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Trying times: readers, advertisers have varied opinions following six issues of the weekly Arkansas Times.

"The only thing wrong with this paper is that it doesn't come out every day."

That is what Alan Leveritt, president of the Arkansas Writers' Project Inc., says he is hearing about the new weekly Arkansas Times.

Leveritt founded the Union Station Times in September 1974 when he was a student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The 32-page publication was printed on newsprint, had a cartoon cover and provided an alternative viewpoint on life in central Arkansas.

Leveritt dropped out of college his senior year to focus on the publication, which in July 1975 became a monthly statewide magazine, the Arkansas Times. His dream was to have a magazine devoted to Arkansas affairs and written by Arkansas writers.

"We were kids," Leveritt says.

Now a well-known publisher -- Leveritt has launched 11 publications, including Arkansas Business -- he still is not quite sure what his Times should be.

"The paper is not a grown-up yet," Leveritt says. "We are evolving."

Leveritt says the Times is unique because it is not a suburban or an alternative paper, as is the case with most urban weeklies. He describes the weekly Times as a mainstream metropolitan newspaper that is influenced by magazine style.

Leveritt and Olivia Myers Farrell -- the two are co-publishers -- say they're carving new ground in publishing. It would, they believe, be a mistake to remain static now.

"I don't think we've fully decided what the Arkansas Times is yet," admits Editor Max Brantley.

Brantley realizes the newspaper's almost 40,000 subscribers don't quite know what it is, either.

But subscribers have expectations, and there are mixed reactions regarding the fulfillment of those expectations.

Jay Friedlander, chairman of UALR's journalism department, says the newspaper's "tone and pace is still very much like the monthly," although many readers had expected the weekly publication to have "more of a sense of immediacy."

By that, he means breaking news.

"I don't necessarily think an increased sense of immediacy is necessary," Friedlander says. "It's just going to take people time to get used to this new publication."

Indeed, some readers are surprised by the look and tone of the Times.

"I thought we were going to have two newspapers, the Democrat and an opposing point of view," says Don Fitz, a Little Rock insurance salesman who once read both the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette.

Fitz wishes the major stories would read more like news accounts than essays.

"It's weighted a little heavier on opinion than I would want," says Carrick Patterson, who was editor of the Gazette at the time his family sold the newspaper to the Gannett Co. in 1986. "On the other hand, they're trying to use these name writers they have."

Most of those "name" writers once worked for the Patterson family.

When the 172-year-old Gazette ceased publication on Oct. 18, there was an immediate cry for an alternative editorial voice to Walter E. Hussman Jr.'s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The Writers' Project capitalized on the wealth of talent available. The addition of Brantley, Jim Bailey, Doug Smith and cartoonist George Fisher created instant interest in the Times.

"That was very much a part of the strategy," Leveritt says.

Peddling Papers

When the weekly Times was launched on May 7, the advertising sales staff literally took to the streets of Little Rock to sell newspapers.

Leveritt, who was stuck in the office trying to sell another ad, says it was a good way to fire up his sales staff.

The Writers' Project wasn't alone in its excitement.

It had been projected that there would be 2,300 cancellations from the magazine's subscriber list. Instead, 6,500 subscribers renewed early and only 50 canceled.

Newsstand sales are at about 2,000 per week, and an additional 4,000 people have subscribed since the first issue.

"The best gauge of whether people like a product or not is when they give you their money," Farrell says.

"To tell you the truth, I want them to make it," says Harry Leggett, who decided against a 52-week, $20,000 advertising contract for Griffin Leggett Healey & Roth Funeral Home Inc. in the Times.

Leggett was expecting something comparable to the "Arkansas" section of the Democrat-Gazette, in which state and local news is reported.

Leggett views the Times as something quite different.

"It was like a tabloid you might buy in a grocery store," he says. "I just didn't like it. I didn't want to buy advertising in it or be associated with it."

One article in particular bothered Leggett and a lot of other readers.

"Country Club Of Little Rock: Still For Whites Only" was the headline on the May 14 cover. The lengthy article discussed the absence of black members at the club. A CCLR membership list accompanied the article.

"What difference does it make?" Leggett asks.

Brantley, who originally wasn't in favor of printing the membership list, defends the decision. He says the point of the article was that there are 500 prominent Arkansans who could do something about admitting blacks to the club.

"If that offends people, I'm sorry the truth offends them," Brantley says.

Brantley, who was the political columnist for the Gazette when it closed, has quick responses to criticism in all areas.

"It seems a little sensationalistic," Little Rock resident Martha Chowning says of the newspaper. "The headlines tend to be inflammatory."

The first issue's cover story on Gov. Bill Clinton's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was headlined "The Mean Streets: Bill's Bloody Path To Victory."

Chowning says the subject matter isn't always consistent with the headlines.

President Bush's photo was positioned between those of two cocaine smugglers in the third issue. It wasn't a popular move in some quarters.

Brantley says he wants photos and headlines to be vivid, attracting readers to stories.

"We want to be a newspaper that makes people think and makes things happen," he says.

He believes part of the Gazette's popularity was its ability to get "people's blood boiling in the morning."

But Blant Hurt of Jonesboro, who owns the third-largest share of the Writers' Project, is worried that if the editorial policies don't change at the Times, there won't be a paper left in which to invest.

Hurt says focus groups conducted before the newspaper began publication determined that the Times should be a mix of the best ideas from the left and the right ends of the political spectrum.

Hurt says the newspaper, with what he calls one slightly conservative writer in Robert McCord, is too liberal for an Arkansas audience.

"If it ignores what its customers want, like any other business it will fail," says Hurt, who writes a weekly column for Arkansas Business.

He worries that the pages of the Times are filled with the work of former Gazette writers.

"There's not one of them who doesn't think the same way," he says.

Leveritt claims he is looking for conservative writers.

"It's amazing that comes from the publisher and not the editor," Hurt says.

"I'm not quite ready to hire a crackpot just so we can ... fill a certain niche," Brantley responds.

He says of Hurt, "I would really be distressed if he liked what we are doing."

Wait and See

Jerry Austin is experiencing something new at his Custom Audio & Video Inc. store in Little Rock.

"Yesterday, a lady came from Dumas, unfolding the ad from the Times as she walked through the door," Austin says.

That has been happening frequently, according to Austin. He thinks he has found his advertising niche.

His high-priced products match the upscale demographics of the Times.

Although a full page in the Democrat-Gazette offers twice as much space as a page in the Times, Austin says, "The additional business would not justify the cost."

Yet Watty Wills, president of the Frank J. Wills Co., a Little Rock advertising agency, says his biggest client hasn't found the Times to be economical.

Harvest Foods Inc. may run image advertisements in the Times, but weekly insertion costs in the newspaper are 80 percent higher than direct mail costs for the grocery chain.

Wills has other accounts that are advertising in the publication, however.

"What I have heard has been kind of a mixed bag," he says.

He cites concerns about what clients regard as sensationalistic stories.

Ben Combs, president of the Little Rock advertising agency Combs & Heathcott Inc., says his clients switched their magazine contracts to the weekly schedule. He says they're in a wait-and-see mode.

"Everybody is going to give the paper a chance to deliver the readers and demographics it promised," Combs says.

Editorially, Combs has heard comments about the aggressiveness of cover stories.

"I don't know why they would be surprised," he says. "I thought that's what it was supposed to be all about."

Combs says editorial content isn't a factor in most advertising decisions.

"The advertisers are in there based on demographics delivered," he says.

Leveritt and Farrell projected 48-page issues. The first six issues have run 88, 64, 72, 64, 64 and 64 pages.

As of June 1, Leveritt says, "We had $10,000 more in the bank than we started with."

The Times isn't projected to be in the black for a year and a half, but it is experiencing a comfortable cash flow.

Production costs have been half of what was expected, according to Leveritt. He attracted investments totaling $680,000 to convert the Times to a weekly.

Leggett thinks there is almost too much advertising in the paper.

"It just looked disjointed," he says. "I didn't even pay attention to it."

Patterson has a different view.

"It doesn't bother me that they have a good deal of advertising," he says. "It makes them look substantial, and it makes them look legitimate."

Patterson says the Democrat gave away advertising in the early years of the newspaper war in an effort to appear credible.

Thus far, that appears to be something the Arkansas Times will not have to do.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Rengers, Carrier
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jun 15, 1992
Words:1661
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