It was the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi River and an institution in Arkansas. This weekend former employees of the Arkansas Gazette will gather to mark the 20 year anniversary of the newspaper’s death.
The last issue of the Arkansas Gazette hit the streets on October 18, 1991, capping a fierce battle between it and the Arkansas Democrat.
Ernie Dumas spent three decades at the Gazette, calling it “a personal loss for me of course, because I lost my job and more or less lost my career, but I was also a little saddened of just the loss of an institution. As a native Arkansan, I always thought that the Gazette was an integral institution in Arkansas history and something of a protector of the state’s morals. I think that was the notion that a lot of us came to have after you worked at the Gazette for a while because it had been wrapped up in all of the historical developments of the state since 1819.”
The Gazette was the dominant paper, but competition was stepped up, Dumas says, after the Arkansas Democrat, which was still an afternoon newspaper, was purchased in 1974 by Walter Hussman.
“After several years of struggling, (Hussman) decided to make the newspaper a morning paper and go head up against the Gazette in the morning. So that’s when the competition really began and the Democrat began to invest heavily in the market,” Dumas said.
“They cut their advertising rates, started giving away personal classified advertising, then they began to throw the newspaper free at every household, and the impact of all of that was to make the Gazette less financially secure.”
The owners of the Gazette filed a federal anti-trust lawsuit against Hussman in 1986, but lost in court. Later that year the Gazette was sold by a local family to Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain.
Sonny Rhodes was working as a copy editor at that time.
“I feel like the Gazette really died when the Pattersons sold it to Gannett. I think it really became a different paper,” Rhodes said. “Gannett was much more interested in profits and the bottom line.”
Rhodes stayed another four years, but ended up defecting.
“I went to the Democrat because I thought that they really had the best interests of Arkansas at heart and I respect and admire my old friends who sort of went down with the ship, but it was just a sad, sad time,” Rhodes said.
Ernie Dumas says buying the Gazette proved to be a bad move for Gannett.
“It invested in it for five years until both the Gazette and the Democrat were losing vast sums of money, just hemorrhaging money, and Gannett being a publicly held corporation eventually decided they could no longer justify losing all this money in a place called Little Rock, Arkansas,” Dumas said.
“I think they told Walter Hussman ‘Look, we’ll buy you or you buy us, there’s no point in both of us losing all this money. And I think Walter Hussman said ‘Well, you’re not going to buy me, but I’ll buy you,’ so they cut the deal and on October 18th the Gazette closed.”
About 500 full-time employees and 1,200 part-timers lost their jobs.
Sonny Rhodes says staffers at the Democrat were caught off guard and overwhelmed when the two were suddenly merged into the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
“When we suddenly realized that the Democrat had won the newspaper war, it was just crazy because we had not come to work expecting that news that morning and suddenly overnight we were basically putting out two newspapers,” Rhodes said.
“We suddenly had two of everything. We had Ann Landers and Dear Abby, we had two crossword puzzles and we were trying to be all we could be to the Gazette readers and the Democrat readers. I don’t remember how long we worked that first day, but I’m thinking it was 12 to 16 hours, maybe even longer just trying to get the next day’s paper out. And I can well remember one of the editors telling (Managing Editor) John Robert Starr ‘We just can’t do this,’ and Starr said, ‘Well, you’ll do it if you want to keep your job.’ So we got the job done, but it was just chaos,” Rhodes said.
Today Sonny Rhodes is a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and shares details of what the newspaper war was like, with heated competition making for much better reporting.
“It’s very rich history and I think it’s important for students to have this historical context to be able to understand why things are the way they are now. I don’t want to detract from anything that the Democrat-Gazette is doing, I think they’re doing the best that they can do, but it’s just not the same when you don’t have that competition,” Rhodes said.
Next Tuesday will be the 20th anniversary of the Gazette’s closing. Saturday the occasion will be marked by an informal gathering of former Gazette staffers at the Legacy Hotel in Little Rock. It runs from 4 to 7 PM and the public is welcome.