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Gambling on Griffin: Griffin Smith Jr. can certainly write, but can he manage?

On Oct. 18, the day the Arkansas Gazette ceased publication after almost 172 years, Griffin Smith Jr. was in Austin, Texas, attending a reunion of past and current staff members of Texas Monthly.

Smith was a full-time Little Rock lawyer and a part-time travel editor at the Arkansas Democrat.

His absence on the newspaper war's D-day likely went unnoticed. At the time, he enjoyed a much heftier journalistic reputation in Austin than in Little Rock.

"I remember being pleased that the Democrat survived," Smith says. "But I never thought it meant anything for me."

Fast forward to June 23, eight months after Walter E. Hussman Jr.'s creation of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Griffin Smith Jr. is named executive editor of the only statewide daily newspaper.

Griffin Smith Jr. -- a man who has never before run a newsroom.

Griffin Smith Jr. -- a bespectacled Little Rock attorney who looks more like an officer of the court than a newspaperman.

Griffin Smith Jr. -- a man who prefers his "Jr." with a small "j."

One could almost hear the collective "who?"

Even some of his friends from Texas were taken aback.

"I was a little surprised," says Gary Cartwright, a senior editor at Texas Monthly who worked with Smith in the early 1970s. "I thought, 'He's a talented guy. Good for them.' But it surprises me that he would have been interested.

"I assumed his law career was going well ... You know, most lawyers get rich, fat and sassy. But journalism does get into your blood. And I guess he's running the newspaper. That will be an interesting challenge."

Interesting indeed.

Smith admits he brings "unpredictability" to the job.

To his credit, he has gotten off to a quick start.

The day his appointment was announced, Smith said a managing editor to replace the retired John Robert Starr would be named within six weeks.

Less than a week later, Smith told a visiting reporter that he expected the search to take less time. That afternoon, Bob Lutgen was promoted from assistant managing editor to managing editor.

Smith also had said the hiring of a managing editor ultimately would be his decision. Democrat-Gazette watchers noted that Hussman was on vacation the day Lutgen was promoted.

"Griffin will not bring office politics to the Democrat," says Paul Burka, executive editor of Texas Monthly and a longtime friend of Smith's. "He is not that sort. He deals very honorably with other people."

Who Is This Guy?

The collective "who?" seems to have been followed by a collective pause.

Texas Monthly, National Geographic, The Atlantic Monthly and Saturday Review all pop up on Smith's resume.

So do a law degree and a stint writing speeches for President Carter.

Smith may lack the requisite experience as an ink-stained newsroom habitant, but he has been a journalist in some form or fashion since his college days at Rice University in Houston.

It goes back further than that, says Griffin Smith Sr., whose father was an Arkansas Supreme Court justice and former newspaperman.

Griffin Sr. remembers his son learning to read from the New York tabloids.

When Griffin Jr. was a toddler, the Smiths moved from Fayetteville to New York, where his father worked briefly for the FBI.

"I would bring home the Daily News or the Post and drop them there," Griffin Sr. says. "Those banner headlines would get his attention.

"He would get under his mother's feet and point to one of those letters and say, 'What is that?' Then, he would say, 'What does that spell?' He was underfoot all the time doing that."

Before he was 5, Griffin Jr. had taught himself to read.

At age 7, when mom and dad asked their son what he would like for Christmas, he told them, "A dictionary."

He got it, too.

Smith followed his father's footsteps and his grandfather's dreams.

Like his father, Smith became a lawyer. In fact, he has worked at the Little Rock law firm of Smith & Nixon since he returned to Arkansas a decade ago. That will end.

Like his grandfather, Smith helped start a publication. His grandfather was the founder and publisher of what is now the Paragould Daily Press as well as a small daily in California.

Griffin Jr. was in on the ground floor of Texas Monthly in 1973. Fellow lawyer Michael Levy put up the money as publisher. Rice classmate William Broyles, who worked for the Houston public schools, was the first editor.

Broyles, who went on to edit Newsweek and co-produce the television show "China Beach," later wrote that Smith "was too good a writer ever to be content practicing law."

Smith, editor of the school paper at Rice, was working as an attorney with the Texas Legislature when he agreed in January 1973 to work part time for the neophyte monthly. He still remains on the magazine's masthead as a contributing editor.

"One of the things I learned from that experience is that good journalists can be found anywhere," Smith says.

Smith flourished at Texas Monthly. His colleagues laud two of his stories in particular.

He poked fun at Gov. Dolph Briscoe in a 1976 profile headlined "Why Does Dolph Briscoe Want To Be Governor?"

And Smith took an inside look at three of the nation's largest law firms in a 1973 piece titled "Empires Of Paper."

Both articles won awards.

The detailed story on the three Houston-based law firms has become almost legendary in Texas legal circles, according to Burka.

One of the firms featured was Baker & Botts, which has an office in London. Long after the article came out, Smith's father visited the British operations.

When he was introduced as Griffin Smith, a partner immediately perked up.

Was this the author of the Texas Monthly story?

"They said it was required reading for everyone at the firm," Griffin Sr. says.

No Ben Bradlee

Among the contributors to Texas Monthly was Little Rock author and former Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons.

Through the years, Lyons has been highly critical of the Arkansas Democrat and its former managing editor.

When called for a comment on Smith, Lyons was asked if he had time for an interview.

"I'm just sitting here reading the Democrat-Gazette," he said. "I always welcome diversions to that."

He has high praise for Smith, though.

Lyons calls Smith a talented writer with a nose for news. He pats Hussman on the back for making such a bold selection.

"This potentially is real exciting," Lyons says. "He would tell you the jury is out on his management skills and dealing with large numbers of people in an executive way. But, on balance, it's exciting.

"The guy has been all over the world. He's written speeches for the president. He's done first-rate pieces in his time ... He's a talent of a different order than they've had before. He's honest and rigorous and not so much devoted to ideological apologetics."

At Texas Monthly, Smith was primarily a writer, although he helped edit and manage the publication.

Burka says too much is being made of Smith's lack of managerial skills.

"What skills does it take to be able to do that?" Burka asks. "Being an editor is intelligence, news judgment, the ability to motivate people and knowledge of your community ... My gosh, it's not like he's replacing |former Washington Post Executive Editor~ Ben Bradlee. Starr is obviously a controversial figure."

As managing editor, Starr oversaw newsroom operations and wrote a column each day. The "retired" Starr will continue to write seven columns per week. Lutgen will oversee day-to-day newsroom operations.

And Smith?

He says he will not write unless something is too compelling to pass up. If that occurs, he might contribute to Editorial Page Editor Paul Greenberg's page.

"It is extremely important that I'm not the new Starr," Smith says. "... At the Philadelphia Inquirer, they have six people doing what Starr has done. It's phenomenal that Starr has been responsible for all that."

Smith will answer to Hussman and "ultimately be responsible for the guidance of the paper."

That means changes, of course, but Smith will not be specific.

A New Desk

The last person to hold the title of executive editor at the Democrat-Gazette was Robert McCord, who was given the title shortly after Hussman bought the newspaper in 1974.

Ironically, Smith paid what he says was a courtesy call to Hussman soon after the buy. The job of editor was discussed, Smith says.

Neither side pursued it. Smith says he did not have contact with Hussman again until he approached the Democrat publisher about being travel editor in 1987.

"I always thought Walter would take the title of editor and publisher," says McCord, who was the Gazette's senior editor when it closed. "I suggested when he wanted me to run the editorial and opinion pages that he take |those titles~. He decided to call me executive editor, but he never took the title of editor.

"... When Starr came aboard, his title was managing editor. I never understood that except Walter wanted say-so over the editorial page."

From 1968-71, the managing editor of the Democrat was Gene Foreman, now a deputy editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Foreman spoke to Hussman about the job several weeks ago, but he says he was not made an offer. He simply decided not to pursue it.

Arkansas native Joe Stroud (editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press) and former Dallas Times Herald Editor Roy Bode (once the Washington correspondent for the Gazette) also met with Hussman.

Stroud says he acted more as an adviser than as a job candidate.

"In some ways, |Starr's~ column overshadowed the editorial page," Stroud says. "... My counsel was to sharpen the distinction |between news and opinion~. I told him he could go in a lot of different directions with the appointment.

"You could have the old Harry Ashmore type, who's over both sides. You could have a strict separation with a managing editor and a strong editorial page editor like Paul Greenberg. Or you could have someone who is a visible executive editor."

Stroud views the executive editor as one who sets policy, reviews personnel and represents the paper across the state.

The eloquent Smith should be a natural front man. Already, he has been in demand.

Last week, he juggled interviews with members of the print media with television interviews. He turned down several requests from radio talk show hosts.

He's still unpacking.

As the paper's travel editor for five years, Smith worked from home. He did not have a desk or telephone at the newspaper.

Now, he sits behind a polished oak desk in the corner of the renovated third floor at Capitol and Scott in downtown Little Rock.

From his desk, he can see a wall-sized, carpeted Arkansas state seal, which for many years graced the banner of the Gazette and now is used by the Democrat-Gazette.

On the door is written "Griffin Smith, jr. ... Executive Editor."

"It's a hell of a way to get a desk," he says with a smile.

A Griffin Smith Jr. Reader

A Selection Of The Best Writing Of The New Executive Editor Of The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Griffin Smith Jr., the executive editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was a founding editor of Texas Monthly. He also contributed to National Geographic for more than a decade. Here is a sampling of Smith's writing.

Why Does Dolph Briscoe Want To Be Governor?

It was a brisk cloudless Halloween afternoon; the kind of autumn day that redeems six months of unsparing Texas summer; football weather. Inside Austin's suburban Hilton Inn, Gov. Dolph Briscoe had chosen the 10th Annual Texas Conference on Tourist Development as the occasion for a rare public appearance.

To a round of applause led by his wife, Janey, he saluted the state's Coca-Cola bottlers, whom he awarded a Special Citation of Merit for their distinctive contribution to tourism: giving away a package of discount vacation coupons with every case of Cokes. There were other prizes, a speech, handshakes all around.

Outside, the Hilton's marquee announced in foot-high letters: "Now Appearing ... The Total Strangers."

Another Briscoe anecdote was born.

(February 1976, Texas Monthly)

Empires Of Paper

Most wives find that the |law~ firm dominates their lives as well as their husbands'. Emily Lowry (a pseudonym) is attractive, dark-haired, thirtyish. Her husband recently became a partner in one of the Big Three. Seated in the den of their comfortable two-story home in a fashionable neighborhood of Houston, she analyzes their climb.

"The first thing you have to understand about being a lawyer's wife is that it's very similar to being a doctor's wife. The first few years are hard and lonely. He's working long, long, hard hours -- 12 to 15 hours is not unusual, for days at a time. You'll raise your family almost single-handedly for a while."

Whatever dreams a law student's wife may have, they probably do not include an image of herself sitting around an empty house day after day as the sun sets, the dinner hour passing unmarked and preschool children wanting to be cared for and entertained, while her husband works on downtown.

(November 1973, Texas Monthly)


Some cities reveal themselves from your hotel window on the first morning. Years ago in Calcutta, half awake and bleary eyed, I flung open the curtains and found myself eyeball-to-eyeball with a large vulture. He studied me gravely from the balcony rail before flapping away over the rooftops, a proprietor off to inspect his holdings.

More recently, freshly arrived in the prosperous glass-walled cityscape of north Dallas, I met what you might call the vulture's upscale counterpart: a sleek black helicopter descending with a great roar in a muddy vacant lot below my ninth-floor room. Five smartly dressed men and a woman emerged, briefcases in hand. They stepped from rock to rock across the muck, then strode with an air of purpose into the BancTexas building as their copter spun skyward above the rush-hour traffic.

That's Dallas with the cameras off: still doing things with style.

(September 1984, National Geographic)

The Cajuns: Still Loving Life

He was a bearded, stocky, hearty Cajun papa, treating three generations of his family to a pizza after the Krewe of Hyacinthians parade on Sunday afternoon in Houma, La. They were planning a party for Mardi Gras, just two days away. And while I couldn't catch every French-accented word, one admonition came through firm and clear.

"I don' wanna run out of beer," he said, "an' I don' wanna run out of crawfish."

With a chuckle I realized that after six weeks in south Louisiana, I'd found him at last. Here was the Cajun as the world imagines him to be: the easygoing, hard-drinking, seafood-loving denizen of the bayous, brimming with joie de vivre and always ready for a good time. And what was he eating? Pepperoni.

... Pepperoni yesterday, crawfish tomorrow: The genial Cajuns may be the country's prime example of an ethnic group that celebrates its own distinctiveness while remaining comfortably a part of 20th-century America.

(October 1990, National Geographic)
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Title Annotation:includes related article; newly named executive director of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jul 6, 1992
Previous Article:LR Chamber targets Southern California: offers Arkansas as alternative to pressured West Coast business climate.
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