Archive for the ‘Newspapers’ Category

Tales from the South: Randy Tardy

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

There was no way I was going to say “no” to this request.

Walter B. Walker was born and raised at Helena. He moved to Little Rock in 1962 and worked for the Darragh Co., the Mountaire Corp. and Orbit Valve Co. before retiring in 1993.

Walter has been friends with fellow Helena native Randy Tardy since the first grade.

“I don’t think a week has gone by since 1939 that we haven’t talked at least once,” Walter told me.

I’ve only been friends with Randy since 1981, when I went to work for the Arkansas Democrat as a sportswriter. Randy was a business writer at the newspaper for a quarter of a century, and a darn good one.

He’s also a great storyteller, especially stories of his early life when Helena was a prosperous port city on the Mississippi River. Randy is in hospice as I write this. It was Walter’s idea to contact Paula Morell, the talented executive producer and host of “Tales from the South.”

His plan was to have some friends of Randy read pieces Randy had written. They would be read during the weekly taping of the radio show at the Starving Artist Cafe in downtown North Little Rock.

Morell agreed to the idea, and so I found myself at the Starving Artist on Tuesday night reading stories along with Walter and Harvey Joe Sanner of Des Arc. A full house listened.

“Tales from the South,” which airs each Thursday at 7 p.m. on Little Rock station KUAR-FM, 89.1, is quite a phenomenon. It began as a single show seven years ago. It’s now syndicated by the World Radio Network, where it airs three times a week on WRN Europe, twice a week on WRN Asia and twice a week on WRN Africa.

The show also can be heard on numerous public radio stations across the country.

The weekly taping before a live audience features writers reading their stories. All stories must be true. Past participants have included people ranging from Judge Reinhold to Jill Conner Browne to David Pryor.

I only wish I could have read a story by Randy about the old second-floor newsroom at the Democrat. When I went to work there in 1981, it was still like something out of the 1931 movie “The Front Page.” There was trash on the floor and wires running everywhere. The air was thick with smoke, and ashtrays were overflowing. Finding a chair that wasn’t broken was a challenge.

Randy used to claim he was going to write a book titled “Ray 85.” Here’s the story behind that: The late Ray Hobbs was the city editor in those days, and the main number to the city desk was 378-3485. Clerks would answer the phone and then scream at the top of their lungs for the city editor to pick up on that line.

“Ray 85!”

Frank Fellone, in a column in Monday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, described that old newsroom as a place “so crowded, noisy and unkempt that reporter Randy Tardy once described it as being like Bhopal, India, at rush hour.”

Randy loved the newspaper business, and he loved every form of transportation. His idea of a day off was to go to the airport to watch planes take off and land, to the banks of the Arkansas River to watch the barges go by or to the train station to watch the trains as they passed.

I like Helena, I enjoy radio and I’m intrigued by the history of KFFA-AM. So I had no complaints Tuesday night when Walter asked me to read about those subjects.

Here’s part of what I read. The words are those of my friend of more than three decades, Randy Tardy:

“I worked at radio station KFFA-AM, 1360, in Helena from 1956 until July 1959. I set up locally prepared newscasts and delivered them, using information gathered from local sources, our Associated Press newswire, handouts and local interviews.

“As I recall, my live newscasts were weekdays at 8 a.m., noon, 5 p.m. and a 6:15 p.m. wrap-up of the day for 15 minutes. My noon program was unique. It immediately preceded the 12:15 p.m. broadcast of ‘King Biscuit Time,’ which had been on the air since around 1941 and is still going.

“The musicians stored their instruments in a corner of my newsroom. So did the janitor with his mops, brooms and bucket. I even had a vertical rack of glowing and buzzing radio tubes, which kept the station’s signal going out.

“During one noon show, I was talking about an explosion of some kind along the Gulf Coast when the King Biscuit drummer came in to get his instrument. He had trouble holding onto it. As I was reading the story, there was a ‘wham’ behind me. It was timed right with the word ‘explosion’ as I was reading the story. It was not a funny story, but the timing almost got to me. It was hard to get through the rest of the newscast.

“I looked at the drummer with my microphone still on. He said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Randy, I didn’t go to do that.’ I knew he didn’t, but I remember that moment until this day. I believe that drum, with its red lettering, is still around and on display at the Delta Cultural Center.

“When I would come into the station from making my rounds of the police department, fire station and courts, I would park out front on York Street and put a nickel in the parking meter. Often, Dudlow, the King Biscuit piano player, would be standing there. This time he asked me if I could give him a dime to ‘get me some soda crackers and a little bologna.’

“That day I had a pocket filled with quarters because the gas station I had just stopped at was out of dollar bills. I had put five gallons of gas in my 1955 Pontiac and was expecting $4 in change. I got it, but not in bills. They gave me the change in quarters. They were out of bills.

“‘Here, Dudlow, here’s a quarter,’ I said. ‘Go have yourself a big lunch.’ He thanked me over and over. He looked at the quarter and said, ‘This will really help me tickle them ivories.’

“Those were interesting times. Little did I know that the broadcast would live on for decades and become the centerpiece of an internationally known blues festival. Sunshine Sonny Payne was at KFFA then. He’s still there as of this writing, a legend himself.

“When folks sometime refer to me as a pioneer radio broadcaster, I tell them that I never looked upon myself as a pioneer. But there weren’t too many of us around back then. One is my old friend H.R. ‘Herbie’ Byrd, who toiled for early news operations at several radio stations. I remember him best as the news voice of Little Rock station KLRA-AM, 1010, which has been off the air for years.

“Life goes on, but I wish news today were the real news we tried to deliver back then.”

Nice memories from Randy Tardy.

They’re holding the third annual Arkansas Delta Rockabilly Festival in Helena this weekend. The likes of the Kentucky Headhunters, Ben “Cooter” Jones, The Cate Brothers, Sonny Burgess and the Legendary Pacers and Wanda Jackson will be there.

Rockabilly got its start in the Memphis area in the 1950s. I wish Randy could be there for the festival. I have no doubt he would enjoy it, especially if he had a spot atop the levee where he could also see those barges moving up and down the Mighty Mississippi, the river that so defined his youth.

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Charlotte Schexnayder: Salty Old Editor

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

I wasn’t surprised that the room was packed even though it was the middle of the day on a weekday. People had come from across Arkansas to hear Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder speak at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.

She has had that kind of impact on our state and its people during her 88 years.

I’ve known Charlotte in several of her roles.

As a young newspaperman, I came to know her as the person who ran (along with her husband Melvin) one of the best weekly newspapers in the South.

Later, as a political reporter and as a member of the governor’s staff, I knew Charlotte as a leading light in the Arkansas Legislature.

She’s the epitome of a gracious Southern lady — but with a tough streak; governors and others learned the hard way never to underestimate her — and an Arkansas institution.

Her new book from Butler Center Books in Little Rock — titled “Salty Old Editor — An Adventure in Ink” – makes for fascinating reading.

“She’s a treasure,” says former President Clinton. “I’m so grateful I’ve had the chance to know her, work with her and be her friend.”

Former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers calls her “one of those too rare people who not only cares about what’s right and wrong in the world but spends a lifetime trying to do something about it. Together, she and her late husband Melvin were the bedrock of their community, the Delta and the entire state.”

Former U.S. Sen. David Pryor calls her a “powerful force for equality, fairness and justice. Her life has been an epic story of how one person can make a difference. She is a true public servant.”

Charlotte is a former president of the Arkansas Press Women, the Little Rock professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Federation of Press Women, the Arkansas Press Association and the National Newspaper Association.

She also was the first female president of the Dumas Chamber of Commerce.

She has always been a pacesetter.

In the late 1940s, Melvin and Charlotte Schexnayder found themselves living in the pine woods of east Texas at Marshall. Melvin had accepted a job in early 1948 with the Texas & Pacific Railroad as a chemical engineer.

“His job involved analyzing oil and water samples for steam engines,” she writes. “I always dreaded the possibility that he might dislocate his lame shoulder when he climed the company water tanks for samples.

“More often, he was in the company laboratories or on a train going as far as Pecos, Texas — 800 miles away. The job demanded five to six days a week on the road, leaving us miserable with little home life.

“Mother came to visit in Marshall in the summer of 1948. Melvin drove her 1937 Plymouth there, and on the back was a coop of chickens from Tillar. We had a flat tire on the way, and a man who stopped to help us was much amused. However, we thought the fried chicken was very tasty that summer.

“My solution while Melvin was constantly traveling was to read and keep our domicile, all the while missing the news business. Occasionally, I traveled with him and particularly remember the dust storms in west Texas. Neither of us was content away from the other.

“In late summer, we received a telegram from W.M. Jackson, owner of the McGehee Semi-Weekly Times. He asked if we would come to McGehee as editor and advertising manager. Melvin had never sold advertising but had done well in business courses in graduate school. Tired of his constant traveling, we said to one another: ‘Let’s try the newspaper business for a year.’

“Little did we then realize, it would last a half-century.”

Southeast Arkansas had no bigger advocate during that half-century than Charlotte Schexnayder.

She was born Christmas Day 1923. Her father was Jewell Stephen Tillar, the son of Dr. Stephen Olin Tillar and Fannie Harrell Tillar, pioneer residents of southeast Arkansas. They had come over from Selma in Drew County to help found the town of Tillar as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad laid its track south from Little Rock in 1870.

Stephen Olin Tillar had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He was captured and imprisoned near Chicago.

“When he was released, he walked home barefooted and was so emaciated that his family did not recognize him,” Charlotte writes. “He studied medicine and became a practicing physician. My father was born on Dec. 19, 1886, and was the youngest of his family.”

After working for the newspaper in McGehee, Charlotte and Melvin bought the Dumas Clarion.

Charlotte says they learned the following lessons during their years in McGehee:

– “Manage with one-boss rule editorially. A showdown with a composing room foreman who sought to direct all operations quickly taught me that I had to control content and deadlines. I made editorial decisions and always faced the consequences.”

– “Believe in your community, and the people will join you. Many coummunities depend on their newspaper publishers/owners for leadership.”

– “Plain hard work exceeds inspiration, probably in proportion of 90-10.”

– “Never leave to others some job you should do. A staff will seek to excel when the editor-publisher sets the standard.”

– “Listen for the little stories. They often are the most compelling because they touch the human heart. I once gained wisdom from interviewing a 90-year-old who said: ‘When ah walks, ah walks slow; when ah rocks, ah rocks easy; and when ah worries, ah goes to sleep.’”

– “Expect broadly flung daggers. I didn’t cause trouble but was blamed for reporting it. Many would rather blame the messenger than the culprit. Moreover, it seems more fun to fire at the messenger.”

– “Remember that you are writing current history and make every effort to get it right.”

– “Rely on some humor during tough times. It’s the best antidote.”

 – “If the job isn’t fun, find another. I looked forward to every day. I was the eternal optimist; Melvin, the pragmatist. Together we knew how to set goals and reach them.”

Charlotte tells how her mother walked into the Dumas newspaper office for the first time and asked, “Are you sure you want this place?”

Charlotte and Melvin’s son John was just five months old at the time.

Tillar was 13 miles south. Dumas had 2,512 residents with the Missouri Pacific railroad tracks splitting its four-block business district.

“Climate control, virtually unheard of in small newspaper plants, was relegated to window and oscillating fans for cooling and an overhead butane gas heater for heating,” Charlotte writes. “It was drafty in winter we found, as we stood looking it over in late January 1954. We suspected the building could be much more uncomfortable in summer because of extra heat from the single linotype, metal-casting typesetter.

“Weekly newspaper offices were notoriously messy, and this was no exception. Stacks of exchange newspapers were piled in a corner, while metal single spindles held important copy waiting to be sent to a typesetter.”

Did they really want this place? Her mother’s question rang in Charlotte’s ears.

“We thought of the people who wanted us,” she writes. “Perhaps the desire for our very own newspaper obscured our vision of the surroundings, and we foresaw a great adventure. Melvin and I looked at one another, instead of at the plant, and affirmed, ‘We really do want this place.’”

At that point, Charlotte could not have foreseen a future political career.

In the 1970s, she became the first woman appointed to what was then called the state Board of Pardons & Parole.

She says her experience on the board led her to believe “I might bring energy, perseverance and my varied experience to the political scene. I found naysayers; I often had as a women who broke barriers. But I reasoned that a citizen legislature, as in Arkansas, would include members with potential conflicts of interest because of primary occupations. Since legislators were part time, serving in biennial sessions, one had to depend on personal wealth or employment.”

When she announced in 1984 that she would run for the Legislature, no one dared oppose her. Charlotte was already a legend in her district.

At the state Capitol, though, she still had to prove herself during that first session in 1985.

“As a newspaper editor, I was treated with obvious wariness, a bit of suspicion and even a tinge of distrust by a few,” Charlotte writes. “With quiet dignity and hard work, I tried to overcome those attitudes. There was one huge advantage, however. No one dared to offer a shady deal; I owned a newspaper.”

Veteran state Rep. Bill Foster of Keo, who had served in the House since 1961, once told her: “I was determined to dislike you. You were a newspaper editor. But it took me only a week to change my mind.”

During her first week in the House, Rep. Geno Mazzanti of Lake Village approached Charlotte and said, “No one expects much of a freshman representative. Just sit and listen and you will be fine.”

She replied: “You obviously don’t know me very well. I am not a sideline sitter, and I always have plans.”

Charlotte says she believes in the people of the Delta, and they believe in her.

“I have drawn strength from them and my forebears, beginning with my childhood in Tillar,” she writes. ”Tiny towns can launch fulfilling and diverse careers such as mine. The seed for the dream was planted in my childhood.”

What a life she has lived. And she still has more to give.

Arkansas is a better place because Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder is among us.

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Democrat vs. Gazette: The Great Newspaper War

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Walter E. Hussman Jr., who was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame on Friday night, knew by 1977 that he had to change directions at the Arkansas Democrat.

The Hussman family had owned the afternoon newspaper in Little Rock for three years, and there were some tough decisions that had to be made.

Newspaper employees had voted to decertify four unions, and costs had come down during that three-year period.

Revenues, however, were flat.

And the handwriting was on the wall across the country for afternoon newspapers in two-newspaper markets.

Hussman approached Arkansas Gazette publisher Hugh Patterson Jr. with the idea of a joint operating agreement after having studied the 22 such agreements already in place nationwide.

Under the agreement he proposed, the Gazette would receive 100 percent of profits until it had made as much money as the year before.

Hussman thought it was a generous agreement. Patterson disagreed. He refused Hussman’s offer.

“I’ll never forget what he told me,” Hussman said during a recent visit in his downtown Little Rock office. “He said, ‘I can’t believe I would make any more money by doing this.’

“Our company had never failed at anything. We had entered the radio business in the 1930s. We had entered the television business in the 1950s. We had entered the cable television business in the 1960s. We really didn’t want to fail at this, either.

“I looked around at the strategies being used by afternoon newspapers in places such as Dallas, Chattanooga and even Winnipeg in Canada. I wanted to at least be able to say we had tried everything before giving up.”

At that point, Hussman made the bold decision to go head to head with the Gazette.

He said his father “reluctantly consented” but was not excited about the idea.

Walter Hussman Sr.’s tepid response: “Maybe it’s worth a try.”

In 1979, the Democrat began publishing a morning edition in an effort to reverse years of declining market share.

The newspaper also offered free want ads to non-commercial advertisers, doubled the size of its news staff and increased the size of the newshole by 58 percent. Front-page color appeared. Expenses subsequently soared.

“We caught a tiger by the tail that was bounding through the jungle, but he was going so fast we couldn’t get off,” Hussman said.

Those who underestimated Hussman did so at their peril.

When Editor & Publisher named Hussman its publisher of the year in 2008, his longtime right-hand man, Paul Smith, told the magazine: “Walter’s so polite and such a nice guy that some people perceive that to be a lack of aggression. He’s very aggressive. He just doesn’t telegraph it. And that makes him the most dangerous.”

In 1982, Hussman decided to increase the monthly subscription rate for the Democrat from $3.60 to $4.25. His veteran circulation director, Bill Taylor, told him: “If we do that, we’re going to go out of business.”

Despite the price increase, the newspaper’s circulation continued to rise.

A year later, Hussman increased the monthly rate to $4.95. Taylor again advised against the move. Once more, circulation increased.

In 1984, the price was increased to $5.75 per month, higher than the Gazette.

In April 1984, the Democrat produced its first profit since its purchase by the Hussman family in 1974. The profit was divided between the newspaper’s 352 employees.

Hussman had buttons made that said, “We’re In The Black.”

There was also a small profit in May 1984. Huge losses would follow in the years ahead, but that was a turning point in the newspaper war.

“I think the owners of the Gazette realized that once we made money, we weren’t going away,” Hussman said.

The Democrat had increased its revenues from $6.7 million in 1979 to $18.4 million in 1984. Daily circulation had increased from 53,671 to 76,199 in that same period. Sunday circulation had soared from 98,237 to 140,642.

Trying to stop the Democrat gains, the Gazette filed a federal antitrust suit against the Democrat in 1984. The lawsuit accused Hussman of trying to put the Gazette out of business. Hussman responded that he was only trying to remain competitive and that none of his practices were intended to run the Gazette out of business.

On March 26, 1986, a jury in the court of U.S. District Judge William Overton found the Democrat innocent of all allegations.

Hugh Patterson knew it was time to sell the newspaper.

On Oct. 30, 1986, it was announced that the Gazette had been purchased by the Gannett Corp., the nation’s largest newspaper chain. The sale would be effective on Dec. 1 of that year.

I was the Washington correspondent for the Democrat at the time. I can vividly remember getting a phone call from the late Ray Hobbs, one of my editors.

“Gannett just bought the Gazette,” he said. “We’re screwed.”

I crossed the river from Washington to Arlington, Va., to visit Gannett headquarters and come up with several stories on our new competition. Those of us who worked at the Democrat were scared about what the future held.

Hussman recently admitted to me that he was scared, too.

In fact, he met secretly in Shreveport with Gannett’s vice chairman at the time, Doug McCorkingdale, to propose a joint operating agreement that would preserve newspaper competition in Little Rock. Under Hussman’s proposal, one entity would put out two newspapers with the profits split 50-50.

As a native Arkansan, Hussman would run the new company. McCorkingdale listened politely to the proposal, but Gannett wouldn’t bite.

The newspaper war would continue.

“I knew I had a chance of losing everything,” Hussman said.

For five more years, the two Little Rock newspapers would bleed money.

In 1990, another landmark moment occurred when the Democrat passed the Gazette in Sunday circulation. Hussman threw a huge party downtown, bringing in the Temptations and the Four Tops to perform. Advertisers from across the state were invited.

The message was clear: There was a new leader in the newspaper war.

In March 1991, Hussman bought a vacation home in Vail, Colo.

Gannett’s McCorkingdale heard about the purchase and mentioned it in a visit with Hussman. Looking back, the Democrat-Gazette publisher thinks the home purchase had a psychological effect on Gannett executives, making them believe the Democrat was doing better financially than it really was.

“Buying that house in Vail may have been the best business move I ever made,” Hussman said with a smile.

Hussman only had to answer to himself and his family.

As a public company, Gannett had to answer to shareholders nationwide and explain its continuing losses in Little Rock.

Quietly, Gannett chose to pull the plug on the Gazette. Talks commenced in April 1991. An agreement was signed on July 3, 1991, at the Gannett headquarters in Virginia.

U.S. Justice Department approval was still required, and both sides had to remain silent. Phil Anderson, Hussman’s Little Rock attorney, was with him when the agreement was signed. The two men didn’t go into Washington and throw a Fourth of July party. They returned to Little Rock since Hussman had promised to take his family on vacation to a dude ranch in Wyoming.

He found himself fishing on a mountain stream on a clear day. After 17 years of heated competition, the newspaper war was coming to an end.

“I remember thinking, ‘Is this a dream?”’ Hussman said.

It wasn’t.

The final edition of the Arkansas Gazette was published on Oct. 18, 1991.

The first edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was published the next day.

No one had come forward to make an offer to keep the Gazette alive.

“That was the first time in my life that I refused to talk to the media,” Hussman said of those long days in July, August and September after the agreement had been signed. “I was just not in a position to say anything.”

Hussman has remained bullish on the newspaper industry.

In 1998, he purchased the Chattanooga Free Press. That was followed by the purchase of the Chattanooga Times in January 1999. The two publications were then combined.

On May 1, 2008, he purchased three newspapers in Missouri.

Then in November 2009, the Democrat-Gazette and Stephens Media combined the operations of their publications in northwest Arkansas to form a new company, Northwest Arkansas Newspapers LLC.

In a September 2009 speech to the Chattanooga Rotary Club, Hussman said: “We’ve been in this business 100 years, and we think it will still be around 100 years from now.”

The Democrat-Gazette is one of the few newspapers in the country that still has statewide circulation.

“We’re trying to hang in until the bitter end on that,” Hussman said. “We’ve been willing to take a contrarian view on things because we were contrarians for 17 years during the newspaper war. That gave us the confidence we needed to hang in there for the long term.”

He earlier had told Editor & Publisher: “When you’re a state newspaper, your reputation is enhanced, and you’re a little more influential. It would be more profitable not to be statewide, but we look at it like a public service.”

So at a time when others are writing obits for the newspaper industry, Hussman and his team press on.

Here’s how Paul Smith put it in that interview with Editor & Publisher: “The key to understanding this newspaper is the 17 years we spent fighting for our own lives. We have had the benefit of having gone through some really tough times, and I think the difference is most people have never seen this kind of adversity. The only question for them was whether they could keep the margins high, not fighting for their lives.”

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Walter Hussman: Newspaperman to the core

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Walter E. Hussman Jr., a man for whom I worked for almost a decade at the Arkansas Democrat and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, will be inducted tonight into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.

Though his media conglomerate includes radio, television and cable television operations, Hussman remains a newspaperman to the core.

“In 1909, my grandfather, Clyde Eber Palmer, was taking a train from Fort Worth to Florida with his new bride,” he wrote in a family history. “They got off the train in Texarkana to spend the night and while they were there, they decided they liked the town and decided to stay.”

In those days, trains did not run very often at night because of roaming livestock. That was the reason for the overnight stop at Texarkana. If they tired of Texarkana after a few days, the newlyweds knew other trains would be coming through.

“My grandfather paid $900 for one of several newspapers in Texarkana at the time, the Texarkana Courier, which he renamed the Four States Press,”  Hussman wrote. “He eventually prevailed against other competitors in the Texarkana market, and he ended up as publisher of the Texarkana Gazette.”

The Texarkana Gazette remains in the Hussman family to this day.

By the 1920s, Palmer was ready to expand across south Arkansas. He bought the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, the El Dorado News-Times, the Camden News, the Magnolia Banner-News and the Hope Star. All of those newspapers except the Hope Star are owned by Hussman.

“One of my grandfather’s most noted accomplishments was establishing the first automatic teletypesetter circuits connecting a group of newspapers in 1942, the first use of technology to link newspapers instantly,” Hussman wrote. “This Palmer Circuit was the first of its kind in the United States and led to the establishment of such systems at other newspaper groups and press associations.”

In 1933, Palmer put the first radio station on the air in Texarkana. In 1952, he decided to put a television station on the air. He wanted the station to be a CBS affiliate since CBS was the top network at the time. When the Texarkana station went on the air, there wasn’t a television station in Shreveport.

An online history of the company picks up the story from there: “By 1960, Shreveport had become the larger market, and CBS decided to leave the Texarkana area and go to one of the Shreveport stations. This meant Texarkana could become an independent station, and there was no future in that.

“A deal was negotiated with NBC to become an NBC affiliate if Shreveport became the major market for the station. A new tower was built for this purpose. At that time it was the second tallest TV tower in the South. They called it KTAL for Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. KTAL was also called K-tall because of the size of the tower. The large tower served the markets well by placing a good signal over both Shreveport and Texarkana.”

Born in 1911, Hussman’s mother Betty Palmer was the only child from Clyde Palmer’s second marriage. She attended the University of Missouri, where she met Walter Hussman Sr.

Hussman Sr.’s roommate would become a well-known figure in the newspaper business — Donald W. Reynolds.

“My mother and father were married in 1931, and after selling insurance, my father went to work for Palmer in the newspaper business,” Hussman Jr. wrote. “By then the Depression was two years old and many of our newspapers were in deep trouble, including the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record.

“After working for a few years in Texarkana, my father moved to Hot Springs to try to revive the newspaper that had been foreclosed by creditors. Since Hot Springs was a national park and a tourist destination, he came up with the idea of an annual ‘mail it away’ edition. Under this promotion, subscribers and citizens of Hot Springs would pay to have a copy of one issue of the mailed edition sent to friends and acquaintances around the country, promoting Hot Springs as a tourist destination. The section was a big success, helping the newspaper repay its debts and get out of foreclosure. My dad said the newspaper was thereafter consistently profitable.”

The Sentinel-Record continues to publish such an edition once a year.

During World War II, Hussman Sr. and Reynolds were the co-publishers of Yank, a magazine for U.S. troops. Operating out of Paris following its liberation from the Nazis, Hussman Sr. was in charge of procuring newsprint among other duties.

Walter Hussman Jr. was born in 1947. He was the third child with two older sisters.

“My father was determined to own his own newspaper and acquired an option to buy the newspaper in Midland, Texas, in 1949,” Hussman Jr. wrote. “However, Palmer offered to sell him one of his newspapers. In 1949, my mother and father bought the Camden News, and the family moved there when I was 2 years old and my sisters were 14 and 10.”

Had his father purchased the Midland newspaper, Hussman Jr. likely would have grown up in Midland with George W. Bush.

Clyde Palmer died in 1957, and Hussman Sr. became the president and publisher of all the Palmer newspapers.

The year 1960 was pivotal for the younger Hussman.

“My mother had talked my dad into taking a trip to Europe, and they took me out of school for nine weeks,” Hussman Jr. told me during a recent visit in his downtown Little Rock office. “That was unheard of at the time, but the trip was very educational. It was only 15 years after the end of World War II, and there was still bomb damage in places.

“My dad felt guilty that I had missed so much school in order to take the trip, so he enrolled me in summer school at Exeter.”

Hussman Jr. headed to New Hampshire to spend the summer at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, taking courses such as algebra and Latin. When he returned to Camden in the fall, school officials wouldn’t credit him for the work since Exeter wasn’t accredited by the same regional accrediting organization as the Camden School District.

Never mind that Exeter is among the top prep schools in the world.

“It made my father mad, so he called Exeter to see if he could enroll me there for the 10th grade,” Hussman Jr. said. “They told him they couldn’t take me until the 11th grade.”

Hussman Sr., determined to get his son out of the public schools at Camden, enrolled him for the 10th grade at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, which had been founded in 1810.

At that school, Hussman Jr. was influenced by a young history teacher named Walker Blanton, a native of Marion, N.C., and a graduate of the University of North Carolina.

Though The Lawrenceville School is close to Princeton University and traditionally supplies the university with a large number of students, Blanton convinced 11 members of Hussman’s senior class to attend college at North Carolina.

Walter Hussman Jr. was among them.

As he neared his college graduation in 1968, Hussman decided to attend the Navy’s Officer Candidate School since he had a low draft number. He came back to Arkansas for his physical in February 1968 and was told that his skin was exceptionally dry and that he needed to see a dermatologist. Dry skin could lead to dehydration in the Southeast Asian jungles, you see. Because of his condition, Hussman never passed the physical.

Instead, he applied to the journalism school at Columbia University in New York but was turned down twice. He entered the business school at Columbia, obtaining his master’s degree in 16 months.

Hussman decided he wanted to be a business writer for one of three magazines – Forbes, Business Week or Fortune.

He landed at Forbes.

“I was having fun in New York when my father called after less than a year at the magazine,” he said.

Hussman’s two older sisters weren’t involved in the day-to-day operations of the family media business, which had grown to include not only the newspapers but radio stations, a television station and cable television franchises. His father invited him to return to Arkansas and help run the family business. If he declined the offer, the elder Hussman, 63, would consider selling the company.

So it was that Walter Hussman Jr. became his father’s administrative assistant in 1970. The company’s cable television system — serving Hope, Camden and Prescott — had become operational. Resort Cable was being built in Hot Springs. Hussman Jr. spent part of his time in Vicksburg, Miss., helping get a cable system off the ground there. There also were cable television franchises in east Texas at Kilgore and Longview.

Back home in Camden, it was discovered that the general manager of the Camden News had been embezzling money from the company and using it to build a swimming pool at his home.

Hussman said: “My father told me, ‘You’re going to run the paper until you find somebody else to run it.’ You know, I had always wanted to be on the writing side of the business because that’s where I thought the creativity came in. But I found out that you could be just as creative on the business side.”

It was an important lesson. Hussman has never ceased to be creative with his business tactics.

In 1973, he moved from Camden to Hot Springs to become the vice president and general manager of the Palmer Newspapers.

Just a year later, the company purchased the struggling afternoon daily newspaper in Little Rock, the Arkansas Democrat.

At the time, the Democrat had a daily circulation of 62,405.

The morning newspaper, the Arkansas Gazette, had a circulation of 118,702.

The Democrat’s previous owners had been looking for a buyer for months. Hussman Sr. was skeptical but decided to make the purchase with a major condition: He would give it three years. By then, there would have to be progress or the company would pull the plug on the Democrat.

The Hussmans paid $500,000 down along with a note of $3 million to be paid over 20 years at 7 percent interest.

At the ripe old age of 27, Walter Hussman Jr. was a newspaper publisher in the state’s capital city.

“I thought at the time that I really knew a lot about the newspaper business,” he says. “I didn’t realize how little I really knew.”

The Great Newspaper War would soon begin.

We’ll tackle that subject next week.

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Forrest City’s Raoul Carlisle: The original original

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

My friend Brett “Stats” Norsworthy of Forrest City, who co-hosts a daily sports talk show on WHBQ-AM in Memphis and is somewhat of a Memphis sports legend himself, describes the late Raoul H. Carlisle as the original original.

Carlisle, who was born in December 1897 and died in November 1980, was indeed one of a kind.

In the first half of the 20th century, a man representing the tiny Times-Herald in Forrest City became one of the best-known sportswriters in America — at least among other sportswriters and athletes. Readers outside of St. Francis County might not have known who he was, but those in the sports world knew him well.

Carlisle made sure of that.

He was everywhere — the Triple Crown races, the World Series, championship fights and always the Sugar Bowl. Like me, it seems Carlisle had a special place in his heart for New Orleans.

Carlisle came to mind earlier this week when I was reading an online column by Peter King of Sports Illustrated about his trip to the Super Bowl.

“Interesting being with Randy Moss (the announcer, not the pass-catcher) Sunday for NBC on the pregame show,” King wrote. “Told me a great story. Moss, of course, is a big horse guy.

“‘I’ve been to 31 of the last 32 Kentucky Derbies,’ he told me while we waited to go on TV Sunday afternoon outside the Giants hotel. ‘The first one was amazing. They have a seniority system in the press box, and I knew one of the veteran writers, a guy from Arkansas, who was going to watch it off the TV monitor because he couldn’t see that well. So he told me I could use his seat, which was No. 2 in the press box. A great seat. But he said, ‘I better take you down and introduce you to the two guys next to you so they don’t think you’re stealing the seat.’

“‘He takes me down, and I meet the two guys. He said, ‘This is Dick Young.’ Then, ‘This is Red Smith.’ Wow. I was 21. They were the two guys who’d covered the Derby the longest. I’ve been to every Derby since then but one and never had a seat quite that good.’”

So Red Smith of The New York Times had seat No. 1.

Who was this Arkansan with seat No. 2?

Raoul Carlisle of Forrest City.

Four years earlier, in 1976, the folks at Pimlico in Baltimore had begun something known as the Old Hilltop Award. The award was designed to pay tribute to members of the sports media who have covered thoroughbred racing “with excellence and distinction.”

The first two honorees?

Red Smith and Raoul Carlisle.

After reading King’s column, I began an email exchange with my former Arkansas Democrat colleague Randy Moss, who now lives in Minneapolis and does on-air work for NBC and the NFL Network.

Randy was born in Hot Springs in 1959. I was born down the road in Arkadelphia in 1959.

We first came to know each other when I began covering Oaklawn on a regular basis in 1979 as the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald in Arkadelphia. Randy already was making a statewide name for himself, having been picked out by Arkansas Gazette sports editor Orville Henry to be the newspaper’s handicapper and racing correspondent.

Moss asked Henry to let him cover the Kentucky Derby in 1980, but the man known as OH declined to pay for the trip. Instead, he called the public relations director at Churchill Downs, Edgar Allen, an old friend of Henry’s from the days when Allen worked at The Nashville Banner. Allen had gone to work for the Banner in 1942 and been named sports editor of the newspaper in 1967 by the legendary Fred Russell.

Allen arranged for Moss to gather quotes and write notes for Churchill Downs with the track footing the bill. While in Louisville, he also would file stories for the Gazette.

It was on Derby day that Carlisle gave up seat No. 2 to his fellow Arkansan, choosing to watch from a television monitor inside the press box.

“It would be the only time I got to use Raoul’s seat,” Moss says.

On Nov. 22, 1980 — less than seven months after giving up his seat to Moss –Carlisle was killed when his vehicle was struck by a train. He died a month short of his 83rd birthday.

Carlisle was famous in his older years for approaching young sportswriters like me in the Oaklawn press box and telling story after story. He would carry a scrapbook with him to verify that he actually had done all the things he talked about.

Searching the Internet, I ran across a short letter to the editor from Carlisle in the May 23, 1960, edition of Sports Illustrated.

He wrote: “I have known Gentleman Gene Lambert for over 30 years and have never known him to be called or referred to as ‘Piggy’ before. A clear faux pas.”

I have no doubt Carlisle did know the major league pitcher, who had been born in 1921 in Crenshaw, Miss.

I also found a story about the Jan. 1, 1958, Sugar Bowl that mentions Carlisle. Ole Miss beat Texas, 39-7, that day.

Here goes: “As the game wound down, ballots were passed out in the press box for the vote on the Most Valuable Player. All 166 media voters placed Ray Brown as their choice for his quadruple-threat performance. Raoul Carlisle, an Arkansas newspaperman who had covered every Sugar Bowl, commented to Pie Dufour as Brown dropped into his end zone to punt.

“‘He’s the greatest performer in Sugar Bowl history.’

“Pie noncommittaly answered, ‘He certainly is one of the best.’

“As they talked, Brown took a high snap and, before he could boot the ball, saw a Texas end boring in unopposed. Brown bolted, circled right end and began steaming for the Longhorn goal 103 yards from where he had been standing.

“‘That proves Brown’s the best,” Carlisle was screaming in Dufour’s ear to make himself heard over the din of the crowd.”

By the way, don’t you love the name Pie Dufour? There’s something special about New Orleans names.

Charles L. “Pie” Dufour, who died in 1996 at age 93, wrote almost 9,700 installments of his column “Pie Dufour’s A La Mode” for the New Orleans States-Item and the Sunday edition of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 1949-78. He was the author of almost 20 books.

And he was yet another friend of Carlisle, the guy from Forrest City who turned up everywhere.

The famous Arkansas sportswriter Jim Bailey once described Carlisle as a “fellow who isn’t very easy to explain in a few words.”

Carlisle began attending sports events across the country as a young man, getting credentials through his work at the Times-Herald. In the 1920s, it wasn’t as difficult to get credentials to major events as it is these days. Carlisle spent a lot of time on trains going to and coming from sports events.

“By the time media requirements began to tighten, Raoul had been grandfathered in,” Moss says.

On Jan. 1, 1980 — the day Alabama played Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl (the Crimson Tide won its second consecutive national championship that day) — The Tuscaloosa News had a front-page blurb for an inside story. It read: “Raoul Carlisle has seen his share of Sugar Bowls — all 46 in fact — and can keep you entertained talking about them.”

I was in New Orleans covering the Sugar Bowl for the Siftings Herald in the week leading up to that game.

Everyone had tired of Carlisle bragging about his “dear friend” Bear Bryant. We were betting he didn’t even know the Alabama coach.

Just before a joint news conference with Arkansas coach Lou Holtz, Bryant walked into the room. To our amazement, he strolled over to Carlisle and gave him a hug.

“He really does know everybody,” Bailey said that day.

Steve Cady of The New York Times mentioned Carlisle in a 1975 article, noting that he was covering his 57th Kentucky Derby. That means Carlisle would have seen Sir Barton and every other Triple Crown winner.

With Carlisle having died in November 1980, there was no one to sit between Smith and Young on the first Saturday in May 1981.

“With their eccentric but gentlemanly buffer gone, Young was moved into the No. 2 seat at the Derby next to Mr. Smith, his archrival who Young had actually criticized in print,” Moss says.

One more story, this one about Moss and Henry. Moss (who jumped from the Gazette to the Democrat following the 1982 Arkansas Derby) had asked Henry to let him cover Louisiana Downs in the summer and fall. Moss said he would pay for an apartment in Bossier City if the Gazette would keep him on the sports staff and allow him to handicap and write stories from the track.

Henry declined.

“He told me I needed to get out of covering horse racing because every racing writer he ever knew wound up being a drunk and a compulsive gambler,” Moss says. “He said, ‘Football is your future. That’s where you need to be.’ Now, Orville’s gone and, lo and behold, I wind up working for the NFL Network and doing some football for NBC.”

Thus Hot Springs native Randy Moss found his way to Indianapolis last week, covering the Super Bowl for NBC and telling Peter King about the 1980 Kentucky Derby.

And thus Randy and I began telling stories Tuesday about Forrest City’s Raoul Carlisle, the man who once knew everyone in sports and seemingly was everywhere at once.

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Liz, Lyndon and that day in Dallas

Friday, August 12th, 2011

I earlier wrote about my lunch a week ago on Petit Jean Mountain with Christy Carpenter, the new CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, and mentioned that I’m doing a profile of her for Arkansas Life magazine.

As a former journalist, I loved the fact that both of Christy’s parents — Liz and Les Carpenter — had been in the newspaper business. Christy and I talked about her mother. In doing research for the profile, I also read a lot about Liz Carpenter.

I wish I had known her.

Born in the historic Texas town of Salado (a community along Interstate 35 that’s now filled with bed and breakfast inns, interesting shops and good restaurants) in the plantation house that had belonged to her great-grandparents, Liz was a sixth-generation Texan who even had an ancestor die at the Alamo.

“We were all Methodists and Baptists and Democrats,” she once said of her childhood years. “I was 17 before I saw my first Roman Catholic and 21 before I saw my first Republican. Both were terrifying experiences.”

The 24-room home where she spent her early years has been a state historic monument since 1936.

When Liz was 7, her family moved to a home in Austin near the University of Texas campus. Liz headed east to Washington following graduation from UT in order to cover the nation’s capital. The year was 1942, and Liz was paid $25 a week by the Tufty News Bureau.

After Les Carpenter was discharged from the Navy, he married Liz in 1944 and they opened the Carpenter News Bureau in Washington’s National Press Building, producing stories for more than 20 newspapers, most of them in the Southwest.

Liz was covering the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles when she was asked to join the staff of vice presidential nominee Lyndon Johnson.

“Both Lady Bird and Lyndon asked me to share the adventure of their lives by helping Kennedy and Johnson get elected,” Liz said.

After the election, Liz became Lyndon Johnson’s administrative assistant, accompanying him on trips around the world, writing speeches and dealing with the media.

UPI reporter Al Spivak once said of Liz: “She saw that we got what we needed most — the facts, food and beverages of our choice.”

She was with the vice president in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

It was, in fact, Liz Carpenter who wrote the short statement LBJ gave after exiting the plane at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland — the plane that carried President Kennedy’s body.

“This is a sad time for all people, and we have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed,” the new president said. “For me it is a deep personal tragedy. I know the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bears. I will do my best. This is all I can do. I ask only for your help and God’s.”

“I cannot really say I wrote those words,” Liz Carpenter would later say. “God was my ghostwriter.”

Liz became the staff director and press secretary for Lady Bird Johnson and worked for the first lady through the end of the Johnson administration.

Christy Carpenter remembers that November day in 1963 well.

She was at Gordon Junior High School in Washington when the announcement came over the public address system that President Kennedy had been shot

“They let us out of school early, and I went with some friends to a church,” Christy said. “We then went to the home of one of my friends to watch the news coverage. I remember my mother coming home late that night. My father was also late getting home since he was still running the news bureau and busy getting stories filed.”

Her parents attended Kennedy’s funeral. Christy watched the funeral procession from the window of an office building on Washington’s Connecticut Avenue.

Les Carpenter died of a heart attack in 1974. He was only 52.

Two years later, Liz Carpenter moved back to Austin. She bought a home overlooking the Austin skyline and the Colorado River. She called it Grass Roots, and it became her headquarters as she wrote, made speeches and threw wonderful parties.

President Carter brought her back to Washington for one year in 1979 as the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Education.

At her mother’s funeral in March of last year, Christy Carpenter had these memories of her parents: “They were social animals, and that’s part of what made them so successful. They loved to entertain in our modest house on Woodway Lane, which was nestled between dogwood trees, azaleas and the rose beds my father so carefully tended. Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn, Al Gore Sr., lots of Texas congressmen and lobbyists, cabinet members and fellow reporters … would crowd into our small living room. The cocktails and laughter flowed freely, and sometimes deals were made.”

Christy said her older brother and she were trained to “help welcome guests when they arrived and carry coats to the bedroom. No shyness was permitted. We were taught to stick out our tiny hands, smile and say our names so guests could hear.

“Washington was a different town in those days, a small town where Republicans and Democrats were friends and often crossed the aisle to become allies on important issues. A big part of what made that possible was that Washington was a very social town. Republicans and Democrats socialized together constantly.

“In Washington, information is power. At the end of most days, my parents would dash into our house, quickly change clothes and head out to cocktail or dinner parties full of movers and shakers. This was where they developed sources and picked up the stories that they would bat out on their manual typewriters the next day in their office in the National Press Building. Life was exhilarating.

“My brother and I would always get a kick out of going to their office where the sound of teletype machines and the clicking and clacking of typewriters flooded the corridors, and we could read the names of newspapers from across the country that were stenciled on every glass door. You could literally smell the ink and feel the excitement of hurried people scrambling to meet their deadlines. In those days, reporting was romantic.”

You know, I still considered it pretty romantic when I worked in Washington for the Arkansas Democrat in the late 1980s.

I’ve always believed that a sense of humor is important. And I’ve always preferred those who are without pretense.

That’s why I think I would have liked Liz Carpenter.

Here’s how Christy put it in her eulogy: “Being funny went to the core of her being and came completely naturally to her. What a gift. Not only did it endear her to the thousands and thousands of people she made laugh throughout her 89 years, it also reflected her passion for life, her craving for fun and an inner wisdom that recognized that seeing the funny side was an essential ingredient to a happy life. And happy it was for the most part. As we experience the sadness of her loss, everyone should feel comforted that she had a whale of a good time on this earth, and she did it her way.

“Which brings me to another quality — earthiness. She was as authentic as the Texas soil. And she took the lessons she drew from it to the nation’s capital, to the White House, to the shah’s palace in Iran and to the mansions of the rich and mighty. She was the same person in those settings that she was in the shacks of Appalachia where she traveled with Lady Bird Johnson or to the shores of Senegal with Vice President Johnson. Princes, paupers, even thieves — everyone experienced the very same salt-of-the-earth Liz. She was totally without pretense, devoid of snobbery and comfortable in her own skin.”

Without pretense.

Devoid of snobbery.

Comfortable in your own skin.

What marvelous attributes.

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Expunging a racist past

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

On its website, The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., describes reporter Jerry Mitchell this way: “He has been called ‘a loose cannon,’ ‘a pain in the ass’ and a ‘white traitor.’ Whatever he’s been called, Jerry Mitchell has never given up in his quest to bring unpunished killers to justice, prompting one colleague to call him ‘the South’s Simon Wiesenthal.’

“Since 1989, the 50-year-old investigative reporter … has unearthed documents, cajoled suspects and witnesses, and quietly pursued evidence in the nation’s notorious killings from the civil rights era.”

I listened to Mitchell, a Texarkana native and a 1982 graduate of Harding University, speak last week at the Clinton School of Public Service. As I sat there, I thought of the role he continues to play in transforming the image of what once was perhaps the most racist daily newspaper in America.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Hodding Carter III once described the former owners of the Jackson newspaper this way: “The Hedermans were to segregation what Joseph Goebbels was to Hitler. They were cheerleaders and chief propagandists, dishonest and racist. They helped shape as well as reflect a philosophy which was, at its core, as undemocratic and immoral as any extant. They weren’t hypocrites. They believed it. They believed blacks were the sons of Ham. The Hedermans were bone-deep racists whose religion 120 years ago decided that question.”

Brothers Thomas M. Hederman and Robert M. Hederman migrated to Jackson from rural Scott County about the turn of the 20th century and found work as printers.

“They were hard working and parsimonious, and it wasn’t long before they took on the biggest printing job in town,” Kathy Lally wrote in The Baltimore Sun. “They bought The Clarion-Ledger in 1920 and left the paper along with their Baptist, teetotaling legacy to their sons.”

Lally wrote that the Hedermans “asserted their moral authority through their newspapers and their control of the First Baptist Church, the most powerful congregation in Jackson. They were able to proclaim themselves devout Christians while holding many of their fellow men — those of color — in contempt.”

A third-generation member of the publishing family, Rea Hederman, went to work at the newspaper in 1973 when he was only 28 and began trying to change things.

“It was really a terrible paper, about as bad a paper as you can get,” said former Mississippi newspaperman Lew Powell of Charlotte, N.C. “It was a mixture of incompetence and malevolence, especially on racial issues.”

Rea Hederman, embarrassed by his family’s past editorial positions, made significent changes before the newspaper was sold in 1982 to the Gannett Corp. Taking his part of the proceeds from that sale, Hederman bought a liberal icon among the Eastern elite, The New York Review of Books.

In a 2006 New York Observer profile, Sheelah Kolhatkar wrote: “The powerful attachment of adulthood can often be traced to the indignities of youth, and Mr. Hederman’s played out in the Deep South during the civil rights era. It was then, as a young editor, that Mr. Hederman learned about the dangers of editorial interference from above. … His relatives, and by consequence their newspapers, were pro-segregation and rabidly racist (as well as journalistically inept) — all of which mortified young Rea, even as he joined the family business.

”’Growing up in Mississippi, I went to an all-white school, and segregation was in full force, and I think at some point you just feel like you have to make a decision,’ Mr. Hederman said of his ideological split from those he grew up with. (Even some of his five offspring veered rightward, with one of his grown sons now ensconced at the Heritage Foundation).

“Mr. Hederman eventually became an editor at The Clarion-Ledger, where he proceeded to infuriate many of his family members by beefing up the news staff and by hiring, and covering, black people. His muckraking tendencies were unleashed on corrupt local figures — and sometimes on friends and members of the Hederman clan itself. Mr. Hederman described the period as ‘very rough,’ among other things: ‘I mean, the number of death threats I had, and reporters who worked for me had, was enormous. This was through 1982. It was way past the initial integration of public schools.’

“The newspaper’s turnaround was widely praised and won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. But all the while, Mr. Hederman had to wage daily battles with an extended network of relatives who felt that they had the right to decide what went into the paper. … The whole experience led to Mr. Hederman’s lifelong horror of editorial meddling and his ready eagerness not to do so at the Review.”

When the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 (after the sale to Gannett, though the project that won the prize began while Hederman was still in charge), Time magazine began its story this way: “When 200,000 people marched on Washington in 1963 to urge jobs and freedom for blacks, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger noted the rally dryly but reported the litter-clearance effort the next day under the headline: Washington Is Clean Again With Negro Trash Removed.

“Times have changed in Mississippi — and at the 146-year-old Clarion-Ledger. The state capital paper, whose modest daily circulation of 70,000 is Mississippi’s largest, crusades against corrpution and police brutality toward poor blacks. Last week the paper’s campaign for reform of the state’s allegedly inadequate, segregation-tainted public schools won the most coveted award in newspaper journalism, the Pulitzer Prize for public service.”

Two years ago, the newspaper endorsed Barack Obama for president.

“If Col. Robert McCormack, the longtime publisher of the arch-Republican Chicago Tribune, is spinning in his grave as a result of that paper’s endorsement two weeks ago of Democrat Barack Obama, imagine what sort of posthumous somersaults the brothers Thomas and Robert Hederman must be doing after this morning’s editorial in the Mississippi paper they controlled for a half century,” historian Robert McElvaine wrote at the time. “… No major media organ was more intransigent in its support for segregation and its opposition to the civil rights movement. … In the days when the Hederman brothers owned the paper, it frequently warned of the horror of ‘miscegenation.”’

In a 2002 PBS interview, Bill Minor (who for many years was the Jackson correspondent for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans) called the newspaper “an instrument of perpetuating the system of segregation on a daily basis. … The owners, the Hederman family — none of them wrote anything as far as I know, but they hired people who would write and express that point of view. And some of the worst things were some columnists that they had. And some of them had daily columns, and they would insult blacks on a regular basis.

“Bigotry would be at the soul of it in my estimation, although I would say 90 percent of them would go to church on Sunday and be in the amen pew, so to speak. They would give to some charitable causes of the church, maybe to do something over in Africa, you know, and so they absolved themselves in their own minds. But in their own town, in their community, they were bigots.

“They really promoted segregation through their paper in different ways. And of course we learned in later years, and suspected back then, that they were being fed these reports from the State Sovereignty Commission, which I used to call the KGB of the cotton patches. I mean, it was this arm created in the state supposedly to maintain a segregation strategy, but they had these investigators. And they would hire some private eyes to follow all sorts of people who were civil rights workers. But they would also watch some people who were not civil rights workers, even some whites, and there was a file on everyone that they thought was doing something to break down the system of segregation.”

For more than two decades now, Jerry Mitchell has worked to uncover buried stories from the civil rights era and bring former Ku Klux Klansmen to justice. In that sense, this Harding graduate continues the redemption of The Clarion-Ledger, almost 30 years after the newsroom reformer Rea Hederman left the South for New York.

“I think Jerry Mitchell deserves a great deal of credit,” Minor said. “And you have to give the newspaper credit for giving him the time, the liberty and the freedom because he’s a one-man operating team. He doesn’t have an investigating team working with him. He’s working by himself, working the telephone and working sources. He meticulously builds all these files and knows all the people. … It’s redemption, it really is. It has a redeeming value for the state. I wish more people appreciated it down here.”

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Time for a eulogy?

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Larry Fugate of Pine Bluff, an old-school newspaperman if ever there were one, sent me a long piece from the American Journalism Review by Carl Sessions Stepp, the magazine’s senior editor and an instructor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

The article is titled “A Eulogy for Old-School Newsrooms.”

I’ve rhapsodized about the old newsrooms on this blog before. When I came to work at the Arkansas Democrat in 1981, the newsroom there was still like something out of the 1950s. Yes, we were still using typewriters (albeit electric typewriters). And, yes, the editors still had spikes on their desks.

I suspect I could walk through the newsroom of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette today and discover that 80 percent or more of the reporters couldn’t tell you what a spike was. Oh well. I don’t want to risk sounding like that old man who constantly talks about how he walked to school in the snow.

Still, I realize how incredibly fortunate I was to have spent much of my career in the newspaper business before a certain era had ended. I think of all the colorful characters I’ve met. I think of the events I’ve been allowed to experience firsthand. I think of the friends I’ve made. And, as I get older, I cherish the memories more than ever.

Frankly, there aren’t many careers that would have allowed a guy from a middle-class family in Arkadelphia to sit in the press box at a Super Bowl, to walk down the track with the winning trainer right after the Kentucky Derby, to sit directly above President Reagan in the House chamber during his final two State of the Union addresses, to attend presidential inaugurations, to be at national political conventions, to have lunch with a president at the White House. I could go on.

What was my biggest thrill from a career standpoint? I would have to say it was having my byline on the lead story in the statewide newspaper when Bill Clinton was first elected president in November 1992. It will always be one of the most famous newspaper front pages in our state’s history.

In his e-mail to me, Fugate related how we watched a pistol fall out of the purse of a woman in her 60s who covered southeast Kansas for the Joplin, Mo., newspaper. He also saw a small flask fall out of her purse.

“She wore orthopedic pumps,” he wrote.

A pistol. A flask. Orthopedic pumps. My kind of reporter.

And Larry Fugate has always been my kind of newspaperman. When I worked for Gov. Mike Huckabee, we usually would headquarter at the Holiday Inn when staying overnight in Jonesboro. When he was working in Jonesboro, Fugate often would sit with a group of men having coffee at the same table each morning in the Holiday Inn’s restaurant. It was a de rigueur stop for the governor. He would sit down at that table, grab a cup of coffee and visit for a few minutes. Meanwhile, Fugate was doing his job — getting a sense of what was being said out there in the community before heading for the newsroom of The Sun.

Of the old newsrooms, Stepp writes: “Typewriters clattered, teletypes rang, scanners crackled. Reporters hectored sources over rotary phones with hopelessly twisted cords. Editors yelled. Whiskey bottles leaked from desk drawers as cigarette butts smoldered in trash cans. … You felt the ‘glorious smugness,’ as one journalist puts it, of people united in a mission, underpinned by an earnest faith that the work mattered, and you knew it, and the public knew it, too.

“Step into today’s newsrooms, and vestiges of this spirit linger and sometimes flourish. But something quintessential has waned. Over the last generation or so, newsrooms have taken on a self-conscious meekness, increasingly bleached and domesticated by a battery of challenges. Chances are they already are recrafting new personalities to serve new audiences in new ways. But now seems a good moment to offer some blend of farewell, salute, lament and good riddance to those grand and goofy newsrooms of the past, their season gone but their legacy unforgettble.”

Stepp quotes a Pulitzer-winning reporter named Jacqui Banaszynski as saying: “Newsrooms always felt like an episode from the old MASH television show, a group of passionate people doing difficult jobs under pretty impossible circumstances, and the only way they survived was doing it a little bit wacky. Now newsrooms feel to me like heavily edited copy. They’re neater, tighter and more efficient. They just don’t have as much voice and flair.”

Of course, the Internet has changed everything.

“You always had the sense you were six or eight hours ahead of the game,” Portland columnist Steve Duin tells Stepp. “You knew what had happened. You had the behind-the scenes storyline. And you got to go to sleep at night just reveling in the fact that you knew more than everybody else, and when they woke up in the morning, they would be reading what you wrote. Now you feel like you’re hours, days, years behind the curve.”

Writing is writing. I love the fact that my job allows me to be sitting here writing on a cold February morning with a good cup of coffee and a great view of Little Rock. This blog is a nice outlet for me. I would be less than honest, though, if I didn’t tell you that posting something to the blog simply cannot match the thrill of opening the Democrat-Gazette each Saturday morning and seeing my words in print. Blog posts are fun. The weekly column that the folks at the Democrat-Gazette allow me to write is more satisfying.

Jim Naughton, a well-known name in the newspaper business, tells Stepp that he finds newsrooms to be increasingly “uptight and morose … for the obvious reason that companies have economically pinched the hell out of them. They have cut way back and piled new duties on.”

Stepp writes: “Those cutbacks, combined with mission uncertainty and a rising fear of irrelevance, could humble most any operation. There are so few people left in his newsroom, one longtime reporter said recently, that they’re too grateful for having jobs to act out as they once did. Obviously, though, the old days shouldn’t be blindly romanticized. Their demise represents progress as well as loss. … You also sense hope and resilience in the here-and-now. Many journalists, like the Tribune’s Mary Schmich, still love their jobs and newsrooms.”

Schmich tells Stepp: “I get to write a column in the city of Chicago, an amazing place. I stay because I love my work, and I can’t imagine where else I would find work that — despite the huge frustrations right now — would satisfy me like that.”

So, as someone who took his first newspaper job in high school and worked in the business into my mid-30s, I join Carl Stessions Stepp in a toast.

“Let us toast those old news roosts and the tribe of rapscallions and reformists they let loose on many a city,” he writes. “Shabby they might have been. Perfect they never were. But who would trade the days you spent there, sassing the boss, dissing the mayor and imperiously threatening to cancel the subscription of anyone who dared complain? All the while doing some of the best work of your life. Think of it as something like leaving the home you grew up in or your first apartment. Its time has passed. Eagerly if warily, you head into the future. But just before you turn the corner, you look back one last time. And the old place and its rich memories seem pretty special.”

Thanks for sending this along, Larry. I’ll run down to Pine Bluff one day, we’ll grab one of Bobby Garner’s burgers at Sno-White and we’ll talk about the newsrooms of yore. . . two old guys walking to school in the snow, I guess.

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Hacks and flacks

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

In a recent blog post, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic writes that some of his friends in the public relations business have been “inundated with calls from journalists looking to escape our profession before it dies, as opposed to after it dies.”

I’ve heard from a few journalists myself in recent months. No, we’re not hiring right now.

Goldberg goes on to report that Jeff Birnbaum has left The Washington Times to serve as the president of BGR Public Relations in Washington. What’s now BGR was founded by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Republican White House aide Ed Rogers back in 1991.

This is interesting because Birnbaum made his reputation covering the lobbying business in Washington. Now, he will be working with and for lobbyists.

“If I were younger, and if we lived in a different age, I might feel slightly condemnatory, but this is the world we live in,” Goldberg writes. “All this gyrating does raise a couple of questions, though: Can journalists turn themselvs into skilled flacks? And, if all the journalists become flacks, who will the flacks flack to?

“The answer to the second question is easy — they’ll flack to underpaid, undertrained bloggers. For an answer to the first question, I turned to my friend Richard Mintz, who owns the Harbour Group, a public relations firm in Washington. He, too, is seeing a rise in queries from stressed-out reporters, but he was not entirely positive about their utility.

”’Journalists by their nature don’t make great advocates or public relations people because they’re trained to be objective rather than to take sides,’ he said. ‘They also tend to work alone, and they have no business experience.’ Other than that, of course, hacks make excellent flacks.”

This brings up the whole issue of “crossing the fence,” one I’ve dealt with numerous times during my career. Back when newspapers were much more successful financially and newspapermen were thus far more arrogant, some had the idea that you couldn’t leave the newspaper business for a public relations job or a political campaign and then return. In their minds, it was like being a priest. Or being in the Mafia.

To put it as delicately as I can, that’s crap.

I left journalism to work full time on a political campaign in 1984. When that campaign concluded, I went back to the newspaper business.

In 1989, I left the newspaper business again to work full time on a political campaign. Guess what? When that campaign was over, I returned to journalism.

When the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette created the position of political editor during Bill Clinton’s 1992 run for the presidency, I was selected to fill that job. I was asked a legitimate question. It went something like this: “You’ve worked on two political campaigns. Both were Republican campaigns. In Arkansas, most of the officeholders you cover will be Democrats. Is this a problem?”

I’ve always felt that one’s body of work and past experience will tell you far more than anything a person can say in a job interview. So, since I had been the Arkansas Democrat’s Washington correspondent from 1986-89 and covered our two senators virtually every day during that period, I suggested that those hiring me could talk to Democrats Dale Bumpers and David Pryor. I felt certain those two pillars of the Arkansas political world would say I had been tough but always fair as a reporter.

I can tell you this much: Because I had worked full time on two political campaigns, I was a much better political editor of the state’s largest newspaper than I otherwise would have been. I better understood the games the consultants and the pollsters played. I understood more about raising funds and leading volunteers.

And when I left that job in July 1996 to become the communications director for a new governor named Mike Huckabee, I was a much better hire because I had spent so many years as a reporter and editor. I would have been far less effective to Huckabee had I followed the traditional political route of Young Republican, College Republican, campaign worker, governor’s staff member.

I started working in the newspaper business when I was in high school. I was never a member of the Young Republicans. I was never a member of the College Republicans. I was hired because I was a communications professional.

The communications director for a statewide officeholder should serve as a go-between. I would at least like to think that those in the Arkansas media knew I would never knowingly give them false information. If I found out later that I had said something that wasn’t entirely correct, I would set the record straight as quickly as possible. I was honest in letting them know that there would be times when I would be unable to tell them all I knew. However, I would never lie.

I would attempt to be their advocate in the governor’s office. I would try to give the governor my best advice on how to respond and my best analysis on the fallout from certain acts. It wasn’t always an easy position to be in. More than once, an angry governor would look at me and talk about “your friends in the media.”

He knew, however, that he had hired me to give him just that side of the equation. He always listened. Had he not, I would not have stayed for more than nine years.

So, for any journalists out there thinking about jumping that fence, don’t worry. You can always return. And if you do return, you’ll probably be a better reporter, writer and thinker than you were before you left.

I just hope too many of you don’t leave. I worry about the decline of print journalism in this country. It’s vital. And there are few things I enjoy more than reading multiple newspapers each day. That, however, is another post for another day.

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Knock ‘em out, Henry

Friday, November 6th, 2009

God bless Henry Allen of the Washington Post.

We don’t normally editorially endorse physical violence at Southern Fried, but the story of Henry Allen’s fight in the Post newsroom a week ago is the best story we’ve read all week.

Here’s what happened on that final Friday in October: Veteran features editor Henry Allen punched one of his writers, Manuel Roig-Franzia, during an argument in the office of the newspaper’s executive editor.

Allen, who is 68 and served as a Marine in Vietnam, was upset that another Style editor had assigned a story to writer Monica Hesse and Roig-Franzia without his knowledge.

That editor had asked the two writers to play off the disclosure last week that many members of Congress are being investigated for ethics violations. The two writers compiled a list of similar inadvertent disclosures throughout history and came up with what’s known as a “charticle.”

When Allen got the story, he began to rant loudly about the mistakes he found in the copy.

One of the incidents referenced in the “charticle” was an account of how a Confederate solider lost the military plans of Robert E. Lee; plans that found their way into Union hands. The original story said that the incident had occurred in Virginia. Wrong. It occurred at Antietam, which is in Maryland.

Allen screamed: “This is total crap. It’s the second worst story I have seen in Style in 43 years.”

The worst apparently was a mistake-filled profile of Paul Robeson that never made it into the newspaper.

Roig-Franzia cursed Allen. Editor Allen punched him.

The reason I say “God bless Henry Allen” is because I have a soft spot for an old editor who still cares enough about the written word to get into a fight. Too many of today’s editors seem to have no intensity, no fire. The joy of writing and editing is missing from their work. They might as well be in a cubicle at Entergy turning out corporate news releases.

Not to get too nostalgic, but I long for the days when people became angry about reporters’ mistakes. Like many people, I’ve mellowed with age. In my younger days as an editor, I was known to throw a dictionary or two.

When I was the assistant sports editor at the Arkansas Democrat in the 1980s, I once had our “recreation writer” (a cute young thing) tell me she had “writer’s block.”

I didn’t realize I was going to make her cry when I began my rant: “That’s impossible. You can’t have writer’s block because you’re not a writer. Hemingway was a writer. Faulkner was a writer. You’re not a writer. You’re a newspaper reporter. So finish your dang story.”

Later that year, John Robert Starr transferred me to Washington to cover Congress. During the four years I lived there, the Style section of the Post became my favorite newspaper section in America. I would stay up late into the night in the basement where I lived on Capitol Hill’s Tennesse Avenue Northeast, reading the great long-form journalism in the Style section. Those stories ran for thousands of words and were crafted like fine magazine pieces. What a joy it was on a cold night to curl up with the Style section and some coffee or hot tea.

In this sad period for the American newspaper, I echo the words of the Post’s Gene Weingarten, who said: “The first thing I want to say is hooray. Hooray that there is still enough passion left somewhere in a newsroom in America for violence to break out between colorful characters in disagreement over the quality of a story.”

David Von Drehle, one of the finest writers ever to work at the newspaper, wrote this on a Washington City Paper blog earlier this week: “Of all the people to be drummed out of the Post newsroom, Henry Allen was the most dazzling and original talent I’ve seen in 30-plus years in the journalism business. His was one of the truly great Post careers, and he’s my ideal of Style at its best. When I try to unpack the reason I once dreamed of a place at the Post, it has to do with the sense of experimentation, of risk-taking, of form-busting that defined the Post in the glory days. People tried to capture the spark by saying that the Post was the ultimate writers’ newspaper. But what we were really getting at — even if we didn’t realize it — was that the Post was Henry Allen’s newspaper. He took newspaper journalism to places no one realized it could go, and thereby filled a lot of us with big ideas about what the business could be. . . . In these parlous times, how do you put the last exclamation point on a fearless career spent smashing limits and efforting the impossible? No damn sheet cake for Henry Southworth Allen, nossir. He’s left us with one more story that we’ll never forget.”

God bless Henry Allen. God bless newspapers. God bless the written word and those who care deeply about it.

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