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Pack Journalism?

Pack Journalism?

Is The Newspaper War Sensationalizing Business News Coverage In Arkansas? Or Are The Complainers Just Full Of Sour Grapes.

The newspaper war has been subject to kudos and catcalls regarding its impact on the Little Rock business community. Lower advertising rates are nice, but the business reporting that has accompanied it is more aggressive and at times downright tough. The Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat have been the target of much of the criticism, but Arkansas Business has also been taken to task.

Has Arkansas Business goaded the dailies to delve into areas of business normally talked about and not written about, in effect contributing to the overemphasis on the negative aspects of business?

"I think you have," Tuck Morse believes. "It just exacerbates the situation, but you all are on the peripheral of the whirlwind.

"I think [the tone of business coverage] is a very serious problem for this community. The desire for a sensational story has injected a degree of negativism I've never seen before, and it's been a detriment to the central Arkansas economy.

"Newspapers set the tone for a community, and in Memphis and Dallas, that is positive. I'm tired of seeing people's problems, and I want to see some positive stories. I'm sure that it's hard to find those kinds of stories because no one wants to talk with reporters. I don't want to have anything to do with them, and I don't want to talk with them. Everybody is trying to outscoop and outsensationalize the other guy."

The viewpoint of Morse is one in a variety of opinions gathered in an informal survey of the area's business leaders this past week. Many blame the steadily escalating newspaper war between the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat as the source of rabid, pack journalism; others complain about the media climate in general; and some seem satisfied with the current state of affairs.

In one cases, it has made a businessman gunshy when the telephone rings and a reporter is on the line.

"I've never, in 20 years of business, felt like I couldn't talk with the press, but lately I'm real careful in what I say if I say anything at all," reports William Rector Jr., whose troubled MainStreet project has received extensive coverage, both good and bad. "I think it has taken on an adversarial relationship."

The competition for news in all areas has been steadily growing during the last three years since the Gannett Co. bought the Arkansas Gazette. Business coverage has been a noticeable hot spot of activity, and both papers are even now looking over plans that, among other things, could further expand their business staffs in the next few weeks.

In general, the intensified effort to bring in more business news has been well received. But according to some business leaders like Rhett Tucker, a partner in Flake & Co., the coverage goes too far.

"I think when newspapers are fighting to get the bad news that hurts business development and the businessmen who are trying to sell and promote the community," observes Tucker.

He adds: "I think they should try to promote as opposed to seeing who can get there first with the bad news. It seems that every young reporter is trying to find their Watergate. The business community can't expect the press to be cheerleaders, but I think [the newspaper war] takes its toll on trying to attract new industry."

Business coverage has become more free-wheeling and aggressive in the 1980s. At times it resembles the type of prodding and scrutiny usually reserved for politicians and public figures. Some reporting has also taken on characteristics of sports writing in its attempt to chronicle winners and losers.

Viewpoints differ on whether there's too much emphasis on this approach and whether the business community is well served by today's coverage.

UNLIKE TUCKER, Paul Harvel, president of the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, isn't worried industrial growth will be affected by media battles.

"If it ever chased off a business, it wasn't someone we were working with," observes Harvel. "I have not noticed it from the standpoint of industrial prospects coming into town. We've had considerable questions about our schools now, but not anything involving news coverage.

"I don't really see anything like that. I'm not a good news, bad news reader. I've never lived in a big city where there hasn't been some criticism that we need more good news. I don't see any difference in the media here. I don't hear any more complaints or praise of the media than anywhere else I've been."

Some note that Gannett's entry into the market accentuated the good and bad points of the already existing newspaper war.

"What I do think is that it's taken the competition to a new level, and they are trying to get an edge on one another by trying to be the most sensational," says Curt Bradbury, CEO of Worthen Banking Corp. "They're both more aggressive, and therefore in a lot of ways better. The heat of the battle and emphasis on the scoop do cause them at times to be sloppy."

As the head of a public company, Bradbury considers interacting with the media a normal chore. He thinks local businessmen on the whole are passive in dealing with the press and that improved communications between both parties can help each do a better job.

"They should be free to criticize our performance as we should with theirs," Bradbury points out. "The problem I've seen is for certain individuals [in the media] to look at an issue and approach it from a standpoint of: There must be something wrong with a subject. I'm suggesting they should go in with an unbiased attitude.

"In the short run, sensationalism may look good or feel good, but accuracy and integrity will win the war. The attitude is the city will survive, and I personally hope we have two good newspapers along with Arkansas Business."

ANDREW COLLINS, an executive at Metropolitan Trust Co., reports that although his firm is a traditional, low-key private company, efforts are made to keep an open channel with the media.

"We take an active role to make sure the facts and accounts are accurate about us," Collins notes. "If we were suddenly in the maelstrom of media coverage, I'm sure I'd be concerned about the microscopic details of the article. Otherwise I don't look at the articles I read as critically. I'd rather business coverage be more daring, but as a businessman I don't want us to be under a microscope either.

"The question is, is this competitive situation better? I don't know the answer to that, but in general I think competition is good. It's better than having a monopoly."

Bob Douglas, journalism professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and managing editor of the Arkansas Gazette 1972-81, doesn't see any negative side to expanded news coverage of the business community.

"They clamored for years to get more attention for business news, but now articles that have the slightest negative perception are disliked," Douglas states. "They're not used to the scrutiny because before they were largely ignored.

"It's the price you pay. Business should be covered warts and all as should everything else. I don't see that more in business coverage than in any other aspect of news coverage. Business hasn't been too good lately, and reporters aren't making it up."

People like Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat, are blamed for focusing more on the downside of business, which creates a poor image of the central Arkansas economy.

"I never have anyone call me directly about it, but I do hear it indirectly," Hussman reveals. "Generally, I don't think people like the aggressive way the media pursue the news. I think most of them are the object of the coverage."

Some critics believe that it may take the closing of one of the dailies to force a change in the aggressive way business is covered.

"I think they think it will change, but it won't," Hussman says. "I'm sure there would be less space [for articles], but not different coverage. I think what is discomforting to business people is the focus of business coverage."

Warren Stephens, the CEO of Stephens Inc., isn't uncomfortable with the bad news being covered along with the good. He is concerned that the accuracy of articles sometimes suffers during the daily rush of battle in the newspaper war.

"The first casualty of war is truth, and I'm afraid that's what you've got here," Stephens believes. "I'll see things in the paper that I have first-hand knowledge of, and you'll wonder what they're thinking. Are they just trying to sell papers, and if so, do they really need to say that?

"It is tough to see a friend or yourself in the paper. I think it is somewhat of a shock to people. It has made the public relations business a big deal in central Arkansas. Look at me. I've got two people in my office waiting on me, and I'm talking with you.

"Clamming up has been proven not to work. It opens up the imagination as to what the truth really is. You just need to open up and lay it on the table if it's good or bad."

Whatever shortcomings there might be with the focus of business coverage, more information is better than less, according to Jim Hathaway, the namesake head of the Hathaway Group.

"In the main, it's been a positive effect for the business community," Hathaway believes. "I don't think reporting what happens is bad. In the effort to report in more depth and volume, occasionally the media reaches for a story or reports something ahead of its time. That happens infrequently but more so today than in years gone by.

"The whispers column started a trend. Items that would've never been used before are routinely being reported on in the Democrat and Gazette. The good of that is it's titillating to the readers, and the bad is its written as part of a news story and not as a rumor or whispers column. There is a blurring of distinction between hard news and speculation."

PHOTO : Arkansas business leaders speak out on the escalating newspaper war in central Arkansas.

PHOTO : A cluster of newspaper boxes outside the Postal Building in Little Rock are one indication

PHOTO : of the heavy news saturation in central Arkansas.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Little Rock newspaper war
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:company profile
Date:Feb 12, 1990
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