Walter Hussman Jr. and everything he has done for my life and career is near the top of my Thanksgiving thank you list.
We were both 26 when we first met over lunch at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs where he offered me a job that would lead to the executive editorship of that city’s daily newspaper, the Sentinel Record.
It was obvious at first that Walter and I had a lot in common, including putting readers’ wants and needs above everything else. We were young and filled with the fearless idealistic energy that young men in their twenties often exhibit.
Walter also said he didn’t know if his father had any sacred cows in Hot Springs. But if so, we’ll send them to the slaughterhouse together.
I previously wrote about the day I brought a well-researched story to Walter for his approval about a former public servant who allegedly took bribes.
He read the story aloud to the newspaper’s lawyer, who advised against publishing it. After that call, he smiled and said, “It strikes me if lawyers ran newspapers, we would never publish anything. Let’s do it.”
This is how Walter’s attitude of encouraging First Amendment journalism has remained over the years. Such an attitude of reader above all on the part of a publisher makes journalists dream.
Over the next seven years, we published articles exposing everything from corrupt practices in city court and the sheriff’s office to a slumlord judge and an incarcerated innocent black mason who was released.
If a story was important for the public to know, and we could prove it, the presses were rolling. Walter has never wavered in his commitment to honest, fair and assertive journalism.
Then came the rainy night of 1974 when Walter asked me to meet him at the office to write an article for the Associated Press.
Acting against his father’s advice, he had just bought the Arkansas Democrat, which aired in the afternoon, plagued by union problems and steadily declining publicity and circulation. In anyone’s opinion, it was a risky business. But no one was Walter Hussman Jr.
He immediately set about completely reforming the product, turning the Democrat into a morning paper and spending whatever it took to compete for subscribers and advertisers with the long-running success of the Arkansas Gazette.
He opened the Democrat’s classifieds section by making numerous ads for free. He greatly expanded the sports and news teams while adding many pages.
Like Rocky Balboa, his Democrat retreated from the canvas and began landing reverse punches, finally emerging in October 1991 (after defeating public Gannett who had by then bought and then shut down the Gazette) as the only newspaper to statewide.
He purchased all of the Gazette’s assets and incorporated his name as a tribute to that newspaper’s many outstanding journalistic contributions in his newspaper’s letterhead.
When I left Hot Springs in 1980 to join the Los Angeles Times, it became clear that I was too maverick to fit in that huge newspaper.
So when the Chicago Sun-Times called me and offered me an investigative reporting slot, I agreed, having no idea that the then nationally respected blue-collar newspaper would sell out within a year to a notorious publisher who focused on sensationalism.
Most of the newsroom quickly bailed out other subway newspapers. Walter offered me the chance to return to Arkansas and do investigative reporting projects for the Democrat and the other Arkansas dailies of his WEHCO Media channel. I returned.
Like in Hot Springs, not once did he urge me to give up the search for truth in highly controversial cases involving the likes of James Dean Walker, Marvin Williams, Ronald Carden and failures in the crime lab of the state. I can only imagine the furious phone calls and comments he received asking him to restrain me.
I spent a year investigating the death in custody 20 years earlier of young black veteran Williams from Menifee. Two white Conway police officers who arrested him for allegedly being drunk and claimed he fell on the jail steps and injured his head (despite having a negative blood alcohol level and a fatal skull fracture behind the ear; read Ronnie Williams’ book “Markham Street”) were indicted by a grand jury. only to be found not guilty by a white jury.
After attending a seven-hour deposition in federal court with the newspaper’s attorney, a note from Walter appeared on my desk the following week. It was a copy of an invoice from our attorney’s office for thousands of dollars. Walter’s response: “Mike – Sometimes the price of publishing the truth can be high.”
The negative outcome of the Williams trial has soured my feelings on the state of justice in my state. When the Arizona Republic called me three weeks later, I accepted the offer to rebuild its disbanded investigative team with mixed emotions, knowing that I would never work for another publisher with the courage and Walter’s support. I have never seen Walter Hussman use his position as editor of the Democrat-Gazette to grow or advance his personal agenda, which was not the case in Arizona.
He clearly stands above others I have worked for when it comes to promoting quality journalism, believing that if both sides of a story are compared, readers are better served deciding for themselves- same truth.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask anyone who has worked for Walter over the years. Most have stuck with them for a reason, and I’m sure their experiences will have been just like mine.
I wouldn’t return to my home state until 1995 to write the Northwest Arkansas Times in Fayetteville, when that newspaper was in a heated circulation war in northwest Arkansas with the Democrat-Gazette and two other dailies.
At that time, I remember David Radler, an arrogant publisher of The Times and a national newspaper chain of 135 newspapers, flying the company’s DC-9 plane to Fayetteville from his Chicago headquarters for a staff meeting where he bragged about how much his publishing empire had earned the previous year, saying, “Walter Hussman is a financial pipsqueak.”
Having worked for Hussman, Radler’s smear felt like a slug in my stomach. So I offered my unsolicited assessment, which, in effect, was: “With all due respect, the fundamental question when dealing with the Walter Hussman I know is not how much your shareholders are happy to win; but rather how much they are willing to lose. Hussman sacrificed millions to win wars with the Gazette, then Gannett after that media giant bought, then closed, the Gazette when it suffered heavy losses in The fighter.
Radler thanked me for my observation and then promised everyone at the Times that he would never sell the paper. He did.
In 2001, Walter asked me to join his organization for the third time to write the column you now read three times a week. My only order of business was “to write essential articles for our readers”. Only readers can decide if I even got closer after two decades.
I can assure you, however, that Walter has remained as solid as ever behind my efforts, including a number of controversial efforts, including the death of Janie Ward from Marshall, the release of Belynda Goff from prison, and saving the river Buffalo National Pollution.
Now, all those decades after Walter and I shared the lunch that changed my life and that night his Democratic ownership began, he announced his retirement as editor by the end of this year.
He will continue as president and CEO of WEHCO Media, which publishes 10 daily newspapers serving three states, as well as eight English-language non-daily newspapers and two Spanish-language publications.
Walter stepping down as editor is a loss to our state and his newspaper, but I realize change is inevitable. And he will keep a hand from afar throughout WEHCO’s overall operation.
I will remain deeply grateful for all he has done to support me while building what many now call the best daily newspaper in the country. All Arkansans who still appreciate having a statewide newspaper should be grateful for Walter’s courage, determination and ingenuity as he and his managers made the transition from newsprint to the digital, which has become absolutely necessary to survive in a struggling industry.
And it did it the right way, even providing subscribers with new iPads. There will always be only one Walter Hussman Jr., and our Arkansas is a much better place to have him.
By the way, nothing spoke more clearly of Walter’s support after all these years than September 6, when he came from Little Rock to see me ring the bell symbolizing the end of my radiation treatments at Claude Parrish Cancer Center at Harrison. No doubt he had a lot of work on his plate that day. Yet he was there, side by side with me.
So thank you, Walter Hussman, for the tremendous opportunity that knowing and working with and for you has brought into my life and the lives of all Arkansans.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, has served as editor of three Arkansas daily newspapers, and led the Ohio State University’s Masters in Journalism program. Email him at [email protected]