Home again

I’m home again.

It was December 1981 when I first went to work in the old building on the corner of Capitol and Scott in downtown Little Rock, covering the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference for the sports department of the Arkansas Democrat.

The AIC no longer exists.

Neither does the Democrat, for that matter.

I had grown up in Arkadelphia and stayed there to attend college at Ouachita Baptist University. Fascinated by the newspaper business from an early age, I spent more time in the downtown Arkadelphia newsroom of the Daily Siftings Herald — where I was sports editor — than I did in the classrooms at Ouachita.

I began collecting newspapers at age 7 (they took up a lot of room, leading my father to exclaim, “Why can’t you collect coins or stamps like other kids?”) and wrote stories about Little League baseball games for the local newspaper while I was still a player.

During my college years, I was the one-man sports staff for a newspaper that was published five afternoons a week. I had two college athletic programs to cover along with area high schools. I also used the newspaper to obtain media credentials and then paid my own travel expenses with the money I earned there so I could cover events ranging from the Cotton Bowl to the Sugar Bowl to the Kentucky Derby to Dallas Cowboys home games to the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament.

I was obsessed with putting out the finest small daily newspaper sports section in the region, even while carrying a full class load and having a second job as the sports director for the local radio stations.

The hours were long, but I look back on that as a golden period in my life. Along the way, I became friends with the sports columnist for the Democrat, Wally Hall. When Hall became the sports editor, he let me know that I would have a job once I finished college. I don’t remember a formal job offer. It was just sort of understood.

The newspaper war between the Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette was heating up. While I was still in college in 1979, the afternoon Democrat began publishing a morning edition in an effort to reverse years of declining market share. Front-page color was added, free want ads were offered to non-commercial advertisers, the size of what’s known as the news hole was increased by more than 50 percent and the news staff was doubled.

Revenues increased, but expenses also soared.

The romantic notion of working for the underdog in what was becoming one of the country’s great newspaper wars was exciting to me. Little did I realize the anxiety down on the first floor of the Democrat building among those who were trying to make the numbers work from a business standpoint. Walter Hussman Jr., the newspaper’s publisher, told me years later: “We caught a tiger that was bounding through the jungle by the tail, but he was going so fast we couldn’t get off.”

For me, it was simply an adventure.

I had never lived anywhere but Arkadelphia. That changed on a Sunday afternoon in December 1981 when my parents helped me move into the old Riverdale Apartments on Rebsamen Park Road. They then treated me to dinner at a Steak & Ale on Cantrell Road and headed back to Arkadelphia, leaving me in the big city of Little Rock. I reported to work the next day at Capitol and Scott, and I didn’t look back.

A year later, the Siftings Herald offered me the job of editor. At age 23, I would be the youngest daily newspaper editor in the state. I didn’t want to be known as just a sportswriter, and the job back in Arkadelphia would be a chance to expand my news credentials. I spoke with Hall, and he urged me to accept the position.

The lure of working at a statewide newspaper was strong, though. I returned to the Democrat in the summer of 1985 as the No. 2 person in the sports department. I was quite content in that job when the newspaper’s mercurial managing editor, John Robert Starr, informed me in 1986 that he wanted me to be the Democrat’s Washington correspondent. I loved Little Rock, but he gave me no choice. It ended up being among the best things to ever happen to me. I learned how the political game is played at the highest levels, made new friends and met my wife during my four years on Capitol Hill, where I lived and worked out of the basement of an old townhouse.

While I was working in Washington for the Democrat, the Patterson family of Little Rock sold the Gazette to the Gannett Corp., the nation’s largest newspaper chain. My assignment that day was to cross the Potomac River, go to Gannett headquarters in Arlington, Va., and write about the company. Those of us at the Democrat were scared to have a giant enter the fray.

You likely know the rest of the story.

Hussman and his troops took on Goliath and won. The final editions of the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat were published on Oct. 18, 1991. The first edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was published the next day.

I had moved back to Little Rock from Washington by then with my new wife and was the editor of Arkansas Business. Hussman soon hired Paul Greenberg away from the Pine Bluff Commercial to be his editorial page editor and made Little Rock attorney Griffin Smith Jr. his executive editor. I should have known something was up in 1992 when Hussman and Smith invited me to lunch at the Little Rock Club atop what’s now the Regions Building in downtown Little Rock. It was becoming evident by that point that the state’s governor, Bill Clinton, was about to win the Democratic presidential nomination, and the newspaper needed someone to coordinate that coverage.

Arkansas was in the international political spotlight, and I wanted to be a part of the action. I accepted the job as this newspaper’s first political editor, returning at age 32 for a third stint in the building at Capitol and Scott. I split my time between Washington and Little Rock the next four years, writing stories while also supervising three reporters in Washington and three reporters at the state Capitol.

In July 1996, the chance to work on the senior management team of a new governor named Mike Huckabee seemed to be a good opportunity to serve a state I love. What I thought would be a short detour into government lasted almost 13 years. I worked for more than nine years in the governor’s office and then spent about four years in the administration of President George W. Bush as one of the president’s two appointees to the Delta Regional Authority. When I returned to the private sector following that long detour into government service, Hussman and Greenberg were kind enough to let me begin a weekly column as a freelance writer. That column has run every week for the past eight years, allowing me to keep a finger in the newspaper world I love.

Still, I haven’t worked full time for a newspaper since the summer of 1996. After more than two decades, that’s about to change.

I’ll be leaving work I enjoy at an Arkansas institution I respect. Simmons Bank, which has called Pine Bluff home since 1903, is about to have operations in seven states. It has been fun to watch the rapid growth of an Arkansas-based company from the inside.

Why make the change?

As noted, the newspaper world has intrigued me since childhood, and it calls again, even with the challenges brought on by the revolution in the way Americans obtain their news.

We live in an era when strong statewide newspapers are almost a thing of the past. The once-great statewide publications such as the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Des Moines Register are shadows of their formers selves, their circulation areas no longer reaching the corners of Kentucky and Iowa. The Commercial Appeal is no longer even printed in Memphis. The presses now roll down the road in Jackson, Tenn. Readers in cities as large as New Orleans and Birmingham can no longer get their cities’ traditional daily newspapers delivered seven days a week. In Arkansas, however, Hussman remains committed to putting out a quality statewide newspaper. Having one of the last true statewide dailies in America is something in which Arkansans can take pride.

The older I get, the more I find myself saying in my travels across the state: “Man, I wish I had time to write that story.”

One column a week is no longer enough. There are too many unique places and colorful characters whose stories I must tell.

At age 57 — almost 36 years since the first stop — I’m about to be back in the building at Capitol and Scott.

It’s good to be home.

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