If it ain't broke, break it: How corporate journalism killed the "Arkansas Gazette"

Donna Lampkin Stephens

Abstract

Ownership is an increasingly critical issue for newspapers as they face the latest threats to the industry's survival. Local, engaged, enlightened ownership is preferable to that of a distant corporation, but economic realities have decreed that corporate ownership has become the norm. The Arkansas Gazette was one of the most honored newspapers of twentieth-century American journalism under independent local family ownership, having provided brave leadership during the Little Rock Central Crisis, but its wounds from one of the country's final fierce newspaper wars -- against another local owner, Walter Hussman and his Arkansas Democrat -- in the 1980s, combined with those changing economic realities, led to the family's decision to sell to the Gannett Corporation. Whereas the Heiskell/Patterson family had been committed to quality journalism and was willing to pay for it, Gannett, like all public companies, was focused on the bottom line. The brash arrogance that many Gannett imports brought to Arkansas led the giant corporation to shift the Gazette's focus from editor-driven to market-driven, reversing the Heiskell/Patterson philosophy of giving readers what they needed to be engaged citizens rather than what they wanted to do in their leisure time. In many ways, the chain trivialized the Gazette's mission, although the Gazette retained its superior quality until the end. Instead, financial reasons made the difference in Arkansas's newspaper war. As the head of a privately-held company, Hussman had only himself to answer to, and he never flinched while spending $42 million in his battle with the Pattersons and millions more against Gannett. Gannett ultimately lost $108 million during its five years in Little Rock; Hussman said his losses were far less but still in the tens of millions. Again, he had only himself to pacify; Gannett had to answer to nervous stockholders, most of whom had no tie to, nor knowledge of, Arkansas or the Gazette. For Hussman, the Arkansan, the battle had been personal since at least 1978. For Gannett, the Arkansas Gazette was simply a business proposition. It is no surprise that Gannett blinked first, and the Arkansas Gazette died on October 18, 1991, the victim of corporate journalism.