REX NELSON: Putting out the paper

Posted: July 8, 2018 at 1:53 a.m.

I pulled out from the University of Arkansas' Fruit Research Station north of Clarksville, where I had gathered column material, and began the winding drive up Arkansas 21 to Berryville. My ultimate destination was Eureka Springs for the annual meeting of the Arkansas Press Association.

Arkansas 21 takes you through communities such as Ozone, Fallsville, Boxley and Kingston. It's not a road to be on when you're in a hurry, but it's one of the prettiest drives in the state. It crosses the upper Buffalo River south of Boxley, runs along the Kings River near Kingston, and crosses Osage Creek just south of Berryville.

My radio was tuned to KUAF-FM, the National Public Radio affiliate in Fayetteville. The peace that Thursday afternoon was broken when NPR reported there had been a shooting at the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s, I often would make the short drive from my home on Capitol Hill to Annapolis. I was a regular at U.S. Naval Academy football games. At other times of the year I would head to Annapolis to walk through its historic downtown and eat seafood at its restaurants. Being a newspaper junkie, I would buy a copy of the Capital Gazette on those visits.

As I made my way north through the Ozark Mountains that Thursday, the news became worse. I heard that several people had been shot. Then I heard that there had been multiple fatalities. By the time I reached Eureka Springs, it had been confirmed that five newspaper employees were dead. The news seemed personal, not just because I was once a reader of the Capital Gazette but also because I had come back to full-time newspaper work in June 2017 after 21 years away. These were journalistic colleagues who had been slain. I was glad that I would be with fellow newspaper employees at the APA convention. Even during my years away from the business, I thought of myself as a newspaperman. Newspaper people are my people, and it was good to be with them on that sad night.

It didn't take long for word to spread at the APA meeting about the tweet sent by Chase Cook, a reporter at the Capital Gazette. Cook wrote: "I can tell you this. We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow."

Putting the paper out: It's the foremost goal of any newspaper employee. Those in our business relish stories of the lengths to which newspapers have gone in the wake of fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and other disasters to make sure they didn't miss an edition. It's a special spirit; a spirit that has survived in this era of shrinking revenue, falling circulation, layoffs and newspaper closures.

When I became the youngest daily newspaper editor in the state at age 23 in 1982, the paper I edited (the Daily Siftings Herald at Arkadelphia) was one of 32 dailies in Arkansas. That number is down to 21 and likely will continue to decrease as small dailies move to weekly or bi-weekly publication.

When I spoke the next afternoon on the subject of news and fake news, I opened my address by quoting Jimmy DeButts, the Annapolis editor who sent out a series of tweets in the minutes after the tragedy. It's amazing given the confusion, shock and grief that DeButts could so eloquently state why we do what we do.

"There are no 40-hour weeks, no big paydays--just a passion for telling stories from our community," he wrote. "We keep doing more with less. We find ways to cover high school sports, breaking news, tax hikes, school budgets and local entertainment. We are there in times of tragedy. We do our best to share the stories of people, those who make our community better. Please understand, we do all this to serve our community. We try to expose corruption. We fight to get access to public records and bring to light the inner workings of government despite major hurdles put in our way. The reporters and editors put their all into finding the truth. That is our mission; will always be."

DeButts' words were ringing in my ears as I had two additional duties at the convention--presenting the APA Distinguished Service Award at a Friday night banquet to Walter Hussman Jr., this newspaper's publisher, and then serving as master of ceremonies for the annual Saturday awards luncheon that closes the convention.

It had been almost 40 years since I attended my first APA awards luncheon. I was a student at Ouachita Baptist University, the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald, and had won an award. I began attending the convention on an annual basis and relished the chance to spend time with giants of the industry in Arkansas--people such as Fred Wulfekuhler of Paragould, Charlotte Schexnayder of Dumas, Tom Riley of North Little Rock, Frank Robins of Conway, J.E. Dunlap of Harrison, Cone Magie of Cabot and Jay Jackson of Clinton.

Hussman was born into the business. His grandfather, Clyde Palmer, paid $900 for the Texarkana Courier in 1909. Palmer renamed it the Four State Press, later selling it and purchasing newspapers at El Dorado and Camden with the profits. In 1933, after a number of mergers and acquisitions that included newspapers at Hot Springs and Magnolia, Palmer acquired the Texarkana Gazette.

Walter Hussman Jr. was born at Texarkana in January 1947 and grew up in Camden, where his father was publisher of the Camden News. After earning a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master's of business administration from Columbia University in New York, Hussman went to work as a reporter at Forbes. Fortunately for Arkansas newspaper readers, he returned to Arkansas in 1970 to work for his father. Hussman was only 27 when he moved to Little Rock in 1974 as publisher of the Arkansas Democrat, where I would go to work following college graduation in 1981.

Those of us in the newspaper industry live in challenging times. Not only are there the business challenges, there are the challenges of an age when political partisans scream "fake news" each time they read something with which they disagree. I had no simple answers for my colleagues in Eureka Springs. The best advice I could offer was to remain passionate about their profession, get back to work and, in the words of Chase Cook, concentrate on "putting out a damn paper tomorrow."

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 07/08/2018