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The family-owned newspaper

I began thinking anew this week about the demise of family-owned newspapers after reading of the death of Frank Robins III, the former publisher and last family owner of the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway.

Frank Robins III was the president of the Arkansas Press Association in 1974. His father had been the president of the Arkansas Press Association in 1940. And his grandfather had been the president of the Arkansas Press Association in 1923. Talk about a family tradition.

The newspaper, one of the most uniquely named publications in the country, had been purchased by the family in 1894 in a trade for a sawmill. Frank Robins III went to work there in 1949 as soon as he graduated from Hendrix College. He became the publisher in 1959 following the death of his father.

I loved the quote about Mr. Robins in The Associated Press story from former Log Cabin editor John Ward: “He was very hard-nosed about assumptions. Reporters, in gathering information for a story, sometimes tended to make two or three assumptions so they could crank out one story and go on to something else. Frank hated assumptions. If you made an assumption and it was wrong, he was a hard man to deal with.”

There was something special about those local owners and editors who had their lives deeply invested in the communities where they lived. It’s something that simply can’t be matched by many of the publishers who work for newspaper chains and tend to bounce from city to city.

I remember hearing stories growing up about Mr. Phil McCorkle of Arkadelphia and his stewardship of my hometown daily newspaper, the Daily Siftings Herald. There also was a weekly newspaper in Arkadelphia at the time, The Southern Standard, which was owned by 1961 Arkansas Press Association president Keith Tudor. By the time I went to work for the Siftings Herald (another Arkansas paper with a name not replicated elsewhere), the paper was under the ownership of the Freeman family of Pine Bluff. But we still considered ourselves a family-owned publication since the Freeman “chain” consisted only of newspapers at Pine Bluff, Arkadelphia and Yazoo City, Miss.

Ed Freeman, one of those publishers who cared deeply about the English language, who mark up past editions on a regular basis and send his comments back to us. I would have loved to have been able to listen back at the Commercial offices when Mr. Freeman and Paul Greenberg would discuss the content of editorials for hours at a time.

It’s fun to look at the list of past Arkansas Press Association presidents and remember some of the newspaper greats in Arkansas — Charles Young and Porter Young in Helena, O.E. Jones in Batesville (the newspaper there is still controlled by the Jones family), Ray Kimball in Magnolia and later DeQueen, J.E. Dunlap in Harrison, Sam Hodges in Benton, Louis Graves in Nashville, Melvin Schexnayder and later Charlotte Schexnayder in Dumas, Cone Magie in Cabot, Tom Gillespie in Atkins, Ted Larimer in Green Forest, Fred Wulfekuhler in Paragould, Orville Richolson in Newport and others.

As the sports editor at Arkadelphia, I often would cover University of Arkansas football games at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium. Representatives of the small dailies (there was not room for weekly newspaper representatives in those days) would sit at the far end of the press box. I often found myself seated next to J.E. Dunlap. I was young and convinced that a sportswriter should not show bias. Mr. Dunlap would have none of that. He always showed up in the press box in a bright red blazer and a tie with Razorbacks on it.

That’s the same Mr. Dunlap who, upon receiving some self-serving news release from an ad agency, was known to insert a rate card and mail the release back to the agency.

The people like him were the ones I looked up to as a young newspaperman. There was nothing better than attending an APA convention, sitting back, shutting my mouth and listening to the old guys tell stories. I miss them. They were a special breed.

There are still a number of family-owned weekly newspapers in Arkansas, but the family-owned daily is becoming a rare breed. I never got around to buying a newspaper, which is probably for the best given the current state of the industry. But it would have been kind of fun to have turned into “a hard man to deal with” for young reporters who made assumptions.

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