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"The fight was no longer mine." (views of John Brummett, former political editor of Arkansas Gazette and columnist of Arkansas Democrat)

The Gannett Co. Made Mistakes At Every Turn In Little Rock: Did It Ever Stand A Chance?

Did the Gannett Co., the world's richest media conglomerate, mismanage the Arkansas Gazette, displaying general journalistic and competitive ineptitude and cold, inhumane corporate insensitivity to the heart and soul of the widely beloved newspaper?

Or did the Gazette go out of business simply because no owner, no manager, could have withstood the entrenched competitive tactics of the tenacious and single-minded Walter E. Hussman Jr., the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat, who was canny, uniquely determined and hell-bent on doing whatever it took to stay in business and have a statewide newspaper, if not the only statewide newspaper, in Arkansas?

Yes to the first.

Maybe to the second.

My position always has been the former. One of my favorite pastimes has been, and still is, bashing Gannett.

I abruptly left the Gazette a year and two days before its demise because:

* I didn't trust Gannett's ability or long-term willingness to compete.

* I felt the fight essentially had been lost during the editorship of Walker Lundy, a pop journalist who kept telling us The New York Times wasn't the biggest newspaper in New York City and who engraved lasting impressions of silliness on the front page of a newspaper that always had offered seriousness as its calling card.

* I felt the fight also had been lost when Dillard Department Stores Inc. dropped its advertising, either because of an overplayed, incomplete front-page article about its potential tax problems or because Dillard's found out that lesser-volume advertisers were getting better rates. Either way, it was a mistake.

* I believed the fight was no longer mine, but a fight belonging to an assortment of young Gannett imports -- Craig Moon, J. Keith Moyer. Those BMW-driving, Blue Mesa-frequenting Floridians were sent in toward the end to pander to advertisers and throw money around like crazy in one final, last-gasp effort to beat Hussman.

Bailing Out

That last point compelled me to bail out in mid-October 1990, an action that earned me the contempt of old friends at the Gazette who believed the cause was greater than Gannett. That cause extended to the liberal editorials and rich tradition of the Gazette.

The honor was in fighting, not bailing out for self-survival, they believed. More than that, they didn't really believe the Gazette would die.

In the summer of 1990, Moyer favored me with an invitation to join him at a corporate retreat at the Red Apple Inn near Heber Springs. I watched Gannett imports and young brownnosers play silly games designed to help us learn to trust each other.

I listened as Moon said Gazette reporters didn't work as hard as Democrat reporters.

I listened as Moyer and Bill Rutherford, the soon-to-be managing editor, said the paper's greatest need was a customer service department to take complaints.

A customer service department?

Hell, we needed a better publisher and a better editor.

Gannett had decided to play Hussman's game, which was the game of losses.

Gannett had decided it could lose more in the short term, as it surely could.

While Hussman was running a low-overheard operation with low salaries and antiquated equipment, Gannett made a decision to offer up to $50,000 each to the half-dozen best people at the Democrat.

When I got mad because Moyer asked me to stop functioning as political editor so he could promote another staffer to that position and thus free up a state Capitol reporting job for one of his targeted Democrat employees, Moyer said he would make me assistant managing editor for political coverage and give me a 10 percent raise.

All I could think of was that such cavalier handling of titles and thousands of dollars smacked of desperation, disorganization and defeat.

These are not long-term tactics. They are last-gasp tactics, I said to myself.

So I bolted and wound up editing Arkansas Times magazine, a fulfilling and challenging job, and writing a thrice-weekly column for that old bugaboo himself, Walter Hussman, with whom I became acquainted for the first time and found myself liking personally.

There was something comforting about visiting with a publisher who knew what he was doing.

Could Walter Be Beaten?

That leads me to the second question, the one that gets a "maybe" as its answer: Could anyone have outlasted, defeated or coexisted with Hussman?

We'll never know.

I sense that the developing conventional wisdom is this: Gannett saved the Gazette for five years, but as a publicly held company with stockholder obligations, it could not have been expected to lose $20 million or more per year against a one-man publishing machine who was able and willing to sustain losses himself, forever if necessary.

The Gazette actually made a profit of $1.3 million the last year it was owned by Hugh Patterson.

What if Gannett had adopted this strategy:

* We have bought the bigger and better newspaper in Little Rock, and we will not change it editorially.

* We will commit to a balanced budget in Little Rock, which requires that we not match Hussman's every circulation and advertising giveaway. We will sell for higher rates on the basis that we deliver the better newspaper to the readers most needed by advertisers.

Would advertisers have bolted for cheaper rates?

Would readers have bolted for lower subscription prices and a bigger news hole?

Or would they have stayed with the newspaper that had the better columnists, better syndicated features and more enlightened and progressive editorials?

Would that have been Hussman's biggest nightmare?

A competitor that balances its books and puts out a better product?

Or would the Gazette have died no matter what it did?

I got into an argument at a bar the other night with a veteran Gazette staffer who said the paper would have died no matter what it did.

I chose to blame Gannett.

But we were able to agree on one thing, which was that Gannett screwed up royally at nearly every turn.

So I'll close on that note of common ground.

John Brummett is the editor of Arkansas Times. He worked at the Arkansas Gazette for 13 years.
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.

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Author:Brummett, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 28, 1991
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