Big Time in Little Rock  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October 1994

Big Time in Little Rock   

The election of Bill Clinton thrust the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, home of some of the president's most acerbic critics, into the national spotlight. Now the paper, survivor of a bloody newspaper war, is striving to forge a new identity and struggling to compete with the big boys.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     


They've been on "Nightline" and MacNeil/Lehrer. "Larry King Live" has called. So have Bryant Gumbel and Charlie Rose. The networks, CNN and C-SPAN have sought out their thoughts on President Clinton. So have scores of radio talk show hosts and national newspaper reporters with well-known bylines.

Not bad for people who work for a medium-sized newspaper in a not altogether glamorous Southern capital.

Since Clinton announced his candidacy in October 1991, the national media have descended on Little Rock, lavishly wining and dining the political savants at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, trading tenderloin for tidbits about Clinton, Whitewater or the president's love life.

Columnists Meredith Oakley and John Brummett have written books on Clinton that might never have been published if George Bush had won. Michael Kelly relied on and quoted both authors in a New York Times Magazine profile of the president in July. Connie Bruck, who wrote a much-discussed piece on Hillary Rodham Clinton in the New Yorker in May, plumbed columnist John Robert Starr for hints about Hillary.

But while Clinton has been good for the Democrat-Gazette, it's hardly a two-way street. The paper's editorial writers, along with Oakley and Starr, skewer the president and the first lady every chance they get.

Clinton's presidency has turned an intense media spotlight on the Democrat-Gazette, a privately owned newspaper that only recently emerged from a bitter 13-year newspaper war between the liberal Arkansas Gazette and the conservative Arkansas Democrat. The unconditional surrender by the Gannett-owned Gazette on October 18, 1991, created the Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas' only daily statewide newspaper. Three years later, the Sunday Democrat-Gaz-

ette, with a circulation of 300,000, has the second highest penetration in the country. Despite the numbers, however, the paper is still struggling to define itself.

In a sense, the Democrat-Gazette is like Roger Clinton, the president's younger brother. If Bill Clinton were still in Little Rock, Roger wouldn't be on television shows like "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" – nor would the Demo- crat-Gazette enjoy having big-name journalists treat it as a font of expertise on the president.

"With Clinton in the White House," says Executive Editor Griffin Smith jr., "it has meant that there hasn't been a normal day since day one."

The timing could have been better. Clinton declared that he would run on October 3, 15 days before the Gazette went under. So the newly created Democrat-Gazette was faced with two stiff challenges at the same time: covering a presidential campaign – and then a presidency – as a local story while forging its own personality.

Seizing the Clinton opportunity, the paper has spent serious money in an effort to compete with the national media on Whitewater and other major stories, worrying for the first time about being scooped by the Washington Post. It has stationed three reporters in Washington and wooed highly regarded investigative journalist Mary Hargrove away from the Miami Herald.

"Everyone from the editor to the publisher realizes this is a chance for this paper to get attention that we wouldn't otherwise get," says Political Editor Rex Nelson. "With the news war over and being a monopoly, we had a choice to do it halfway. But we didn't."

The other challenge is coping with inevitable newsroom change in the post-war era, as the victorious Democrat, which absorbed only a few Gazette news staffers, seeks a new identity.

Salaries, once very low at the Democrat, are way up. The newshole is larger, the graphics sharper, the newsroom plusher. Even the writing is getting livelier, albeit gradually, under Smith, a former National Geographic writer and an original staffer of Texas Monthly. The newsroom staff has grown by about 50, among them Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer Paul Greenberg, who came from the Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Commercial. The newsroom staff now numbers about 200, average for a paper of this size. With a daily circulation of 181,000, the Democrat-Gazette is the 65th largest in the country.

Not that everything is rosy. Critics say the Democrat-Gazette lets the vigorously anti-Clinton stance of its editorial page influence its news columns.

And many were perplexed when the paper played the nation's first triple execution in 32 years, which took place in Arkansas in August, on page three of the local section (an Amtrak crash in New York made the front page). "I do freelance work for Reuters and they wanted everything they could get [on the execution]," says anchor Steve Barnes of KARK-TV. The three major networks and CNN led their newscasts with the story, Little Rock's KATV devoted nearly eight minutes to it and the New York Times played it on page one, as did 10 Arkansas dailies.

The Democrat-Gazette also has been criticized for allowing reporters to travel to far-off locales while trip sponsors pick up the tab. Some question whether the political editor ought to be hosting a radio talk show following Rush Limbaugh which attracts Clinton critics. And in a small state like Arkansas, some consider it downright unfriendly that the paper began charging for obituaries last year (the first 50 words are still free).

Nevertheless, critics and champions alike say the new Democrat-Gazette is much better than anyone expected from a monopoly newspaper that survived the costly carnage. It was widely anticipated that Democrat Publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr. would recoup the tens of millions of dollars he had lost slaying the Gannett giant by pumping up profit margins and slashing spending. Instead, Hussman surprised everyone by declaring he wanted the paper to become one of the country's best – and spending money to make it happen.

"They [the owners] have a better paper than they have a right to, especially for a man who lost scores of millions over the last decade and a half," says KARK's Barnes. "I guess it wouldn't surprise me to have a 40-page paper. But we don't."

In fact, most days the paper is a fat, five-section product packed with classified and display ads. For similarly sized papers, the average number of news pages was 11,991 last year; the Democrat-Gazette published 14,684. And it devoted about half of its overall space to news, compared to a national average of 46.5 percent for comparable papers.

"We do it because we can afford to do it," says Hussman, 47. "I think quality is more important than quantity but quantity is also very important to readers."

Although the war ended three years ago this month, it's striking to an outsider how raw the wounds remain. People use words such as "bitter," "ugly" and "mean-spirited" when discussing the conflict. Many survivors act as though they'd been through a real war instead of a newspaper battle waged with dollars and ink.

It began in 1974 when Hussman, then a 27-year-old, third-generation newspaperman whose family owns Little Rock-based WEHCO Media Inc., paid $3.5 million for the Democrat, a money-losing afternoon paper. Four years later, Hussman hired John Robert Starr, an Arkansan and longtime Associated Press Little Rock bureau chief, to be managing editor, then the top newsroom job.

The Democrat was up against a paper with twice its daily circulation. The venerable Gazette, known affectionately as the New York Times of Arkansas, was a liberal morning paper that once went against the local tide, risking circulation and winning one Pulitzer for public service and another for editorials in 1957 for its stand on the school desegregation crisis in Little Rock.

Starr was the designated dragon-slayer. His strategy was simple: Hire young kids out of college, underpay and overwork them, expand the newshole and overwhelm readers with news. "One of the things the Democrat gloated over was that we'd have 10 to 20 times more local stories than the Gazette," recalls Bob Lutgen, a Democrat editor who is now the Democrat-Gazette's managing editor. "Some of them were real meaningless to some readers, but we had a lot of them."

Starr also wrote a vitriolic opinion page column that often featured ad hominem attacks on his foes. People at the Gazette "were fixated on my column," says Starr, who at 64 still files every day, as he has since November 1981. While some have tired of his fulminations, Starr was must reading while the newspaper war raged. Even the Clintons, targets of many of his attacks, cozied up to him, Starr says.

In 1978, Hussman asked the Gazette owners, the Pattersons, to enter into a joint operating agreement. They refused. Hussman retaliated by giving away classified ads, slashing display ad rates, cutting subscription costs and, in 1979, turning the Democrat into a morning paper. The war was on in earnest and red ink was flowing everywhere.

After the Gazette lost an antitrust suit against its rival in 1986, the Pattersons sold the paper to Gannett for $51 million. The mammoth newspaper company, many believed, would be the Gazette's savior.

Gannett brightened up the paper with color, put fluffy human interest stories out front and spent heavily trying to liven up the dowdy Gazette. It slashed its price from $2 a week to 85 cents. But the formula never clicked. Some say that was largely because the out-of-state owners never quite figured out the local terrain.

"Gannett wouldn't listen to anybody who knew anything about Arkansas," says Gene Lyons, a local writer. "The notorious day was the day they put the University of Arkansas cheerleaders in bright spandex on the front page. This was the New York Times of Arkansas. It was one of those symbolic moments when people saw clearly that the good, gray Gazette was turning into a trashy tabloid."

While it did make some improvements, in the end Gannett could no longer justify the prodigious losses. It sold the 172-year-old Gazette for $69.5 million to Hussman's WEHCO, a company with six newspapers, 17 cable television franchises, four radio stations and a TV station.

"My family publishes four weekly newspapers in southern Arkansas," says Lawrence Graves, press secretary to Arkansas Attorney General Winston Bryant. "We always looked up to the Arkansas Gazette – not the Democrat. You can't imagine how painful the death of the Gazette was."

ow it's up to Griffin Smith jr., 53, a quiet, courtly small-town lawyer straight out of "To Kill A Mockingbird," to heal wounds and create a paper born from two distinct voices and styles.

"When the Gazette died, the Democrat died, too," says Graves. "Now they're evolving toward becoming the Democrat-Gazette."

Before taking over in June 1992, Smith had never managed a daily newspaper, aside from editing his college newspaper at Rice University. Born in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Smith earned three degrees and also studied political and legal philosophy at Oxford. For much of his life, before settling into practicing adoption law in Little Rock in 1981, he wrote magazine travel pieces.

His travel writing background brought him to the Democrat in 1987, when he launched the paper's travel section (his wife Libby is now the paper's travel editor). "I wanted the Democrat to win the war," says the bespectacled Smith, who came to dislike Gannett's ignorance of Arkansas. "If it came down to one paper surviving, I wanted to say I had done something."

Smith, who once wrote speeches for President Carter, wanted Starr's job when the notorious editor was ready to step down. It surprised many that Hussman chose someone so inexperienced to pilot his new paper. "Griffin is an extremely intelligent and talented person, plus he had great references," says Hussman, who figured he could help Smith learn to run the paper. "He's a great writer and I've always had the dream of having a newspaper with great writing."

Smith is the first to say he's no John Robert Starr. He's less full of himself and prefers to maintain a low profile. In his effort to reshape the paper, he has sought advice from the Washington Post's Ben Bradlee and Gene Foreman, deputy editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer (and once managing editor of the Democrat).

He sent two reporters to visit the Post – one to trail Mike Causey, who writes a federal workers column (now the Democrat-Gazette has a similar column for the state's 42,000 employees), and one to study the Style section. Another reporter absorbed the techniques of Philadelphia Daily News obituary writer Jim Nicholson, who is known for his rich portraits of the lives of ordinary people (see Free Press, July/August).

One of the first things Smith did was increase the pay of the 158 editorial employees he inherited. "The salaries were regrettably, infamously low," says the executive editor. The newsroom budget has increased 73 percent during the past three years – most of it for raises and new hires, Smith says.

Many say what's emerged are two distinct staffs. "They have two different internal forces bucking heads with each other," says Graves, a former journalist who talks regularly with staffers. "You have the reporters and editors and people here during the newspaper war. The others are the newcomers, the people who didn't have a dog in that hunt and are looking to make it a first-class newspaper."

Smith makes no apologies for hiring flashy writers and giving them columns and time to develop their Little Rock voices. Michael Leahy, 38, a magazine writer from Los Angeles, and Philip Martin, 35, who came from New Times in Phoenix, are among those attracting readers and causing resentment in the newsroom. "They are unmercifully picked on [by their colleagues]," a fellow reporter says. "They're the pampered little writers who get to take as long as they want and get lots of space."

Stylists Leahy and Martin typify what Smith wants at his paper. After years of being told to produce, produce, produce, it's hard for some reporters to abandon sometimes dull institutional coverage and focus on clever leads. The emphasis now is on good writing, says Managing Editor Lutgen, 44, who guzzles coffee and smokes cigarettes like an old-time newspaperman. "But many of the staff were brought up on who, what, where, when and how," he says. "It's hard to get them to look at things differently. Some people are too programmed and just can't break away from quantity."

The paper has held 19 in-house workshops to strengthen writing and reporting techniques. It also publishes a daily critique written by two editors.

But some prominent staffers argue that not everything is changing for the better. "I think the writing has improved," Starr says, "but the reporting has suffered." Brummett believes the paper's state coverage isn't as good as when it had a crosstown rival, and suffers from the preoccupation with Washington. "We just don't have the same competitive spirit anymore," says Oakley. "I'm hearing things first on television for the first time in my life."

The newsroom itself has changed, too. Democrat employees used to be crammed into a dingy, crowded second-floor room of an old YMCA building, with reporters sharing desks and fighting over terminals and telephones. The refurbished newsroom is bright, carpeted and stylish, and there are plenty of computers to go around.

"Five years ago, I wouldn't have felt this was a newspaper where you could have a career," says Randy Lilleston, 34, the Washington bureau chief. "But now it's dumped so much money on staff that a lot of people will stay. Things I never would have dreamed could come true have – salaries, the commitment to keeping this ungodly expensive newshole and this office."

Despite the paper's vast resources, Smith has disregarded some ethics policies followed at many first-rate newspapers. He sent a reporter to Hollywood to review movies and let the studio pick up the tab. Another reporter flew to Germany to look at trade school education courtesy of the German government. Yet another reporter went to Japan and another to Taiwan, both subsidized by trip sponsors. Smith says he finds nothing wrong with the practice, which would be prohibited under the Associated Press Managing Editors' proposed ethics code.

Smith says his reporters can't be compromised. "If [Entertainment Editor] Eric Harrison goes to L.A. to see 'The Lion King' or 'Forrest Gump' and his way is paid and his room is paid and he comes back and does a story," explains Smith, "then I've got money left to send [media columnist] Michael Storey to Hollywood to see the TV preview things for 12 days. I'd rather allocate the budget that way."

The weekly Arkansas Times, which calls the Democrat-Gazette the "dog," has criticized the practice and mentions each of the trips. Now when the Times asks for a comment, Lutgen is apt to respond, "None of your business."

Times Editor Max Brantley also questions whether Political Editor Nelson ought to be doing his hour-long radio show, "Respond to Rush." The show is a chance for local callers to talk about national issues raised by Limbaugh. Nelson, who worked for two Republican politicians before becoming political editor, says state and local politics are not discussed on his show.

"I think it's passing strange that you have your political editor, who's in charge of assigning stories, appearing on a radio talk show that, if you listen to it, you'll conclude is by no means neutral," says Brantley, an 18-year Gazette veteran.

Smith defends the shows, saying he trusts Nelson to be impartial and that all the editor really does on-air is field calls. But columnist Brummett, a moderate, says it's a bad idea. "When not a political columnist but the political editor does a radio show that amounts to another hour of Clinton bashing, " he says, "some people may see that as part of this paper's grand conspiracy against Clinton."

No matter how often the Democrat-Gazette stresses the distinction between its conservative, anti-Clinton editorial voice and its news pages, nobody seems to be buying it. For over a decade, Starr and Oakley have beaten up on Clinton, and now essentially depict him as a snake oil salesman incapable of leading the nation. Both are still furious that then-Gov. Clinton promised in 1990 he "absolutely, positively" wouldn't run for president if he won a fifth term. Asked why she attacks Clinton, Oakley responds: "He's a liar."

In one column Oakley noted, "If 15 years of observing Bill Clinton have taught me anything, it is that you can fool some of the people all of the time." In another, about a poll finding low approval ratings for the president, she wrote, "He has been inconsistent, indecisive and incoherent on too many fronts for that to escape public attention."

Starr is equally unflattering. In an August column, he urged Congress to put off action on health care legislation until next year. But, he warned, "don't expect Bill Clinton to listen to the delay-sayers. His Excellency considers health care reform essential to his reelection, and he doesn't care whether the reform is good or bad."

Editorial Page Editor Paul Greenberg, a longtime Clinton antagonist who popularized the nickname "Slick Willie," refers to the president as a "hollow man."

"Rex's radio show, the triumvirate of Starr, Oakley and Greenberg, some news decisions and verbs in the headlines combine to give the impression the paper is anti-Clinton," says Brummett, adding, "I don't think there's any deliberate attempt by news editors of the paper to trash Clinton."

Starr agrees that there is a perception problem. "I sometimes think they [the editors] choose anti-Clinton stories more than pro-Clinton stories," he says. "But the fact is there's not a lot of people writing favorably about Clinton."

Smith and Lutgen say Hussman has never told them to slant the news against the president. "We've probably made some mistakes along the way," Lutgen says. "Sometimes the headlines haven't truly reflected the balance of a story. Sometimes we overplay the wrong story. But I think we honestly strive to be fair."

Others don't. Ernest Dumas, a former Gazette editorial writer, points to a headline on an AP story last Christmas when Clinton invited friends to the White House: "Clinton Relatives, Cronies Party At The White House."

"That gives an impression of cigar-smoking guys," says Dumas, now a journalist in residence at the University of Central Arkansas, who cites the headline as an object lesson for his students. "They weren't cronies. They were friends. There is a difference."

After Clinton's crime bill was rejected last summer, the president vowed the next day to "fight and fight and fight" to rescue the legislation. The New York Times and the Washington Post played the story about his reaction on page one above the fold; the Democrat-Gazette tucked it away on page 15.

"The Democrat-Gazette to my knowledge has not printed one article favorable to Bill Clinton since he became president," says William T. Shelton, a copy editor at the neighboring Pine Bluff Commercial. "They don't give him credit for a damn thing."

That's not quite true. But the perception persists. Joe Fox, whose company distributes the New York Times in Little Rock, says: "I tend to interpret what's being written as having a bias because of the editorials, even though that's not the intention on the part of the writer."

The White House plays down the notion of any serious rift between the Democrat-Gazette and Clinton, at least on the record. Communications Director Mark Gearan says it would be "unrealistic to believe that any newspaper, even one from his own state, would write positive news about the president all the time."

As for allegations that the paper treats the president unfairly, Gearan responds, "We feel there are some issues used by detractors, and reported on by the media, which take away from the real issues at hand."

Griffin Smith jr. became executive editor the summer before the 1992 presidential election, eight months after the newspaper war's end. Not only did he have to quickly learn how to run a daily newspaper, he also had to decide how to cover a presidential candidate who was a dominant local figure.

Smith hired Rex Nelson, who is now 35, as the paper's first political editor and sent 12 people to the Democratic Convention at a cost of $70,000. After Clinton won, the paper sublet space in the National Press Building in Washington and sent Terry Lemons and his wife, Jane Fullerton, to help Randy Lilleston cover the new administration. Previously, Lilleston had worked out of his bedroom on Capitol Hill, and went to the White House only if an Arkansan was there to shake hands with the president. Now he's there virtually every day.

The Democrat-Gazette allocates a page or two inside the A section for Washington stories and the three correspondents – only a beeper away – cover the president and national issues. They tend to ignore the Arkansas congressional delegation, which used to be Lilleston's full time beat. In one week in early August, when Congress was grappling with health care, the crime bill and Whitewater, the paper ran only one story focusing on members of the delegation. During that week the paper printed 68 stories with Washington datelines, 11 of them staff-written.

Nelson says the paper continues to cover the delegation, but adds, "I'm afraid there are times when it gets hurt some."

Each day, the Democrat-Gazette flies 175 copies to Washington – 50 go directly to the White House and the rest are distributed at newsstands and 30 news racks. The paper's stories are cited in White House daily news summaries, and Hotline, an online political newsletter, runs them regularly. Clinton often calls on Lilleston at press conferences.

"We get a lot more respect and attention," says the reporter, who's been in Washington since 1990. Phone calls to the White House and Justice Department no longer go unanswered. "A lot of this fell into my lap and I try to keep that in mind," adds Lilleston.

Nonetheless, with the paper spending $175,000 this year on the Washington bureau (more than three times its 1991 budget), there is plenty of pressure on Democrat-Gazette reporters to keep up with the national media. It can be tough, particularly with a complicated story like Whitewater, which thrust the paper into competition against newspapers with far greater resources.

"I never thought I'd have to get up before and worry about what's in the Washington Post that day," says Lilleston. "But I do. When the Washington Post broke some Whitewater stories about the Treasury Department, every day was pure misery."

Whitewater provides a chance for the Demo- crat-Gazette to have a major impact, but its efforts often are overshadowed by the heavyweights. New York Times investigative reporter Jeff Gerth is generally given credit for breaking the story in March 1992 (See "The Second Time Around," June). In fact, says Nelson, the Democrat or the Gazette had already printed much of what Gerth wrote but had never put it in perspective the way the Times reporter did.

The paper now has nine people in Washington and Little Rock working on Whitewater, including Mary Hargrove, who was lured to the paper by Smith because he wanted some first-rate investigative work. She arrived in February and immediately started work on a series, which ran in late August, tying Democratic Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to Whitewater.

"There was a feeling that we lost our story..," says Hargrove, who gained a national reputation for investigative reporting during an 18-year career at the now-defunct Tulsa Tribune. "People are saying, 'Why didn't the paper do it?' That's not fair. They were reporting daily news stories about it. They just didn't back up and put it all together. So the New York Times came in and did it. But every national [media organization] came in and built on the framework that was already laid by this paper. But we never got credited for the work we did."

The paper has a bit of a collective chip on its shoulder knowing that whatever it reports, it may not get any acknowledgment unless the national press picks up the story. For example, the Democrat-Gazette published a story about Arkansas state troopers allegedly procuring sex for Clinton on December 21 – a day before the Los Angeles Times ran its story (See Free Press, March). "And yet," bemoans Nelson, "everything you ever see is that the L.A. Times broke the story or the American Spectator had it first."

Staffers sometimes feel they are treated like researchers by national reporters. Before the election and later when Whitewater heated up, reporters parachuted into Little Rock, grabbed back copies of the Democrat-Gazette and peppered the staff with questions. After some files vanished, the paper closed its library to outsiders.

Alfred Thomas, the Democrat-Gazette's library manager, sighs when asked about national media attention. It was nothing for him to get as many as 40 calls a week about Clinton or Whitewater. "I got smart when Virginia Kelley [Clinton's mother] died," Thomas says. "I came in early and we did a Virginia Kelley package with about 10 or 12 sheets. About 8:30 a.m., the telephone started ringing. We had it all ready to go."

The national press wasn't happy when the Democrat-Gazette library was declared off-limits and staff researcher Rebecca Patterson, who had previously been so helpful, wasn't available. "I couldn't explain it enough to the Washington Times that we couldn't help them any more,"says Patterson. "They just did not understand it."

Nor did a British tabloid understand when Patterson refused last May to pick up a copy of Paula Corbin Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton, even though the paper offered her $200. "They got really furious because we wouldn't do it," Patterson says.

And while it has been a heady experience, some reporters and editors also are growing weary of the attention.

"When it's one of those busy weeks, there comes a point where we don't want to talk to these reporters," says Nelson. "I just don't have time to talk to the Daily Mirror of London. Sometimes they act like some little hick in Little Rock should just fall over and jump. But we've been so inundated with national and international media, we no longer are impressed by much." l

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