WEHCO Media Inc., parent company of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, will remain in the hands of family leadership with the announcement Tuesday that Executive Editor Eliza Hussman Gaines will become the next publisher on Jan. 1.
Outgoing Publisher Walter Hussman Jr., Gaines’ father, made the announcement Tuesday afternoon in the Democrat-Gazette’s Little Rock newsroom. Hussman, 75, announced in October he would retire by the end of the year.
“Hopefully the things that distinguish us as a family business will continue for many years after I’m gone,” Hussman said in announcing the leadership transition. He will retain the title of chairman of WEHCO Media.
Gaines, 35, has served as executive editor of the statewide newspaper since January and was managing editor for the prior two years beginning in March 2020. She’s the first woman to lead the newsroom and the first to oversee WEHCO Media’s daily operations.
Readers will remain a top priority, Gaines said in her newsroom remarks.
“We’re a subscription-driven business and our future depends on the readers,” she said. “This is the time to take bold action, to try new things and to learn more about or readers so we can match their wants and needs.”
Hussman noted the newspaper’s efforts to maintain daily publishing to support communities.
“I think the most important thing about our newspaper is that we are trying as hard as we can to figure out a sustainability model for daily newspaper industry publishing,” he said. “It’s so important that a daily newspaper be there.”
Gaines committed to that legacy in her remarks.
“Our nation is losing newspapers at a rapid pace, and I can’t let that happen here and in our other markets,” she said, citing that as reason for taking the publisher role.
“We know that cities without a newspaper have more crime, higher taxes and less government transparency. I don’t want that for our communities. Our industry faces challenges but I’m confident in our future.”
In June, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies reported that 360 more newspapers, almost all of them weeklies, have closed since 2019 and that there have been nearly 3,000 newspaper closings since 2004.
Gaines is the fourth generation of the Hussman family to be in the newspaper business, which the family began in 1909. The family took over the Arkansas Democrat in 1974 when it was an afternoon newspaper and half the circulation size of the more popular Arkansas Gazette, a morning newspaper. WEHCO bought the assets of the Gazette in October 1991 and published the first edition of the Democrat-Gazette.
“We’re still kind of a relic in the newspaper industry,” Hussman said, noting the industry’s transition from primarily family-run companies to one dominated by large corporations and private equity funds.
Rarer still, Hussman said, is maintaining a family-owned business through four generations. Cornell University has published data showing that about 40% of U.S. family-owned businesses transition into a second-generation entity, dropping to 13% that are passed down to a third generation. Only 3% survived to a fourth generation or beyond.
Hussman cited similar data. “We’ve already made it to that fourth generation,” he said.
In the new role, Gaines will lead the publishing of 10 daily newspapers serving three states – Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.
“The three men who came before me — my great-grandfather, grandfather and dad — have operated their newspapers using one principle: to put readers first,” Gaines said. “I promise to do the same as your publisher.”
Gaines is a former editor of the Sentinel-Record in Hot Springs. She was a travel reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle before earning a master’s degree in journalism in 2012 from the University of North Carolina.
Prior to serving as managing editor, she was WEHCO Media’s vice president of audience development, serving the Democrat-Gazette and other newspapers operated by the company.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Hussman was named publisher with the purchase of the Arkansas Democrat in 1974.
Tuesday's announcement was followed by a note to employees of changes and improvements in the company's benefits policy including additional paid vacation days based on length of service, paid parental leave, a paid personal day and floating holiday, and an employee assistance program.