor John Robert Starr.

On Dec. 10 Brummett made it official. Arkansas Business and the Democrat ran a front-page story, while Spectrum had an editorial column and local television stations each had a "sound bite or two." Even the Gazette included a couple of paragraphs in its business section.

The Gazette's view of the news significance was different. They ran just a few paragraphs at the bottom of page two in the business section.

While this new deal is noteworthy, particularly since Brummett was the Gazette's main draw and has made no secret of his dislike for Starr and the Democrat, the attention it attracted was monumental.

"This is ridiculous," says Brummett. "A newspaper reporter shouldn't be getting all this attention - we should be in the background."

Hussman, Starr and Brummett were no sooner walking back from lunch the day of the press conference when someone from Jonesboro asked them if the news was true. He said he'd drop his Gazette subscription and start taking the Democrat.

Hussman says Brummett's column is like Starr's because "it's one of the things that make Arkansas a community of interest." People from around the state find common themes to discuss in these columns, Hussman says, and he's confident that the addition of Brummett will boost circulation figures.

Move Carries Weight

Whether he likes it or not - and he may be sick of it at this point - Brummett's decision to leave the Gazette and his most recent move in siding with the Democrat carries weight in the newspaper war.

"People are going to remember the day Brummett left the Gazette as the day the Gazette lost," says Philip Martin, executive editor at Spectrum. "And they'll remember the day the Democrat got Brummett as the day the Democrat won."

"I think Brummett is going to bring a lot of readership," former governor Frank White predicts, "because a lot of people of the more liberal persuasion don't read the Democrat and now they will."

"He's just one columnist," says Gazette editor Keith Moyer. And, Moyer adds, considering this is Brummett's second job switch in two months, the move is less significant.

While Brummett may be just one man in a large newspaper war, he was the Gazette's best read columnist according to a survey that ranked columnists in the state for September and October. The top three - John Robert Starr, Wally Hall and John Brummett - all will appear in the Democrat starting in January.

Misses The Point

Maybe Moyer misses the point, which is that Brummett is hardly another columnist. He represented something unique to loyal Gazette readers. An avowed Arkie, he knew the state and its politics and he also was part of the old Gazette school of journalism. He wasn't just passing through town.

When he left the Gazette, it was widely reported that Brummett said he still hoped the paper won the newspaper war. He said he was ready to try something new with Arkansas Times and Arkansas Business. When pressed, Brummett admits he was feeling an undercurrent of disgust for the "corporate journalism" approach of Gannett Inc., owner of the Gazette.

"It would have been more of a coup if he had come directly here," says Democrat associate editor Meredith Oakley. Still, she thinks his contribution to the Democrat will be significant in the battle against the Gazette.

"Why is the focus on us?" asks Max Brantley, Brummett's replacement at the Gazette. "What about Arkansas Business? How do you feel?"

Publisher Alan Leveritt answers, "It's masterful, isn't it, the way the attention has been directed?"

The real question here, however, has to do with how Brummett will fit in the larger scheme of things. Although columnists are only single elements in a paper, the Democrat is creating the right chemistry to blow the lid off the newspaper war.

Bob Steel, news director at KARK Channel 4, says that while Brummett is more than just another soldier in the war ("I'd probably elevate him to a field commander," Steel says), it's Hussman who is the captain. "Hussman is an incredible battler - I wouldn't want to fight with him."

While Brummett and Starr appeared to be either bored or purposely nonchalant at the news conference, there was a clear gleam in Hussman's eyes. When his paper was drastically behind in the war, he practiced an open door policy by accepting reporters' calls and letting competing media use the Democrat's library. The fact that his paper has captured the lead in Sunday circulation for the first time ever hasn't changed this attitude.

The Gazette, however, is a little paranoid now and publisher Craig Moon doesn't return calls to reporters he believes are out to burn him. Some Gazette reporters now call Brummett a "traitor" mainly because he and Starr were such avowed enemies.

Brummett is an important player, but it's a big game and he's not the one to watch. Hussman's stack of chips are piling up with a new circulation lead and the feat of getting both Brummett and longtime Gazette sports columnist Orville Henry to write for him.

In yet another space devoted to deciphering Brummett's recent move, Starr used his daily column to say, "The Arkansas Democrat plucked another jewel from the Arkansas Gazette's increasingly lackluster crown."

Frank White agrees:

"Walter Hussman is here to stay - I don't know about Gannett."

PHOTO : IMPORTANT PLAYER: John Brummett's move will tilt the balance of the newspaper war.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:columnist John Brummett to write for the Arkansas Democrat
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Dec 17, 1990
Words:1076
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