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The death of a lady.

The Final Days At The Gazette: Anger, Fear And Frustration

The rumors had circulated for weeks.

The Arkansas Gazette, an institution Arkansas took for granted for more than a century, would close.

No longer would thousands of people from Eudora to Bentonville begin their days looking at a state symbol, situated securely between the words "Arkansas" and "Gazette."

It seemed unthinkable.

The Gazette was the first newspaper published in Arkansas.

It was the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi River.

It was the state's oldest business.

It was founded Nov. 20, 1819. The territorial government of Arkansas had operated for less than four months.

The newspaper was printed on a secondhand wooden Ramage press. The presses soon improved, as did the methods of gathering news.

The Gazette was with us through wars, depressions and political scandals.

Arkansas grew up with the Gazette.

And the Gazette grew up with Arkansas.

The history of the state and the history of the newspaper were intertwined.

Suddenly, the curtain was about to close.

The numbers and the cold business details have been reported elsewhere.

What has not been reported is the story of the people involved -- the anger, the frustration, the fear.

This is a chronicle of those emotions.

These are the final days of the Arkansas Gazette:

Wednesday, Oct. 16

Noon

A crowd gathers at the north end of Louisiana Street in downtown Little Rock.

Outside the Gazette Building, Gazette employees wear "Save The Gazette" T-shirts and buttons.

An onlooker asks a reporter what will happen.

"Oh, I think we all know," the reporter says.

She is not smiling.

12:50 p.m.

Shortly after the employee rally, which quickly turns into part funeral and part Arkansas Democrat bashing, many of the 2,200 full- and part-time Gazette employees are at work.

Those who led the attempted employee buyout have conceded the newspaper war, believing it is simply a matter of time before Democrat Publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr. claims the Gazette.

But, for now, there is a Thursday newspaper to get out.

"On Wednesday, there was an air of expectancy," says Deborah Mathis, an associate editor of the Gazette. "Everyone in their heart of hearts was aware it was over. The employee effort was failing.

"There was a sense of a spiritual revival in the newsroom that lasted throughout the day."

Associate Editor Ernest Dumas returns to his office. He is staring at a new kind of deadline.

Time is running out on the effort to buy the paper through independent financial backers.

The Department of Justice deadline to approve a sale of the Gazette to Little Rock Newspapers Inc. is nearing.

"They had let our lawyers know early in the week that we did not have much time," Dumas says. "...It was just a matter of when |Hussman~ got his ducks in a row."

Later Wednesday afternoon, Dumas and several other members of the employee committee speak with Little Rock businessman Walter Smiley and television producer Harry Thomason, two potential white knights.

"They felt compelled to notify the Justice Department that their efforts had been fruitless," Dumas says. "That left us standing alone."

Lawyers representing the employee committee are told to inform the federal government there will be no counteroffer.

"We were out of the game," Dumas says.

Within days, the Gazette will belong to Hussman.

The paper is put to bed on time.

A headline for the Thursday, Oct. 17, edition reads, "Gazette employees hope for miracle."

There will be no miracles on this memorable week.

Thursday, Oct. 17

8 a.m.

Paul Johnson spends his Thursday, a day usually spent preparing for weekend editions, cleaning out his desk.

Many of those around him are doing the same.

"No one knew what kind of schedule we were on," says Johnson, a columnist for the Gazette's "Features" section. "The thought was there would be an announcement Monday.

"We thought they would announce Oct. 21 that they would close Nov. 1, which would fit into the federal plan to give us 60 days."

Rumors continue to fly around the newsroom.

Most are dismissed.

One is not: The Gazette is in its final days, its final hours.

No one is more aware of that than Dumas and the newspaper's political columnist, Max Brantley.

"We thought all along that as soon as the Justice Department moved on it, the deal would be consummated," Dumas says. "Word was circulating that if not Thursday, then it was likely to be Monday.

"I don't know where Monday was coming from. But the persistent rumor was that it was going to be Monday."

Brantley, the outspoken leader of the Gazette during its final days, asks for mercy.

He walks to the third floor, enters the publisher's office and confronts Maurice L. "Moe" Hickey, who has been at the Gazette less than six months.

"You really should talk to these people," Brantley tells Hickey.

"It's not my place to say anything," Hickey says. "Any announcement will be made by Walter Hussman."

Knowing time is short, the Gazette editorial page editor, Jerry Dhonau, writes a farewell editorial first thing Thursday morning for the final edition.

The news staff has prepared the paper's "obituary," a 171-year history of the Gazette.

The history remains in the computer system.

Dhonau and Dumas are not about to get shut out.

"We had gotten word from people in management at Gannett that it was unlikely there would be a final edition," Dumas says. "They didn't think |Hussman~ wanted there to be a final edition announcing the paper's demise, preferring instead to announce it in the Democrat where, I guess, he could get a better spin."

Dhonau must make the final decision.

6:30 p.m.

Dhonau decides to run the farewell editorial in Friday's edition.

Before he leaves the office, Dhonau removes several pictures from his office wall, packs them in a box and carries them to his car.

After 8 p.m.

Mathis returns to the Gazette office with her family and a pizza.

Earlier in the day, Mathis had become too emotional to work and had gone home.

Entering the building again, Mathis notices morale in the newsroom is at an all-time low.

"People were emotionally drained," Mathis says. "They had bags under their eyes. You could tell they had not slept well. They were dragging along instead of taking a quick step.

"Thursday was a major moving day. People all day long were hauling their stuff."

Joe Mosby had removed personal belongings from his desk in the sports department several days earlier.

"We had more or less waited for the other shoe to fall," says Mosby, an outdoor writer at the Gazette for 22 years. "|By Oct. 16~, I knew it was done. We were waiting for someone to put the bullet in the horse."

Friday, Oct. 18

7:15 a.m.

As usual, Dhonau arrives early at work.

As usual, he checks the national wires.

He checks the mail.

He takes several telephone calls.

"I had no knowledge it would be the last day," he says. "I thought it could be."

There were signs the Gazette's final edition already had appeared on doorsteps across Arkansas.

Usually, during the day, there is no guard stationed at the loading-dock entrance that faces Main Street.

This day, a guard is posted there, requiring Gazette identification, even from longtime employees.

"One guard, a stranger, was on the side dock, the entrance most employees use," Mathis says. "He was telling people to report to the 22nd floor of the Rogers Building. But he said, 'Don't go anywhere until you hear from our people.'"

Mathis finds Evan Ray, vice president of finance and administration, and Bill Rutherford, the paper's managing editor.

Both approach the guard.

"We're not going anywhere," Rutherford says.

A black-and-white sign on the door of the Main Street entrance says boldly, "Arkansas' First And Future Newspaper."

The word "future" is underlined.

9 a.m.

The editorial and feature staffs are finishing the weekend editions.

Johnson and features writer Jerry Bokamper have scheduled afternoon movies to review for Tuesday's edition.

Seeing the security guard and figuring Tuesday reviews may be a moot issue, Johnson asks Bill Paddack, the features editor, about the assignment.

Business as usual, Paddack tells Johnson and Bokamper.

"One thing about the final days," says sportswriter Harry Lister. "Until Friday afternoon, every time you walked into the building, you could not tell people were doing anything but putting out a newspaper."

9:30 a.m.

Feature copy editors return from the composing room, where pages are pasted up before being transported to the presses.

One out-of-breath copy editor has a disbelieving look on his face.

"Someone came into the composing room and took the |Saturday~ pages away," he says. "He said he was told to lock them up in the composing foreman's office."

In the next day's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will be a Richard Allin column, written days in advance.

For the Gazette.

11 a.m.

As Dhonau prepares to leave for lunch and a quick trip to the bank, he hears word that "something official" will happen shortly.

Work in the newsroom has come to a standstill.

Reporters have come to the office in anticipation of burying the Gazette. Some are wearing black.

Valerie Smith, a general assignment reporter for three years, defiantly sports two homemade buttons on her shirt.

One says, "Say No To Boo."

The other reads, "Just Say No to Hussman."

"Who's Boo?" she is asked.

"Walter Hussman," she says.

"Why are you mad at him?"

"He wasn't interested in keeping it alive at all," Smith says. "That's sleazy."

Emotions are running high.

The Gannett Co., which has toyed with the Gazette since it bought the newspaper from Little Rock's Patterson family in October 1986, is also a target.

By this time, Editor J. Keith Moyer and Hickey are outsiders.

They are Gannett imports.

"In those final days, the old-time Gazette hands took over," Brantley says. "It was kind of nice."

Moyer and Hickey don't attend the Gazette employee rallies. Moyer leaves for a convention a few days before the Gazette's final edition.

He is, however, present at Hickey's announcement of the closure.

One staffer says Moyer even shed a tear.

Moyer is awaiting his next Gannett assignment.

11:15 a.m.

Returning from an appearance on KARN-AM's "Pat Lynch Show," Mathis stops at the second-floor bulletin board, which has become littered with old copies of the Gazette.

"The bulletin board had become our oracle," Mathis says. "That's how we found out what was going on."

A copy of an Associated Press wire story has been tacked up.

It reports the Justice Department has approved the sale of Gazette assets to Little Rock Newspapers.

In his office upstairs, Bob McCord, senior editor, is working furiously on Sunday's "Forum" page.

Mathis tells McCord to take a break.

Word has come.

But McCord, a true newspaperman to the end, wants further confirmation.

"If I stop now and it's not true, I won't have enough time to get the paper out," McCord says.

Noon

Rutherford calls a meeting of the entire Gazette staff for 1:30 p.m. in the second-floor newsroom.

Department editors relay the announcement.

A podium and public address system are set up.

1:15 p.m.

Johnson is sitting at his computer terminal, working just in case, when a message flashes across the screen.

"Shut down for maintenance," say the cold, gray words.

In the sports department, tucked in a corner desk near a window facing Third Street, Wadie Moore Jr. is working.

The assistant sports editor is in the middle of a sentence when the computer goes down.

He leans back in his chair and stares.

Slowly, Moore lifts his glasses and wipes tears from his eyes.

A 24-year career is over.

1:30 p.m.

Most Gazette employees have gathered in the newsroom.

Like an Irish wake, alcohol flows freely.

Decorum becomes an afterthought.

Ties are loosened or removed.

People sit or stand on desks.

Staffers walk around with lit cigarettes. The newsroom's no-smoking rule is ignored.

In Fayetteville, two of the Gazette's three-person team covering University of Arkansas athletics and its Fayetteville beat reporter, Bill Bowden, gather at their office at 34 E. Center Street.

Sportswriter Jim Harris is the last to arrive.

He notices the computers are off and turns to fellow sportswriter Paul Borden.

"I still have a column and feature to write," Harris says.

"Don't bother," Borden responds.

While the rest of the Fayetteville crew goes home to watch the announcement on television, Harris remains behind.

He decides he'll get a jump on things and gather his resume and story clips.

A television cameraman enters the office, requesting an interview with Harris.

Never mind that the heart of the Gazette is still beating.

"I feel like an Iraqi platoon stuck in the most remote region of Kuwait and waiting to hear the terms of surrender," Harris tells the cameraman.

Harris then calls the Little Rock office.

"I thought I'd caught them at a Christmas party," he says. "I asked what was going on. They said some of the old-timers were telling war stories.

"I knew it was over then."

1:40 p.m.

Ray steps up to the public address system, placed in front of a window facing Main Street.

Below, a group of reporters has gathered.

"The death watch is on," says one reporter, staring up toward the newsroom.

Ray tells Gazette employees a formal announcement will be delayed.

"Booooo," scream some employees. They have been waiting for weeks for an official word from management.

1:45 p.m.

Reporter Scott Van Laningham, one of the leaders of the employee buyout committee, steps to the microphone.

"We have some time," he says. "Let's hear some stories."

Editorial cartoonist George Fisher comes forward.

"The check from Hussman has bounced," Fisher says, drawing cheers.

Fisher, an organizer of that night's candlelight vigil, urges staffers to attend the service and to "cry after you get home."

Business writer Leroy Donald, a 32-year Gazette veteran, opts for a joke instead of a eulogy.

He recounts a story about an Aggie's attempt to get a vasectomy. The joke is funny, but not as funny as Donald's delivery, complete with props.

There is applause.

2:15 p.m.

Brantley takes his turn at the microphone.

He talks of his days as a cub reporter.

Later, when Brantley emerges from the double doors at the front entrance of the building, he holds up a sign.

"Will Edit For Food," it says.

"It's just a little lighthearted humor, guys," he tells reporters as he struggles to take a box full of memories to his car. "Excuse me, I have to get this to my car and get back in before they close it."

2:30 p.m.

Richard Allin has no idea his "Our Town" column will appear in the next day's edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as he takes his turn at the podium.

Hussman purchases the contracts of Allin and Charles Allbright when he buys the assets of the Gazette.

Allin's column for a Saturday Gazette that will never come is literally ripped off the page in the Gazette composing room and taken to the Democrat.

In his final minutes at the Gazette, Allin apologizes to his co-workers. He explains that were it not for him the Gazette would still be publishing.

"I killed J.N. Heiskell," Allin says.

Heiskell, the editor for 70 years, had a habit of using the staff's restrooms rather than his own private one, Allin says. While a cub reporter, Allin had the misfortune of going into the restroom and slamming a stall door -- a stall door Mr. J.N. was behind.

"Suddenly, I hear, 'Oh, God ...,'" Allin says. "I knew he was in there with a coat hook through him."

Even though Heiskell didn't die until two years later, Allin says he still feels guilty for his "crime."

"If he were still here today and his spirit was in us, we would still be publishing this paper," Allin says.

2:40 p.m.

Jeff Necessary, a copy editor on the sports desk, exits the building for some air.

He's holding his son, Tyler.

"I learned to read by reading the Gazette when I was little," Necessary says. "I read the TV listings and Orville Henry."

Necessary's hero is long gone from the Gazette.

Henry shocked readers on Aug. 29, 1989, when he quit the Gazette after almost 46 years and moved to the Democrat.

"To me, it happened a long time ago," Henry says of the death of the Gazette. "I have a mixture of emotions. I feel compassion for all the people losing their jobs.

"The newspaper war was a great thing in that it created a lot of opportunities for young people. There was an unlimited amount of space, an unprecedented news hole.

"On the downside, the newspaper war was a catastrophe because a lot of people got hurt and journalism as I knew it disappeared. From that standpoint, the end is a relief because the war damaged the state."

2:45 p.m.

Ken Chitester of the sports department was not due in the office until late afternoon.

Relaxing at home, Chitester hears over the radio that The Associated Press is reporting the Justice Department has approved the sale of the Gazette.

The AP also is reporting that Hussman has called a 3:30 p.m. news conference at the Statehouse Conference Center.

Chitester jumps in his car and speeds to the office.

He splits the media waiting in the alley outside the building.

What's up?

"I don't know," he says. "That's why I'm here."

Rutherford waves to the onlookers below, forcing a smile.

A sign is pressed to the window: "The check bounced."

Another sign: "Bring beer."

Inside, Hickey is preparing to speak to the troops.

Waiting outside the newsroom is Paul Smith, the mild-mannered and highly respected vice president and general manager of the Democrat.

Ten years ago, Smith delivered the Democrat once a week at midnight to non-subscribers in the East End community of Pulaski County.

Those were desperate times at his newspaper.

A few blocks away at Capitol and Scott, the Democrat staff gathers on the vacant third floor for an "important announcement" from Hussman.

There is almost a carnival atmosphere. And there is little suspense.

They all know what this announcement will be.

The newspaper war is over.

And they have won.

Some of them have worked for years in crowded conditions in the Democrat's ancient newsroom. Not enough phones. Not enough computer terminals. Not enough chairs. On this Friday, it almost seems worth it.

Even Democrat staff members who had the day off are reporting to the office. Television reporters cry out questions as employees rush through the front doors facing Capitol Avenue.

For representatives of the three Little Rock television stations, the AP, Arkansas Business and KARN, it is a waiting game. They are not allowed inside.

2:55 p.m.

Escorted by guards, Hickey steps behind the microphone at the Gazette.

He makes a brief announcement.

No one is surprised at his words.

The Gazette has published its last edition, Hickey says. All employees have been terminated.

Then, Hickey says something that surprises many long-time Gazette employees.

Hickey had come out of retirement May 14 to assume the role of publisher. That made him unusual for a Gannett import. He was not coming directly from another of the company's newspapers.

Hickey also was the only Gannett publisher who had come to Little Rock with newspaper war experience. He was publisher of The Denver Post when it battled the Rocky Mountain News.

Just before stepping away from the microphone, Hickey says, "I want to thank you people for your eloquence in trying to save the paper."

His words are the first any Gazette employee has heard from Gannett since the rumors began in August.

At the Democrat, Hussman stands up to speak as his employees cheer wildly.

"I'll tell you, this is a great moment," he says. "Basically, it's over. The newspaper war is over, and you won."

Tears come to the 44-year-old businessman's eyes.

"You have all accomplished the impossible, and I appreciate it from the bottom of my heart," he says.

He seems to mean it. It is an emotional moment for all.

3 p.m.

Smith steps to the microphone in the Gazette newsroom and identifies himself as a representative of the Democrat.

Before he can utter a word, jeers fill the room.

Van Laningham quiets the crowd.

"Let the man talk," he says.

Smith had been in the Gazette Building just once before.

In 1986, in the midst of the Gazette's antitrust lawsuit against the Democrat, Smith went to then-Publisher Hugh B. Patterson's office to take his deposition.

Smith had headed to Third and Louisiana immediately after the deal was closed. The money had to be wired from the Bank of New York to Gannett.

"As soon as they gave the reference number, the deal was officially closed," he says.

Smith is not the only Democrat executive to enter the building.

About 20 security guards accompany the Democrat's director of promotions, Estel Jeffery Jr., inside. They secure the building.

When a visitor attempts to enter the front door, Jeffery, a walkie-talkie in one hand, says calmly, "I'm sorry. Nobody can come in the building."

Upstairs, Smith is not relishing his assignment. Entering the building, he was apprehensive. He feels for those who for years had been the competition.

With the attention of the newsroom, Smith steps back to the microphone.

"All we can offer now is temporary employment for 60 to 90 days," he says. "We will evaluate what our needs are. Hopefully, we will be able to offer full-time jobs to a lot of people."

Smith then makes the announcement that draws a bitter reaction.

The name of the Arkansas Democrat will be changed to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

"You can't buy respectability," one Gazette employee shouts.

3:10 p.m.

Van Laningham, his voice cracking with emotion, takes the microphone one last time to compliment his colleagues.

"We leave here with dignity," he says.

Outside, the reporters allow a locksmith through.

Later, Fisher will call the quick changing of the locks "brutal."

Desks are set up near the main entrance. On one is a sign: "Turn in company property here."

As former Gazette employees file out, they are handed an envelope. Inside is a job application for the Democrat-Gazette.

3:12 p.m.

Democrat employees begin to leave their building.

The first few seem fearful to tell reporters anything.

Some are carrying paychecks. They are headed to the bank.

Finally, David Hawkins emerges. Hawkins, the paper's editorial page editor, was one of the first people Hussman hired after buying the Democrat in 1974. He came to Little Rock from The Dallas Morning News four months after Hussman's purchase.

"I always tried to maintain the faith, but the spirit was weak at times," Hawkins says of the lean years. "There were moments of real doubt as to whether we would survive. Walter would go to national press conventions, and they would laugh at him when he told them he would beat the Gazette one day.

"The tide turned in 1986 when the Pattersons' antitrust suit was dismissed. That left us alive to compete with Gannett."

About that time, John Robert Starr, the most visible figure in the newspaper war, leaves the building.

He is not accompanied by aides. Dressed in a plaid, short-sleeved shirt, Starr plans to walk alone to Hussman's press conference several blocks away.

This is, without a doubt, the highlight of his long career in journalism.

But at this moment, Starr is alone with his thoughts.

3:15 p.m.

"We all hung around hugging each other," Mathis says. "There were a lot of tears and talking about how wonderful it had been.

"Some people had been real angry, but it turned to tears. Just tears."

Those who had not packed up Thursday begin the chore. Others disperse, wandering downstairs toward the front exit -- the only exit available.

"We walked into the hall, and it was a different world," Mathis says. "It was like Romania or something. Guards were everywhere.

"Democrat executives were walking around with walkie-talkies, and I wanted to knock the hell out of every one of them. They had changed the locks."

3:20 p.m.

Sportswriter Jeff Reed comes out of the Gazette Building, squinting at the bright afternoon sun.

He hasn't shaved.

He smiles and leans against the building, shoulders slumped.

"I guess I'll go home and play Mr. Mom for a while," says Reed, a three-year Gazette employee. "In some ways, it's kind of a relief. We've been living with uncertainty for seven or eight weeks."

Reporter Phoebe Wall Howard, dressed in black, holds a half-used roll of toilet paper. She has red, watery eyes.

Photographers Jeff Bowen and Kelly Quinn leave together, holding on to each other for support.

The future?

"I have no idea," Bowen says.

"It was like waiting for the grim reaper," says photographer Spencer Tirey. "A lot of people in the newsroom wish we would have had one last edition. We just wanted to say goodbye."

Tirey, however, still has an assignment.

He has just a few minutes to get to Hussman's news conference, which he will be covering as a stringer for The New York Times.

3:42 p.m.

Hussman enters the Statehouse Conference Center a few minutes late to formally announce he has purchased the assets of the Arkansas Gazette. He answers several questions from reporters at the side of the room before going to a table on the stage.

On the wall behind him is a banner that proclaims, "The Best of Both -- Arkansas Democrat-Gazette."

Starr sits up front with him but does not speak.

Hussman does not use a prepared text, but occasionally he looks at notes and at his lawyer, Philip S. Anderson, who sits in the back of the room. Hussman's remarks are telecast live statewide.

"This has been a very difficult time for me personally," he says. "As you know, I've always tried to return your telephone calls ... The last several months, I've not been able to do that."

4:43 p.m.

The news conference concludes. Hussman looks tired.

"I've been working every weekend," he says. "I've been staying up late at night."

8 p.m.

Several hundred people gather on Third Street for the candlelight vigil.

The Gazette Building, usually filled with editors and reporters on a Friday night, is dark and deathly quiet.

Wadie Moore Jr. had expected to be at a high school football game as he had been on hundreds of previous fall Friday nights.

Instead, he is standing in the street.

"I'm no longer a writer," he says.

It is over.

One month short of her 172nd birthday, the Arkansas Gazette is dead.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:closure of Arkansas Gazette newspaper upon acquisition of Walter E. Hussman Jr. of Little Rock Newspapers Inc. from the Gannett Co.
Author:Webb, Kane; Taylor, Tim; Nelson, Rex
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 28, 1991
Words:4494
Previous Article:Internal changes: IRS attempts to create a good-guy image.
Next Article:Lafayette, he has returned.
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