By virtue of one of its predecessors, the Arkansas Gazette (founded in 1819), it claims to be the oldest continuously published newspaper west of the Mississippi River; however, due to interruptions in 1850 and during the Civil War, and especially how the Gazette was merged into the Arkansas Democrat (founded in 1878) in 1991, that claim is disputable. (The Oregonian in Portland, Oregon, continuously published weekly since 1850 and daily since 1861, has a more accurate claim to this distinction.) The original print shop of the Gazette is preserved at the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock.
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The newspaper war
In 1974 the Democrat was sold to WEHCO Media Inc., owned by the Hussman family. The publishing duties went to Walter E. Hussman, Jr. At the time of Hussman's arrival the morning Gazette was far in front of the afternoon Democrat. Hussman embarked on a campaign of major cost reductions and concentrating subscription effort on the Little Rock urban market. These efforts had little success and by 1977 Hussman attempted to reach an agreement with the Gazette to combine operations but his overtures were rejected.
Hussman vigorously fought back and was intent on becoming the state's largest newspaper. A war ensued between the two papers. The Democrat expanded its news operation, offered free classified advertisements, and switched from afternoon publication to morning publication.
In 1979 Hussman appointed John Robert Starr to the position of managing editor. The fiery and irascible Starr was photographed squatting atop a Gazette newspaper box with a dagger between his teeth to show his seriousness. Starr doubled the size of the news staff and concentrated on hard news. Under Starr's direction readership increased steadily. During 1980 the Democrat was the fastest growing newspaper in the United States.
The Gazette responded by hiring new staff, going to a color format, and filing a federal antitrust suit against the Democrat in 1984. The suit accused the Hussman enterprises of trying to put the Gazette out of business. The Democrat responded that it was only trying to remain competitive, and that none of its practices were intended to run the Gazette out of business.
A federal jury in the court of U.S. District Judge William R. Overton rendered its verdict on March 26, 1986. The Democrat was found not guilty of all the allegations leveled against it by the Gazette.
The Heiskell family sold the Arkansas Gazette to Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper chain, on Dec. 1, 1986.
Gannett had immense assets with which to fight the Democrat but received criticism for bringing in out-of-town reporters and staff and losing the local feel of the paper. The Gazette, nicknamed the "Old Gray Lady," became flashier but critics complained that the paper had lost the respect of the readership.
Over the next five years the two newspapers dueled. The readership of the Gazette remained steady over that period of time, but the daily readership of the Democrat went from 78,000 to 133,000 and the Sunday readership leapt ahead of the Gazette's 225,000 to achieve 241,000.
Victory of the Democrat
The financial losses of the fiercely contested battle were too much for Gannett to justify. The "Old Gray Lady" published her last edition on 18 October 1991. Gannett sold the Gazette and all of its assets to the Democrat and the next morning, 19 October, the first edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was published. Most Arkansans, regardless of which paper they subscribed to, were saddened by the sudden loss of their historic newspaper.
Many of the reporters and staff of the more liberal Gazette were thrown out of work and not picked up by the more conservative Democrat-Gazette. Many of these former employees were bitter at Gannett for their management of the newspaper war and angry at the Democrat for achieving victory. Many employees left for other markets while some who remained aided in converting the Arkansas Times from a magazine format to a tabloid newspaper in order to provide a more liberal weekly alternative to the dominant conservative paper.
In the years since, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has maintained a higher circulation than newspapers in similarly sized cities. Many newspapers that defeated in-town rivals concentrated on reducing costs and reduced news coverage to meet their goals. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has continued to balance quality goals with profitability. Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Greenberg was appointed the Democrat-Gazette editorial page editor on April 29, 1992. Griffin Smith, a sixth-generation Arkansan, was appointed Executive Editor on June 23, 1992. Both continue to serve in those positions.
Critics of the Democrat-Gazette continue to argue that the paper is more conservative than its Little Rock subscriber base. The Democrat-Gazette points out that its op-ed pages are open to many different viewpoints and that it accurately reflects its statewide constituency.
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