The Arkansas Times turns 40 this year. The publication’s playfulness, its literary and investigative ambitions, have survived a battle between two daily papers, arson and a crisis in the journalism industry. The Historic Arkansas Museum is currently showing an exhibition on the paper’s history.
The first edition of the Union Station Times, later to become The Arkansas Times, told readers, "When muck arises it will be raked." In 1974, 22- year-old Alan Leveritt published the first edition with a $200 donation.
The only requirement to write for the paper was having a second job. Leveritt, who had a second job as a taxi driver, sent letters to journalism schools around the country to recruit staff.
Bill Terry, the publication’s first editor, had been the re-write man at the Arkansas Gazette before he got fired.
"The Democrat newsroom back in the day was something right out of the '30s or '40s. It had all these ‘thum thum thum’ wire service machines going in the background all the time. Bill would take Reuters and AP, UPI, he would re-write it, blend the two, took a lot of pride in it. Well, that would be over at 11 a.m. or something and he would retire to the toilet with the first edition of the Democrat and read it,” said Leveritt.
On the morning J. Edgar Hoover died, Terry was in the bathroom. No one could find him, so they used a story from the Associated Press without a re-write. Leveritt says he was furious when he got back.
“And so, Bill walks into Jerry’s office, takes his big underwood typewriter and slams it into the big metal waste can by Jerry’s desk.”
McConnell told Terry he wanted to fight him outside.
“Bill says ‘Jerry, you’re out of your mind, I’m not doing that.’ Jerry says, ‘downstairs or you’re fired.’ That’s how Bill Terry came to the Arkansas Times,” said Leveritt.
Leveritt was the salesman for the Arkansas Times during the newspaper wars in Little Rock, when the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette competed for the same readers and advertisers.
“We felt like there wasn’t enough investigative reporting being done by either paper. We found it was really hard, that’s why it wasn’t being done, we weren’t too much better at it than anyone else,” he said.
In 1991, the Arkansas Democrat won the newspaper war. That year, the Arkansas Gazette closed. Leveritt saw an opportunity. He raised $680,000 to turn the Arkansas Times into a weekly alternative publication.
Today, Advertising Director Phyllis Britton manages subscriptions to keep the publication afloat. They are on solid financial ground, she said.
“It’s probably as good as it's ever been right now as far as the quality of the writing and how frequently we can publish, which is every week and then the constant twenty-four-seven online presence is pretty powerful,” said Britton.
According to Leveritt, the goal is distinctive reporting from a progressive perspective.
“A good example now is this piece we just came out with profiling this man who was framed pretty much by the drug task force and sent to prison for life for basically selling the equivalent of if you went into a restaurant the little container of sugar," said Leveritt. "[He] sold that much cocaine.”
David Koon wrote that story. He’s an associate editor who studied fiction at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a highly-regarded creative writing program. He says crime stories are the most important type of reporting he does because they are real stories about some of the worst moments in people’s lives.
“What drives me at this job, Arkansas Times is really good at speaking to what it is to what it is to be an Arkansan, what it is that makes people passionate about this place,” said Koon.
Some of Koon's favorite writers anywhere have worked at the Arkansas Times.
“It’s kinda crazy the amount of stellar writers have worked their way through the Arkansas Times over the years. Guys like B.C. Hall, incredible writers, Bob Lancaster, a personal hero of mine, Rick Martin, Mara Leveritt, Mike Trimble, another personal hero. These are Folks that could go anywhere but wound up here,” he said.
Dennis Schick is the former Director of the Arkansas Press Association, where he worked for 25 years starting in the mid-70’s.
“The Arkansas Times is doing a terrific job of looking for and finding stories either of a feature nature, hard news nature, or investigative nature that basically [are] not being covered by anybody else because of economic and time restrictions,” said Schick.
Max Brantley’s Arkansas Blog, which is ten years old, drives roughly half the online readership. The blog is idiosyncratic and highly personal, said Brantley.
“I take a general newspaper view. I’m not above writing about tax spread on a popular biking route in Little Rock too. I like to inject a note of humor once in a while,” he said.
Brantley has been at the Arkansas Times for 23 years. In 1992, he became the editor. Initially, Brantley came to Little Rock after dropping out of a journalism master’s program at Stanford University. He says in high school in Louisiana he had won a national writing competition and studied journalism through college. He was drawn to the Arkansas Gazette because of its reporting on civil rights, particularly the 1957 desegregation fight.
“Breaking news is what I live on. Being the first to report on something is still the highest high in the journalism business. Yes, providing information that has some impact on public policy decisions, that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
Brantley is modest about his influence.
“I can’t point to a lot I’ve accomplished, but at least I’ve been a part of the discussion."
Lindsay Miller has been the Editor for three years. He says the publication is focused on fairness, not objectivity.
“I think that sort of balanced biased can really gum up people’s understanding of a story. So often two sides aren’t right. It’s not an ambivalent situation. One side of an issue is wrong and I think it’s important for media to speak truth,” said Miller.
According to Dennis Schick the Arkansas Times has a lot to be proud of.
“I think the main thing to be said about celebrating 40 years is just the longevity, the fact that they have survived, the persistence, the owner, the publisher. The fact that they continued to keep on keeping on is to be commendable these days,” said Schick.
That’s an outlook Brantley and others at the publication share. “I mostly compare the Arkansas Times to a squirrel on a rotating cage," said Brantley.
"We're still in business forty years later. When you read what’s happening in the publishing business, that’s no small accomplishment.”
In 2013, the paper had a readership of around 25,000. 40 years of the Arkansas Times will show at the Historic Arkansas Museum through December 9th.