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The essence of the Arkansas Gazette: former staffers continue to mourn her passing.

This is the second of a two-part series of essays by former Arkansas Gazette writers and editors. Since Walter E. Hussman Jr. and the Gannett Co. chose not to allow the Gazette to publish a formal final edition, Arkansas Business wanted to give these journalists a chance to write about what was the state's oldest business.

Ernest Dumas

A common rebuke of its friends and a burden of those who toiled at the Arkansas Gazette the last dozen years was that the newspaper never bothered to protect its reputation, believing it to be secure or the fight for it unseemly.

Had the Gazette not been too literally the Old Gray Lady, would she be alive and prosperous today?

The Gazette did not perish from a surplus of dignity. I am convinced of that

now even more than I was convinced the paper was correct the many times it answered negatively when it was asked, shouldn't we join the war and respond in kind?

When Democrat Managing Editor John Robert Starr began his unrelenting assault on the character of the newspaper and its successive owners, editors and reporters, which was continued by Democrat columnists and often by others in the media, Hugh B. Patterson, the Gazette publisher, decreed that the paper would keep its dignity, tend to duty and never respond to or criticize the other paper and any of the other detractors.

It was a decree only rarely and always regrettably violated, even after the family sold the paper to the Gannett Co. John Brummett, who had been savaged as a completely unprincipled reporter and commentator, and lamented Editor Walker Lundy would occasionally and timidly yield to the impulse to parry.

The attempts offended the institutional soul. Things that appeared perfectly in character and unexceptionable for Starr and the Democrat looked unseemly for the Gazette.

Everyone appreciated the different standard. Outside the pages, in the final days, a few responded in the little employee action to stall the paper's sale.

After it was silenced, Starr used a column to castigate a young Gazette reporter, Adam Weintraub, for having demonstrated such shockingly little grace as to criticize the Democrat owner at a rally of the employees. Starr called him "Whinetraub" throughout. It was a fitting coda to the war.

Its behavior in the last crisis was the essence of the Arkansas Gazette. A newspaper fails its mission if it exploits its own pages for commercial advantage. That the Gazette didn't do it even when its vitality seemed to be at stake is a source of pride to all of us.

The institution may have miscalculated slightly in thinking the attacks were so petty and often so absurdly wrong that they would be perceived that way by Arkansans.

In the end, it made little difference.

The most visible plane of the newspaper war, matching quality and integrity, saw a victory by the Gazette, but it was the least consequential one.

The financial battle was the pivotal one, and the Gazette lost.

Ernest Dumas was with the Gazette 31 years, spending 13 years in its state Capitol bureau and 12 years as an associate editor.

Paul Johnson

For 25 years, I was allowed to be a part of an institution that permitted me to have more fun than anyone had a right to expect from an employer.

When I came back to Arkansas from Texas in 1966, it was to join a newspaper that I already had competed against and admired for years from my vantage point as a reporter-photographer-editor at Hot Springs.

I knew, of course, that I had come to work for a newspaper unlike any other I had worked for. Its stand in the Little Rock Central High School crisis and its tradition of excellence were well known.

I was properly in awe of the talented journalists around me -- Bill Shelton, Bob Douglas, Jerry Neil "Chief" Obsitnik, Orville Henry.

I wasn't prepared, however, for the amount of fun that came along with the serious business of putting out the paper. I had joined a staff that only recently had been expanded to include some of the funniest young people who ever populated a newsroom.

World-class jokesters such as Richard Portis (one-third of the triumvirate of brilliant Portis boys), Mike Trimble, Doug Smith, Ernie Dumas, Jerry Jones, Dan Miller, Leroy Donald and the late George Carter were already there.

Max Brantley, Jonathan Portis, George Boosey and others would come later.

I was working every day in the midst of people who could report on the most serious depredations of rapscallion politicians all day and then cook up hilarious practical and journalistic jokes all night.

Here were people who might return to the newsroom following a couple of hours at the old Downtown Officers Club and do a Fred Astaire impersonation in front of the baffled eyes of the other reporters and editors.

These were people who might invent a character named Omo Fevers Bartlett and hoax new editors with authentic-looking stories involving Barlett's Oklahoma rug empire.

Even the work was fun most of the time.

The night Martha Mitchell called from the bathroom of her Watergate apartment to tell Arkansans that they should "crucify" Sen. J. William Fulbright, we held the presses until after 3 a.m. to get a story written by John Woodruff on the front page.

When a sniper climbed onto a railroad bridge tower in downtown Little Rock, we kept the presses waiting until after 4 a.m. to get the story.

When the L'Orangerie restaurant at Eighth and Louisiana streets in downtown Little Rock caught fire after the final edition had been sent to the presses, I made it back to the empty composing room. The night foreman, Wayne Bolick, and I put together a story for the front page with me dictating and Bolick pecking out the story on a Linotype.

Later, when I became a features columnist, they actually paid me to watch television, go to movies, read books, listen to recordings, attend plays, go on trips.

It was all more fun than anyone had a right to expect a job to be, and I already miss it and my funny friends unbearably.

Paul Johnson was the media columnist for the Arkansas Gazette when it closed Oct. 18. He worked for the newspaper a quarter of a century.

Wadie Moore Jr.

I always considered June 28, 1968, and Aug. 29, 1972, the two most cherished days God has granted me in my 41 years.

On that June day in 1968, I walked into the Gazette Building, had a lengthy interview with the newspaper's sports editor, Orville Henry, and was hired.

In August 1972, my son, Jackie, was born.

Those dates represent a double birth. I was able to obtain a job that had been a dream for many years, and I was blessed with a son who would carry on my name for the next generation.

The Gazette was my home for 24 years. The Old Gray Lady gave me an opportunity very few newspapers would have given me in 1968.

I was far from being an overnight success. But I was blessed immediately. That's because the Gazette had a collection of the best sportswriting talent this state could offer.

Orville Henry was the print voice of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks.

Jim Bailey was an expert on many subjects. He knew the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference and the sport of boxing like no one else.

I fell into the hands of Jerry McConnell, at the time the Gazette's assistant sports editor and the unofficial historian of Arkansas high school athletics. McConnell was not only a track buff, but also an authority on other sports.

During the early stages of my career, I attempted to develop a Henry-Bailey-McConnell style of writing.

I watched the way they handled conversations with coaches.

I watched the way they handled assignments within minutes of deadlines.

I picked everyone's brains for clues that would make me the best at what I wanted to be.

I was an understudy for a long line of gifted writers -- James Thompson, Jimmy Wilder and Jim Lassiter. Finally, my day came in 1972 when Orville Henry decided it was time for me to handle the high school beat.

It did not cross my mind at the time that I would be considered a pioneer among black journalists in Arkansas.

But I recall reading a publication in the early 1970s that stated there were only five black journalists employed by major American newspapers. I was one of those on the list.

Indeed, there was a shortage of black reporters across the country. Seldom did a year go by that I did not receive an offer from an out-of-state newspaper.

Despite the offers, I knew Arkansas was my home. This was where I planned to live and provide for my family.

One of the reasons I wanted to work for a major Arkansas newspaper was to enlighten readers about the success and contribution of black athletes.

Prior to the mid-1960s, the accomplishments of these black athletes were not printed in our newspapers. Many of them left the state and found collegiate success beyond the borders of Arkansas.

The mission I tackled was to make Gazette readers aware of their achievements and thus value the contributions the black athletes made to our state.

I was honest and fair in my reporting.

At times, readers would accuse me of being a "homer" for Little Rock Central High School. I never attended Central, but I respected the school's winning tradition. In fact, Central was an archrival of my alma mater, Horace Mann High School.

Working for the Gazette allowed me the opportunity to meet and establish friendships with people across the state. Those are memories I'll cherish forever.

I'm sad today, but not for personal reasons.

I'm sad because an important part of Arkansas' high school athletic history has been flushed down the drain. It's not just my almost 24 years of work. It was a combined effort on the part of people such as Orville Henry and Jerry McConnell.

The Old Gray Lady was good to me. I suffered through two divorces, but she stood by my side.

She was there every Friday when my finances were low.

She was there when I needed medical attention.

We did not survive the newspaper war. But from an editorial point of view, we never lost a battle. The war was won on other fronts.

I went down with the Gazette in my heart and the Gannett Co. out of my life.

The true losers were our faithful Gazette readers.

Wadie Moore Jr. was assistant sports editor at the Arkansas Gazette. He worked at the newspaper more than 23 years.

Gene Foreman

In the last generation, the death of a newspaper has become a commonplace event.

Those of us in the industry mourn each passing, but we look on it as a matter of simple economics. The costs of publishing are high, and there is only so much advertising. Everyone knows that only the largest cities can support two or more newspapers.

Just this fall, economics doomed afternoon papers in Richmond, Va., and San Diego.

But knowing the laws of newspaper economics does nothing to diminish the sorrow I feel over the death of the Arkansas Gazette.

I was in junior high school at Elaine in Phillips County when I discovered the Arkansas Gazette. Then, as now, Elaine was Memphis Commercial Appeal country. Not many Gazettes found their way across the White River.

But I read the paper eagerly, marveling at its comprehensive approach to Arkansas news. (There were no dispatches from alien Mississippi and Tennessee to distract a reader from what was really important.)

I especially liked the coverage of high school sports. When I arrived at the Gazette several years later as a summer reporter while in college, one of the great rewards was meeting Orville Henry, the sports editor who had masterminded that coverage.

The Gazette was where I came of age as a journalist, learning the craft in the summers of 1954 and 1955. When I emerged from college in 1956, Bill Shelton, the Gazette city editor, gave me the unforgettable experience of covering Orval Faubus' re-election campaign before I was old enough to vote.

Arla Reed Nelson, the managing editor, sent the governor a note assuring him that, youthful appearance to the contrary, I really was a reporter.

I came back to the Gazette in the spring of 1957 after active duty in the Army. During the next five years, I was a reporter and then a junior editor at the Gazette.

Years later, from 1968 to 1971, I competed against the Gazette as managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat. During that period, I held to the forlorn hope that the two papers not only could survive, but also could compete for journalistic dominance.

For the past two decades, I have had the good fortune of witnessing firsthand the making of a newspaper success story at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Throughout my career, I proudly have claimed the Arkansas Gazette as my journalistic alma mater.

I look back with fondness on the people I worked with at the Gazette and the experiences we shared. Those years at the beginning of my career were ones of excitement and camaraderie.

The Gazette of that era was solid, it had a conscience, it possessed an unwritten code of journalistic standards that spurred everyone to high achievement.

And the Gazette was courageous. In the 34 years that have elapsed since the Little Rock Central High School crisis, I have never seen an act of fiscal courage to compare with J.N. Heiskell's decision to risk his newspaper to editorially criticize what Faubus did.

In a matter of weeks, the Gazette lost one-fifth of its circulation. For a while, it seemed the free-falling circulation would never hit bottom.

Inside the embattled Gazette newsroom, morale was high. Partly, this was because we sensed history would confirm the correctness of the Gazette's stand.

Partly, it was because of devotion to journalistic duty.

Mostly, it was because of Mr. Heiskell and the Gazette's executive editor, Harry Ashmore. In an atmosphere of unbelievable tension and turmoil, they were studies in calm leadership.

Ashmore came to the Gazette in 1947. In addition to introducing other improvements during his tenure, he modernized the paper's typography without detracting from its character.

Now, as a senior editor myself, I find myself admiring how he was able to do this. Newspapers have to change with the times, but they should neither change just for the sake of change, nor change in a way that their readers no longer recognize them.

The Gannett Co.'s Gazette editors would have done well to emulate Ashmore.

Now, the Arkansas Gazette of William E. Woodruff and of J.N. Heiskell, of Harry Ashmore, of Bill Shelton, of Bob Douglas, of Ernie Dumas and of countless friends and colleagues is no longer part of the Arkansas scene.

An institution died Oct. 18.

Mounting half the Gazette's nameplate at the top of the Arkansas Democrat's front page, like a hunter's trophy, cannot persuade me that the Gazette and its traditions still live.

The Gazette is dead, and that is something for those of us who care about newspapers, and about Arkansas, to be sad about.

Arkansas native Gene Foreman is deputy editor and vice president of The Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the nation's most award-winning newspapers.

Robert Douglas

On my wall is a watercolor my daughter created for some Father's Day past.

It depicts the old alley-corner entrance to the Gazette Building, for years the staff entrance to the Arkansas Gazette newsroom on the second floor.

The setting is after midnight, and a faint light trickles down the stairway. At this hour, it seems to be the only light in town.

In 1948, I thought that newsroom was the most exciting place in the world. I haven't changed my mind in 1991.

We all worked for the Gazette, not its owners.

Mr. J.N. Heiskell always referred to the newspaper as "the Gazette," not "my newspaper" and certainly never "the product."

I was asked recently to pinpoint the Gazette's heyday, I couldn't. Every day was heyday.

That second floor was sacred ground. The business office stayed in its place, on the first floor.

My memories are of the original genius of Jerry Neil and George Fisher; the brilliant persuasiveness of Harry Ashmore; the great company of gifted people named Bailey, Allbright, Portis, Reed, Smith, Shelton, Jones, Dumas, Trimble, Carithers, Lewis, Owens and Foreman; of legends like Joe Wirges and Spider Rowland.

The Gazette never talked down to its readers, never aimed for the lowest common denominator.

That pale light on the second floor burned on, resisting demagogues' repeated efforts to extinguish it.

In the end, it was turned off from within, and Arkansas probably will never see its likes again.

Somehow, though, we had better.

Robert Douglas is a former managing editor of the Arkansas Gazette. He later was chairman of the Department of Journalism at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He is now retired in Fayetteville.

Robert McCord

For its employees, the worst part of the closing of the Arkansas Gazette was, of course, the loss of jobs, especially the insulting suddenness of it.

Until the very end, many believed Walter E. Hussman Jr. would continue to operate the Gazette one way or another.

The next worse thing for me was the censoring of the story.

As an executive in news or editorial departments, I previously worked for six publishers in Little Rock -- K.A. Engel, the team of Stanley Berry and Marcus George, Hussman, Hugh B. Patterson Jr. and the first two publishers sent here by the Gannett Co. after it bought the newspaper.

Not one of them ever ordered me to keep any news or opinion out of their newspapers.

But in the final days of the Gazette, with rumors circulating across the country, the last Gannett editor and publisher ordered reporters not to pursue rumors of the end of their own newspaper. They told news editors not to run wire stories about it, especially the accurate stories coming from the New York Times News Service. They even made the editorial page staff pull certain letters to the editor that speculated about the end of the Gazette.

It was a bewildering breach of ethics I will never forget. By that point, everyone in the city had heard the rumors, and no one with much knowledge about the newspaper industry would have been surprised at a Little Rock with only one daily newspaper.

The survivor was surprising. I did not think it would be the Arkansas Democrat. I told Hussman that when I resigned in December 1978 as his executive editor. I did not think his plan to turn the Democrat into a morning newspaper would succeed, and I gave that as one of my reasons for leaving.

He was right, and I was wrong.

In the 1920s, 500 U.S. cities had more than one newspaper. In 1980, there were still 182. Now, there are only 62. Of those 62, only 11 are truly separate, competing operations as the Gazette and the Democrat were for more than 120 years.

There also are fewer newspapers altogether, in the nation and in Arkansas. In the 1920s, there were three dailies in Little Rock.

The immediate problem for all media is a decrease in advertising. Mergers are decreasing the number of advertisers, department stores are trying to cut expenses by turning to direct mail, etc.

Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper chain, reported that its income dropped 25 percent in the last quarter. In 1990, Gannett's operating revenue fell for the first time since the company went public in 1967. But it only fell 2 percent.

The day Gannett closed the Gazette, its stock was selling for three times what it was selling for 10 years ago. One of the dirty little secrets of the media business is that companies expect rates of return of 20 to 30 percent, which is what they became accustomed to during the roaring 1980s.

Analysts predict a 27 percent earnings rate for the unopposed Democrat-Gazette, based, I suppose, on the higher advertising rates Hussman has just announced.

But for most other kinds of businesses, a 15 percent pretax profit is a boom year. So greed is one of the reasons for disappearing newspapers.

Another is readership. It's dropping, and advertisers know it.

In 1967, 73 percent of the American people said they had read a daily newspaper the day before. Twenty years later, it was 50.6 percent, only 29 percent for people under the age of 30.

Reasons include many things newspapers have no control over. Young people grow up not used to reading. They are easily bored and prefer television, which has become more varied and popular.

Newspapers resist change, spending .0005 percent of sales on research, compared with 2.4 percent by the automobile industry, for example.

There is also what is known as the "age of indifference" that was revealed in polls that showed only 42 percent of people under 30 said they "cared" enough about the Berlin Wall being torn down to watch it on television or read about it in newspapers.

Today's young people have shallow roots because they are so mobile. Therefore, they have little interest in local news, the mainstay of newspapers.

"Newspaper readership is unlikely to turn upward as long as the sense of community continues downward," according to John Gardner, founder of Common Cause.

Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. People will be less aware of the problems of Little Rock and Arkansas now that the Gazette is gone and less interested in solving those problems.

So is the future of all newspapers bleak?

Recently, I have talked to two reporters who specialize in writing about the press, David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times and Alex Jones of The New York Times.

They believe there always will be one daily newspaper in every metropolitan area. However, they think dailies close to metropolitan areas will begin to fold or convert to weeklies.

To stay alive, Shaw says, most newspapers will have to find other sources of income such as selling information by telephone, which many already are doing with some success.

Shaw and Jones agree that trying to sell newspapers on the basis of a social obligation to read one simply doesn't work anymore.

To survive, newspapers must make themselves indispensable, they say. This is easier said than done, and, of course, can only be done by bright young people who won't be going to work on newspapers in the future because there aren't enough of them left to afford an opportunity to make a good living.

Already, there are rumors about other newspapers shutting down -- Dallas, Denver, etc.

When newspapers begin to lose money, they will close. The public service aspect of publishing cannot stand today's pressure for profits.

I can only hope they are closed with more style and professionalism than we saw in Little Rock on Oct. 18.

Robert McCord was senior editor of the Arkansas Gazette. Before joining the newspaper 10 years ago, he was executive editor of the Arkansas Democrat and editor and publisher of the North Little Rock Times.
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Title Annotation:part 2
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Nov 4, 1991
Previous Article:The next battleground.
Next Article:Will Hot Springs heat up? City leaders hope to boost winter tourism numbers with promotions.

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