Walter Hussman: Newspaperman to the core

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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