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Arkansas Gazette. "The silence is haunting." (reminiscenses of former journalists of the Arkansas Gazette newspaper)(part 1)

The Gazette's Voice Is Silenced After Almost 172 Years: Veteran Staffers Mourn Her Passing

This is the first of a two-part series of essays by longtime Arkansas Gazette writers and editors. Walter E. Hussman Jr. and the Gannett Co. did not allow Gazette staffers to write the newspaper's obituary, choosing to put the Old Lady in the grave without a formal final edition. This week and next week, Arkansas Business will give journalists a chance to reminisce on what was the state's oldest business.

Jerry Dhonau

The Grand Old Lady, may her soul rest in peace, will not be pleased if we grow too maudlin in remembering her.

That would not be good journalism, and she would not tolerate it, not for an instant.

It was my privilege to serve her -- nay, serve her readers -- through years of startling change not only in public life but also in the newspaper industry.

She changed with it and managed to excel along the way. In the end, she remained strong journalistically.

As a business, well, that's another matter, as Arkansas Business readers know.

Arkansas will miss her more than most of us realize. There is a certain quality in a good newspaper like the Gazette that defies easy description. It certainly transcends the personality of the publisher or editor or any journalist, no matter how prominent, although it may embrace the contributions -- good and bad -- of all.

The closest any figure in my direct experience came to personifying the essence of the Gazette as a venerable institution was John Netherland Heiskell.

Mr. Heiskell, or Mr. J.N., the honorific always applied in the newsroom and editorial offices, set high standards of reporting and writing and editing. Nothing less than excellence would serve. He gave his character to the Gazette and her readers as editor for 70 of her more than 171 years.

Yes, Mr. Heiskell came close, but hundreds of others have toiled in the trenches and made their own contributions. The bouillabaisse of a newspaper possessing a soul as rich as the Gazette's cannot be recreated.

The event, as opposed to the personality, that comes closest to reflecting the character of this great newspaper was the desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

A newspaper of lesser character would have abandoned its duty to report the news objectively in the face of extraordinary fire.

A newspaperman of lesser character would not have dared to tell the people of Arkansas in courageous editorials what many of them did not want to hear about their duty to uphold law and order and decency.

Advertising and subscription boycotts cut deeply, but the Gazette's owners held firmly to what they felt was right.


That is what the Gazette exuded. It was recognized by two Pulitzer Prizes.

Arkansas, in many ways on many days, will now find itself without the Grand Old Lady's watchful eye and guiding voice.

The silence is haunting.

Jerry Dhonau worked for the Arkansas Gazette twice. His most recent stint began in 1960. He was the editorial page editor for the Gazette for the past six years.

Max Brantley

My 6-year-old son took one look at the first edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that Saturday morning, and this is what he said:

"It's so mean to say that."

He was talking about the lead headline, which read "It's over! Gazette closes."

My 6-year-old saw instinctively what the editors at the D-G, in their excitement, overlooked.

The news event this headline chronicled was not a football game. It was a major industrial closure that will cost 1,500 to 2,200 people their jobs.

Would the D-G headline have been so exuberant had the news concerned, say, an aluminum production plant?

Imagine the Saline County reaction a few years ago had a newspaper headline read: "It's over! Reynolds closes."

This was not the only unsettling episode during the waning days of the newspaper war.

For example, a Democrat photographer was sent to the Gazette for hours Thursday to keep the building under surveillance. He told a former colleague he was on hand to make sure no one made off with any of Democrat Publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr.'s stuff.

It was no surprise the provocation, and the photographer's taunting of departing employees, ended in fists being thrown by a Gazette employee.

None of us liked being viewed as potential criminals.

Then, there was the D-G's announcement that popular Gazette columnist Richard Allin and Charles Allbright would join the staff of the new newspaper. This announcement was made before anyone from the Democrat had talked to either man.

And how to explain why the D-G chose not to cover a candlelight vigil for the old Gazette on the night of Friday, Oct. 18. Several hundred gathered. Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and former Gov. Sid McMath were among the speakers.

Finally, there's the business of writing history. John R. Starr, the D-G managing editor, has told me this job goes to the winner. And he has been hard at it.

The thrust is that Gannett is to blame.

Gannett is certainly due a share of the blame, if that's the word. It never understood Arkansas or the Arkansas Gazette.

For all that, the Gazette, in its final days, was substantially the newspaper it had been for years. It could claim an unparalleled editorial page, fine supplemental wire services, a stable of gifted, veteran reporters. The amount of space devoted to news exceeded anything provided in the so-called glory days.

The fact is -- and it is a fact given little attention by the history writers -- that the end began in 1986 when the Patterson family, then owners of the Gazette, lost their antitrust suit against Hussman.

With the legal seal of approval given Hussman's below-cost circulation and advertising rates, the Pattersons had only one option.

Sell the newspaper.

Gannett stepped forward, and a bloodbath of mutual discounting ensued.

At the end, it was a question of resources and will.

Gannett could not deplete Hussman's resources.

And Hussman broke Gannett's will.

That is business.

Newspapering is another thing. That's why I hope some of the unpleasant events of the final days can be easily explained by honest oversight, confusion and temporary bad judgment in the heat of what had to be heady days for people at the Democrat.

Because if the charitable explanations don't apply -- if those events portend the shape of things to come in a one-newspaper town -- God help us all.

Max Brantley was the political columnist for the Arkansas Gazette when it closed. Prior to that, he was an assistant managing editor.

John Workman

It's called the grief process.

But the words seem so totally inadequate.

So clinical, so easily spoken, so quickly written.

The experts, however, are at least partly right.

Grief, it is.

A process? Well, we can only hope so because one can "get through" a process.

We're talking, of course, about death. In this instance the death of an institution far older than the state of Arkansas.

The oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi River.

The Old Gray Lady.

We are told the Arkansas Gazette has died.

We're told again: It's true.

Now comes the grief. Now the process.

As we understand the process -- having, like most mortals, experienced grief before -- it comes with a whirlwind of emotions.




Loss, that indescribable void that remains after a loved one has passed.

The falling of a mighty tree.

An empty place against the sky.

In the death of the Gazette, the loss is both public and private.

Perhaps the most immeasurable loss is that experienced by Gazette employees and contract workers, more than 2,000 persons who have lost their jobs.

Not so easily measured is the loss to the state of Arkansas.

It would be impossible to measure the influence for good the Arkansas Gazette has had upon this state, and regions beyond, during the past 171 years.

Time would fail us to tell of the Arkansas Gazette's influence; to speak adequately of its contributions; to give account of its role in fashioning the character of the people and institutions of this state and land.

For Gazette subscribers, the loss will be felt in many ways. It will be experienced in the absence of a long-time breakfast companion, a family friend of many, many generations.

A lonesome cup of coffee in the morning.

The loss will be felt by not getting to read those countless news reports in Arkansas' historic, Pulitzer Prize-winning "newspaper of record."

When a human being dies, especially one of great significance to many, it frequently happens that those who remain pledge to "live out" the deceased's ideals, visions and dreams.

It is too much to imagine that such a thing could happen in the wake of the Gazette's passing?

Is it too much to suppose that hitherto silent voices will "live out" the Arkansas Gazette's commitment to principal?

Will a remnant appear to carry the torch so long held high by the Gazette?

Hope springs eternal.

It has been said God buries the workers but carries on the work.

The Arkansas Gazette is dead. Long live the Gazette.

Before retiring in July 1989, John Workman was religion editor of the Arkansas Gazette for 10 years, during which time he wrote a weekly column of opinion. He continued to write the weekly column until the Gazette's demise Oct. 18.

Jim Bailey

The essence of the Arkansas Gazette -- the "real" or "old" Gazette -- was captured best in an offhand remark several years ago.

Ralph Baldwin, a newspaperman now working for the Houston Post, grew up in Little Rock during the 1950s and '60s.

He grew up reading the Gazette, as did approximately two of every three Arkansans.

And he once said, "Every day, you could look at the front page and know instantly if anything really important had happened."

The Gazette violated its restrained look only for events worthy of screaming headlines.

Federal troops occupying Central High School.

Men landing on the moon.

Nixon resigning.

Natural disasters loose in the state.

Wars starting or ending.

Presidential assassination attempts.

Arkansas beating Texas.

A newspaper, great or terrible, is still a business enterprise with a bottom line. This is a fact of life that Mr. J.N. Heiskell, Hugh Patterson and Harry Ashmore did their best to conceal from the men and women who wrote and edited the prime-of-life Gazette.

Once in a great while, heavyweights from the side of the house where the money was counted would wander into the newsroom, spewing corporate jargon.

The managing editor, A.R. Nelson or later Bob Douglas, would quickly step between them and the people who put out the paper, like a baseball manager shielding his players from edgy umpires, and politely but firmly back them out into the hall.

Gazette standards were established and guarded by four editors of the sort the industry seems incapable of producing anymore: Nelson, Douglas, Bill Shelton and my main man, Orville Henry.

A time came in the early 1980s, with the so-called newspaper war heating up, that the Gazette's proprietors were persuaded that the paper's strengths were actually weaknesses.

Decline dates from this Orwellian spin, and not from the sale to the Gannett Co. in 1986. That was merely a tragic and inevitable milestone on the road to terminal silliness.

Ironically, the Gazette was a better, more focused newspaper through its last two months than it had been in five years. Credit the employees, not the employers.

Shock, rage and grief, generated by the paper's impending death, finally united Gannettoids and long timers into something close to a professional family.

When the wake hit, younger ones mourned what they had expected the Gazette to become. The rest of us glorified what it had been.

The "real" Gazette couldn't have been as good as it seems in retrospect. It was great when it needed to be, though, and responsible and consistent otherwise.

Who would expect more of a newspaper?

Jim Bailey was a sportswriter for the Gazette for 35 years. He is the co-author of a book on the history of the University of Arkansas football program and the author of a history of the Arkansas Travelers. Bailey is recognized as one of the nation's foremost baseball writers.

Leroy Donald

The call came in the spring of 1959.

It was from A.R. Nelson, the managing editor of the Arkansas Gazette.

The call was not unexpected. Rodney Dungan, a school chum from our El Dorado High School days, had hosted me at the Gazette while I was in Little Rock to cover a Red-White Razorback scrimmage for the El Dorado Daily News.

Dungan had left the News a few years before to become a photographer for the Gazette. He introduced me to Nelson. I had the feeling I was being sized up.

The call was typical A.R. Nelson, not a request but an understated order: "You need to come on up here and talk about coming to work for the Gazette."

So on a hot day in early July, I walked into that long, hallowed hallway, the big oil paintings of William Woodruff, J.N. Heiskell and Fred Heiskell staring down in all their sternness and journalistic history.

There were the two Pulitzer Prizes and other awards.

This was tradition.

I was to become part of it for the next 32 years, including the sad but anticipated end.

It began for me as an obituary writer on the state desk. Nelson said I was pretty good because I knew who was who across the state. That was due largely to contacts made during my nearly five years at the University of Arkansas.

He also told me I talked like an Arkansan, and that was important to the paper as it recovered from the blows it took after Central High.

That first weekend at the Gazette I remember well. I had been there four days, one of them bleary because everybody insisted on taking the new guy out for a beer at Miller's.

Ken Parker, the state editor, took off, leaving me to run the unfamiliar and still awesome desk by my El Dorado self. It would be the weekend that four tornadoes hit the state.

I did OK for a new guy.

There were the school bombings, the crash of a B-52 over the city, the reopening of Central High.

Bill Shelton, Gene Foreman, Roy Reed -- just a few of the great names who worked in the same room.

There was the legendary Larry "Chief" Obsitnik, the chief photographer and reigning fountain of curious wit, the man who covered eclipses from the back table at Miller's and told presidents and rabble-rousers alike where to stand so he could get the best photo.

Later, as state editor, I covered the exciting civil rights days, the Rockefeller years, the penitentiary scandal, the end of gambling at Hot Springs.

I chased outlaw Joe Hildebrand through the Ozarks and the Clarksville panther through the Arkansas River bottoms.

It was a fun time to be in the newspaper business.

I moved from the state desk to the business news section. There was new leadership on the death of Mr. Heiskell. Eventually, there was new ownership.

Then, there came the day shortly after the new owners were in full control that I had the queasy feeling that things were not going to be the same.

That was the day I came to work and walked for the zillionth time down that hallway and saw, across from those paintings of Woodruff and the Heiskells, a new glass case full of Gazette T-shirts and coffee mugs and knickknacks for sale.

That wasn't proper, I thought.

But there was nothing I could do.

Forgive me A.R., Chief, Mr. J.N.

Leroy Donald worked at the Arkansas Gazette for 32 years. He was a business writer when the newspaper closed.

Deborah Mathis

It could have been worse.

The reader who called that Thursday morning might have been anonymous, profane and threatening.

Instead, he gave his name and spoke with civil pleasantry as he lowered the boom on the Arkansas Gazette's editorial staff.

Our brief telephone conversation began benignly.

"Is the Gazette really a goner?" he asked.

"From every indication," I replied.

He was sorry about that. As an avid Gazette reader, he would miss it terribly.

Dispensing with the condolences, the man promptly unveiled what apparently had been his true agenda. These were, perhaps, the newspaper's final hours, and he didn't want us to get away without having heard his theory on why the Gazette was washed up.

"I think what really did it was the Gazette editorial policy," he volunteered. "It has gotten so liberal that it's completely out of the mainstream. Especially you, Ms. Mathis. I mean, some of the stuff you write is so way out."

It was the second time in recent days I had been accused of farfetched writing and held partially liable for the Gazette's demise.

An editorial in the Conway County Petit Jean Country Headlight, a weekly newspaper at Morrilton, had said much the same thing.

On any other day, I might have taken the bait.

But preoccupied with what my office mates had dubbed "Topic A" -- when and how the Gazette would shut down -- I had little energy for a duel and even less hospitality for unsolicited critiques which, in those imminent moments, were approaching the realms of hindsight and futility.

"It's pretty much moot now," I offered. "My column is finished."

I hoped the caller would take the hint.

Not so.

Before the conversation ended, I was subjected to yet another reader's harangue about my supposed prejudices, including alleged anti-white, anti-male biases.

"We're not all bad," he concluded.

He had me engaged, after all.

I shoved back.

"Honestly, now. Don't you know that I know that?"

"Well, let me just say it doesn't come off that way," he countered.

With that, the call was ended with all deliberate speed.

I figured if the end were near, why further the torment by entertaining the rantings -- however politely cloaked -- of he who came to bury Caesar.

Verily, a deathbed debate seemed inappropriate.

Yet, having recouped some of my faculties, I would argue now that, if the man has me correctly pegged -- and I think not -- it is his only accuracy.

The four other members of the Gazette's editorial board never lost sight of the so-called mainstream.

Indeed, it was at the vanguard of each daily meeting of the editorial board in which the five of us wrestled with right and wrong.

When the deliberations were too anguished, when the right way was less than clear, Jerry Dhonau, the editorial page editor, invariably ordered restraint and repose. The man was impeccable in his fairness.

However the caller may cheer my silenced voice, may the record show that the other editorialists were unfaltering in their clarity, dedication, caring and responsibility to our native Arkansas.

It was, in short, glorious working with Dhonau, Senior Editor Bob McCord, Associate Editors Ernie Dumas and Doug Smith and our copy editor, Phil Lamb.

They are some of the finest people I've ever known.

And wouldn't you know it?

They're all white men.

Deborah Mathis was an associate editor and columnist at the Gazette.

Bill Rutherford

History should record that she did not have a fitting burial.

After almost 172 years, somebody decided the Arkansas Gazette would die, a last edition with no obituary.

The Old Gray Lady deserved better, the state deserved better and the staff that saw her through her agonizing last days deserved better.

She deserves no maudlin epitaph for she stood courageous in her time; a conscience, a chronicler of the state and her people and the issues important and necessary to them.

She was older than the state itself, and she was Arkansas' oldest business. The thousands of people behind her through the years made her great, something in which Arkansas and Arkansans took pride.

Many who supped at her table went on to greatness of their own, and most of them remembered her in good will.

William E. Woodruff, a New Yorker, founded the Gazette in 1819 at Arkansas Post.

John Netherland Heiskell, a Tennessean, brought her to greatness. In his 70 years as editor, from 1902 until 1972, Heiskell defended and championed his poor, rural state and its people.

Heiskell detested those who would cast a slur on the state or its people, be it Bob Burns in his Arkansas humor, the pundits from a distance or Gov. Jeff Davis and Gov. Orval Faubus. His battles with Davis and Faubus were momentous.

In 1957, he placed his lifelong devotion, the Arkansas Gazette, on the line when Faubus defied the U.S. Supreme Court and the law of the land in what was to become the desegregation crisis of Central High School. Nine young black students and the stand of one newspaper, the Arkansas Gazette, made national headlines.

You must ask the Arkansas Democrat, the other statewide newspaper at the time, where it stood.

The Gazette and Heiskell suffered -- circulation dropped drastically and some advertisers withheld their ad dollars.

Heiskell, with Executive Editor Harry S. Ashmore and Publisher Hugh B. Patterson, persevered.

City Editor William T. Shelton organized, planned and directed the coverage of event that made Little Rock a name known worldwide. Shelton's coverage was textbook journalism, complete and thorough.

For its stand, the Gazette was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, one for editorial writing by Ashmore and the other for public service. The newspaper became the first to win two Pulitzers in the same year, and many other national awards followed.

Heiskell's dedication to journalism inspired his staff. The ideals of the Old Man or Mr. J.N. (Ned to some) lived in those who worked for him -- from reporter to editor to copy clerk.

He set the standard.

His staff and I followed it.

How then could a newspaper of such reputation die almost 19 years after the death of its renowned editor?

Why should a newspaper of national reputation suffer such a publicly agonizing death?

Those questions will be argued ad infinitum during the next few years and beyond. But for now there is only sadness.

For seven weeks, I watched a staff work its heart out while the media around us predicted we were on the way to the graveyard. To their credit, nobody buckled.

There was a job to do. Each staff member did it.

Morale suffered, that can't be denied. There was no word from the Gannett Co. or Walter E. Hussman Jr.

Finally, it was clear, but nobody would say officially.

A well-publicized, valiant staff effort to save the Gazette failed with the leaders admitting the cause was lost Oct. 16.

It was over, the clock was ticking. Everybody on the staff knew it, no one wanted to believe it. It was like a nightmare.

On Thursday, Oct. 17, Jerry Dhonau penned a farewell editorial. It would run on the 18th, in Friday morning's edition.

Max Brantley, a leader in the effort to save the newspaper, devoted his column to Gazette memories.

Those were our farewell words.

On Friday afternoon, before about 350 Gazette employees gathered in the newsroom, Publisher Maurice L. "Moe" Hickey read the Gazette's obituary from two hand-scribbled notes.

It was quick.

After almost 172 years, we were no more.

We were history.

Managing Editor Bill Rutherford's career at the Gazette spanned 35 years.

Doug Smith

As I left the Gazette Building the day it shut down, an Arkansas Democrat reporter stopped me for an interview.

And so I gained the distinction, if that's what you call it, of being misrepresented in the very first issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

(Why couldn't they have left the Gazette's proud name alone, at least? One more bitter pill to choke down.)

I was quoted as saying the Gannett Co. had underestimated Walter E. Hussman Jr. Period.

What I said was that Gannett underestimated Hussman's willingness to keep losing enormous sums of money year after year. Hussman's commitment to losing as much as it took for as long as it took is what won the newspaper war.

The Patterson family never had the resources to match Hussman. Gannett had deep pockets, but it also had stockholders and a board of directors who eventually would tire of the financial drain in Little Rock.

To the end, the Gazette was the better paper and the better-loved paper.

Some readers were offended by changes made under Gannett and in the closing days of the Patterson regime -- color photos, more emphasis on what some considered "fluff" stories.

But these were minor things, happening in newspapers across the country, for better or for worse, including the Arkansas Democrat.

To its credit, Gannett didn't try to change the Gazette's progressive editorial policy. The Gazette editorially appealed to the best in the people of Arkansas. That voice will be missed.

There are other publications in the state that share many of the Gazette's ideals, but none with the size, the prestige and the influence of the Gazette.

I fear for the state, and especially for the minorities, the underprivileged, the dissenters.

It is tempting for old-timers like me to look back at a golden age of the Gazette. But the truth is the Gazette always attracted eager and idealistic youngsters to carry on its traditions.

On the day it died, the Gazette was about as good as it had ever been. We just got outspent.

As for me, I've joined the ranks of both the jobless and the homeless. The various places I've lived around Little Rock were never really home. Home was at Third and Louisiana.

But for 28 years, six on the editorial page, I was part of a great institution, and worked with some of Arkansas' finest people.

As Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang, "They can't take that away from me."

Associate Editor Doug Smith worked for the Gazette 28 years.
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Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 28, 1991
Previous Article:The legal war: attorneys, brokers helped decide the future of the Arkansas Gazette.
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