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An epitaph for the Old Lady: a Pulitzer Prize winner remembers the newspaper he loved.

In its Oct. 28 and Nov. 4 editions, Arkansas Business allowed former Arkansas Gazette writers and editors the opportunity to comment on what was the state's oldest business prior to its Oct. 18 closure. In the final part of the series, Harry Ashmore, the newspaper's one-time executive editor, gives his thoughts on the Little Rock newspaper war.

Neither the buyer nor the seller saw fit to inform the staff that the Arkansas Gazette had finally bled to death, so there was no final edition.

The Old Lady suffered the indignity of being interred without a fitting obituary, something that could never have happened to a notable institution or individual within her purview during the newspaper's 172 years of publication.

As a mourner once removed, I was grateful that Arkansas Business not only made room for tributes by the bereaved, but put together a comprehensive account of the Gazette's final days. This was fortunate, for the singular events that marked the passing of Arkansas's most venerable business enterprise went largely unreported in what is now the state's presumptive newspaper of record.

The Arkansas Democrat's monument to its victory in the newspaper war was a 12-column transcript of the news conference its proprietor held shortly after the Gazette's employees were abruptly informed that they were unemployed. Walter E. Hussman Jr.'s lengthy statement was devoted largely to balance-sheet juggling intended to demonstrate that he had lost less money in the fiscal bloodletting than had the Gazette's last owner, the Gannett Co.

An Ego Trip

I had departed Arkansas before Hussman came on the scene, so I am in no position to join in the speculation as to his motivation.

Viewing it from afar, his head-on assault on the Gazette struck me as an ego trip unmatched in newspaper annals since William Randolph Hearst poured millions down the drain in order to establish an identity for himself.

However, I did know Hussman's grandfather, C.E. Palmer, and his father, Walter Sr., and I have no doubt that the heir's decision to expand the family's media empire by losing money must have occasioned a good deal of turning over in the family graveyard.

The small-city dailies that made up the Palmer chain in his grandfather's day were models of frugality. They were manned by the minimum number of underpaid employees required to patch together editions largely made up of syndicated boilerplate, and they enjoyed local monopoly status that enabled them to keep advertising and circulation rates as high as the market would bear.

Milking these cash cows made it possible for the Camden News Publishing Co. to acquire lucrative cable television properties and expand its operations into three neighboring states.

There was plenty of money on hand in 1974 when Walter Jr., now in full control, decided to relocate to Little Rock and take over the moribund Arkansas Democrat.

It was a likely enough purchase. Under its previous owners, the Democrat had followed the Palmer method. The staff was sparse and underpaid, the plant run-down, the news coverage minimal and the editorial policy flaccid.

But, unlike the other Palmer properties, it did not enjoy a monopoly.

The afternoon Democrat was so far behind in circulation and advertising its revenues were only 20 percent of its morning competitor's. The newspaper was already a shoestring operation, so the Palmer method provided no means to stem the hemorrhage of red ink.

After three years, Walter Jr. was ready to give up.

An Offer To Hugh

During his news conference last month, Hussman recounted the offer he made to the Gazette's publisher, Hugh B. Patterson Jr.: "You decide where we distribute the paper. You decide the deadlines, the prices of the paper and everything. And we basically want out."

In return, Hussman asked for 10 percent of the profits of a joint operation in which he would do no more than collect dividends.

Patterson has been criticized for turning down a proposition that it can now be seen would have saved the Gazette's owners a great deal of money and grief. But, as he told Hussman at the time, there was no way he could avoid losing money on the deal even if the Democrat were offered free. The Little Rock market simply could not sustain two newspapers.

The reasons Hussman cited for reaching a similar conclusion 14 years later are revealing. When he insisted Gannett would have to shut down the Gazette in return for the $68 million he was willing to pay for its assets, he also rejected the idea of a joint operation.

Hussman said, "The idea of turning over the business side of my newspaper to somebody else, and letting them set the advertising prices, and letting them set the circulation prices, is something I don't think I could ever have lived with or enjoyed."

It apparently was of no moment that he could have continued to control the news and editorial content of his newspaper and maintain a voice in the state's public affairs.

The Mournful Numbers

Hussman recited the mournful numbers that chart the shrinkage of advertising markets and the disappearance of newspapers everywhere in the country.

When the Gazette was shut down, he pointed out, only 16 cities still maintained two dailies, all of them larger than Little Rock. Yet, until he began dickering with Gannett, Hussman had continued to insist that when he launched an advertising and circulation war against the Gazette, his intent was not to drive the opposition out of business, only to provide healthy competition.

The competition, of course, turned out to be profoundly unhealthy for both papers. Hussman reduced his advertising and circulation revenues far below his production costs.

For starters, he gave away classified ads and offered the Gazette's advertisers space at $1 per inch if they would give him the same linage. And he went as far as he could to give away copies of the morning Democrat and still have the circulation counted by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

There was no real competition on the news side. The Democrat's news hole was opened up, its staff expanded and the typography jazzed up. But the recruits were usually young and inexperienced. They produced a melange of loosely edited copy that reflected the latest fads in pop journalism, which, like the TV programming it seeks to emulate, ignores the traditional dividing line between news, promotion and entertainment.

The Gazette managed to maintain its standards and stay in the black, but a fiscal vein had been opened. Patterson, who served as steward for members of the Heiskell family, saw revenues declining at a rate that inevitably would take net earnings below the break-even point.

Seeking a means of preserving the newspaper under its long-standing ownership, he brought an antitrust suit against Hussman's Camden News Publishing Co.

That court action provided the only credible reason for Hussman's continued insistence that Little Rock, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, could maintain two healthy morning newspapers.

It was a legally necessary response to the Gazette's showing that Hussman was offsetting his losses with profits from his company's other media holdings in order to systematically undercut his competition, a palpable antitrust violation if the intent was to create a monopoly.

Creative Bookkeeping

With the aid of some creative bookkeeping, Hussman's lawyers won the court contest. To protect the Gazette's owners against further erosion of their property's value, Patterson had to seek a buyer with cash cows capable of matching Hussman's. This reduced the choice to one of the major chains that had come to dominate the nation's press by taking over, or creating, local monopolies.

For Gannett, the risk of moving into a competitive market was offset by the fact that its investment of $60 million gave it a property that would be worth at least twice that if it survived the newspaper war.

Under the rules of the game initiated by Hussman, the prize would go to the publisher with the deepest pockets. In 1986, it looked like a pretty good bet for the larger of the two competing chains.

I thought the sale the only practicable solution for Patterson, with whom I had maintained a close personal relationship through the years.

I knew Gannett editors who assured me they had encountered no interference with editorial policy so long as their newspapers continued to return a decent profit, which was about as much assurance as could be expected in an era of corporate publishing.

That turned out to be the case with the Gazette, even though no profit was ever returned. But the new owners made a fatal blunder on the news side when they sent in editors who tried to outdo the Democrat at its own trivial game. When they recognized the error and allowed the Gazette's surviving newsroom veterans to restore the newspaper's traditional coverage, it was too late.

By 1991, Gannett's earnings were being pared by the national economic recession, and the hole in the bottom line represented by Little Rock was the most likely place to begin retrenchment.

Reviewing The Past

In considering the future of the newspaper that now bears the bastardized logotype Democrat-Gazette, it is pertinent to review the past.

J.N. Heiskell is properly revered for the principled character he bestowed upon the antiquated newspaper he took over in 1902, but he was never a remote denizen of an editorial ivory tower. When he set out to bring the run-down Gazette abreast of the changing times, he understood that this required a healthy balance sheet.

In his memoir, "James Street's South," a Mississippi-born writer who apprenticed under Mr. J.N. in the 1920s described the Gazette as a "Southern lady from any angle, her Confederate limbs hidden under a Victorian petticoat and seen only in stormy weather when she kicks up her heels in an eye-catching crusade for her principles.

"Her tenets have made her one of the most successful journals in the world, and yet her tenets are simple: What is best for humanity as the Gazette sees it, an honest profit is not evil, change is not always progress but never fear change, and lay not a greedy hand, sir, on the fair breast of Arkansas, point not a dirty finger."

Tenets In Place

The tenets still were firmly in place when I was taken to the Old Lady's bosom in 1947.

At 75, Mr. J.N. was preparing for the inevitable changing of the guard and had brought in Patterson, his son-in-law, to take over the business side.

I was summoned from Charlotte, N.C., where I was editor of the News, to fill the spot that had been reserved for Mr. J. N.'s son, Carrick, a combat casualty of World War II.

My tenure is principally remembered for the spectacular events that followed Gov. Orval Faubus' decision to call out the National Guard to bar nine black children from entering Little Rock Central High School under federal court order: In the course of the mob violence, the intervention by Army troops and Faubus' closing of the city's high schools that followed, the Gazette stood virtually alone in insisting that the Constitution must prevail.

A boycott by the White Citizens Council, orchestrated from the state Capitol, cost the newspaper more than 10 percent of its circulation and allowed the professedly neutral Democrat to grow fat on its blood. The stand cost the Heiskell family more than $1 million in lost earnings before the newspaper regained its solid circulation and advertising leads.

The Gazette could not have withstood those blows had it not been for the shoring up Patterson had done after he took over as publisher. He had consolidated the family's holdings, bought out minority interests, brought in new managerial talent, rebuilt the physical plant and modernized the quill-pen practices that prevailed in the advertising and circulation departments.

In the areas of my responsibility as executive editor, he provided the means to raise salaries, expand the staff, open up the news hole and improve the format.

Heiskell Speaks

When the Gazette was honored for its role in restoring law and order to the stricken city, the newspaper received the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished public service. I was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

It remained for J.N. Heiskell to explain why his newspaper had run such risks. His characteristically brief response at a Freedom House award dinner at the Waldorf Astoria brought the New York establishment to its feet cheering.

Heiskell said, "Every newspaper must come to judgment and accounting for the course that forms its image and character. If it is to be more than a mechanical recorder of news, if it is to be a moral and intellectual institution rather than an industry or a property, it must fulfill the measure of its obligation, even though in the words of St. Paul, it has to endure affliction. It must have a creed and a mission. It must have dedication. It must fight the good fight. Above all, it must keep the faith."

The Gazette lived up to that credo as long as Hugh Patterson and his son, Carrick, presided over it.

It was not, of course, included among the tangible assets Walter Hussman insisted were all he bought when he made his deal with Gannett.

But, intangible though it may be, it is surely a thing of value. Unfortunately, I have to conclude that, unlike the Gazette's comic strips, it has turned out to be non-transferable.

Harry S. Ashmore

In 1947, Harry S. Ashmore came to Little Rock as executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette.

A decade later, Ashmore and the Gazette were awarded the first double Pulitzer Prizes for his editorials and the newspaper's distinguished service in the Little Rock Central High School integration controversy.

The Gazette had found on its doorstep a constitutional issue that aroused deep emotions among its readers -- the right of nine black children to attend Central High.

Ashmore realized the issue inevitably would test the very fabric of the American form of government and would touch upon the fears and aspirations of all American people.

Ashmore became a target of Gov. Orval Faubus, and the Gazette became the object of an economic boycott organized by his more passionate supporters.

Prior to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court desegregation decision, Ashmore headed a task force of 45 scholars in a survey of biracial education for the Fund for the Advancement of Education of the Ford Foundation.

Ashmore served as a personal assistant to Adlai Stevenson in Stevenson's 1955-56 presidential campaign. He was a member of the board of directors of the Fund for the Republic from 1954-79, and joined the fund's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions when it was established in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1959. Ashmore was the center's executive vice president from 1967-69 and its president from 1969-74.

Ashmore served as editor in chief of "Encyclopaedia Britannica" from 1960-63. He also was a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and a syndicated columnist.

The books Ashmore has written include "The Negro and the Schools" and "An Epitaph for Dixie." His latest book is "Unseasonable Truths," a biography of Robert Maynard Hutchins published in September 1989.

Ashmore was born in Greenville, S.C., in 1916. He graduated from Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., in 1937 and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in 1941. He began his journalistic career in Greenville as a reporter for the afternoon Piedmont, later serving as political writer and state Capital correspondent for the morning News.

In World War II, Ashmore served in the 95th Infantry Division, rising from second lieutenant to lieutenant colonel. In 1944, Ashmore went to Charlotte, N.C., as editor of the afternoon News. He came to Little Rock three years later.

Ashmore, who lives in Santa Barbara, was a senior fellow in communications at Duke University in Durham, N.C., in 1973-74. He was the first Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1976.

During the Carter administration, Ashmore was a consultant to the Department of Education.

Ashmore served for 26 years as vice chairman of the advisory committee of the American Civil Liberties Union and was a member of the board of the National Committee for an Effective Congress.
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Title Annotation:Harry S. Ashmore's reminiscences of the Arkansas Gazette
Author:Ashmore, Harry S.
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Nov 25, 1991
Words:2719
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