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Newspaper Row

Nearly two centuries later, the Arkansas Times celebrates its 30th on historic ground for Arkansas Journalism. Credit a 'Whiff of possum.'

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BYGONE ERA:
  • BYGONE ERA:
For about 20 years now, the Arkansas Times has perched in midair at a corner of Markham and Scott streets in Little Rock. It's a historic location for Arkansas journalism. The Arkansas Gazette squatted at the same intersection for half a century once, and in the mauve decades of the 19th century the site anchored a charismatic Newspaper Row that ran along both sides of East Markham from the Old State House on down what is now President Clinton Avenue to the high ground above the landing at the remains of the boulder that gave the city its name. Fred W. Allsopp in his "History of the Arkansas Press for 100 years or More" (1922) says that at one point the Newspaper Row lineup included the Gazette, the Old Line Democrat, the Arkansas Democrat, the Little Rock Republican, the Arkansas Traveler, the Arkansas Methodist, the Little Rock Clipper, the Little Rock Evening Ledger, the Southern Rising Wave of Temperance, the Little Rock Tribune (a yellow-journalism tabloid whose editor was once beaten senseless with an umbrella by a large subscriber who thought herself to have been editorially wronged), the Life of Little Rock (printed on rose-colored paper), "and numerous other publications." Also published within shouting distance at one time or another between Reconstruction and the First World War were the Little Rock Daily News, the Spirit of Arkansas, the Little Rock Evening Star, the Little Rock Local Preacher, the Arkansas Battle-Axe (which seems to have been a kind of early "Say" McIntosh number), the Masonic Trowel, the Arkansas Choctaw, and periodicals and organs supporting the Brindle Tail Republicans, the Anti-Saloon League, the Brothers of Freedom, the Grangers, the Agricultural Wheel, the Greenbackers, the Populists, women's suffrage, "free silver democracy" and at least three disputatious varieties of Arkansas Baptist. There was a "literary and psycho-religious" monthly. Also a succession of short-lived black newspapers, and several German-language newspapers, the editor of the best-known of which was a Prussian giant with 12 fingers and 12 toes. In the Progressive Era, the Row added a snooty literary magazine and a not-so-snooty one to replace Opie Read's Arkansas Traveler, which had meantime decamped for Chicago; a cornball humor magazine called the Arkansas Toothpick, and a sleek salon magazine edited by the storied parochial litteratrice Bernie Babcock. The daguerreotypes don't show it but Newspaper Row was a colorful place back in its postcard heyday. Newsboys scurried alongside the hansoms that horsed passengers from the train station to the Anthony House. The same horde of "little merchants," black and white, clambered morning and evening across mudboards laid along Markham Street, which the exasperated state legislature had declared an official navigable waterway, to pick up "jags" of fresh editions and hurry off to sell them at the drummer hotels and emporia and aboard the low-water stranded steamboats. Tramp printers were a conspicuous element of the local population, lending the scene a distinctly Bohemian air, according to Fred Heiskell, Mr. J.N.'s lesser-known brother at the Gazette. Editors from rival papers brayed at one another across the street either by shouting blackguard and poltroon insults or by inking those same insults into special-edition bold-face headlines and literally waving them at one another - the Little Rock Daily Dispatch and the Little Rock Pantagraph giving one another the business in the1860s just as the Old Line Democrat and the True Democrat had done in the 1850s; and the editor of the Gazette and the editor of the Arkansas Methodist going at one another in the 1880s, the latter haranguing the former as an apologist for gamblers and sots and the former asking of the latter in fist-size block type: "Is This Man Without Shame, Drunk, or Crazy?" The competing newspaper people of an earlier era shot one another, and those of a later era - the 1980s, for instance - sued one another, but those of the Newspaper Row period specialized in what they called bullyragging. The period is often called "the era of personal journalism" - style (often an ornate style, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility) taking precedence over substance. But if flamboyant "personal journalism" characterized the time, it also peaked then, and began a precipitous decline. Vigorous opinion writing would give way to a dull, artless kind of editorial mumbling and muttering that was most interested in not offending advertisers or subscribers. "Personal journalism" had pretty much played out in Arkansas by the turn of the century, and with a few exceptions, it didn't come back until a lifetime had passed. In much of our press, perhaps most of it, it hasn't come back yet. It was replaced by a new thing called "reporting," usually a lazy, cozy form of it that was a dismal precursor of the modern stuff that you read in such pages as these or see on TV. The great journalistic efflorescence in Little Rock began in the 1870s, when commercial prospects were probably worse than they'd ever been or have been since. The state was in political and economic chaos bordering on anarchy. Murderous desperado gangs terrorized much of west Arkansas, and south Arkansas, and east Arkansas, while competing factions of the ruling Republican party cannonaded one another in a bona fide central Arkansas intrastate civil war. Outside capital dried up almost completely as Arkansas defaulted on the antebellum bonds by which it had financed its early government. The national financial Panic of 1873 didn't spare Arkansas. You could start a newspaper pretty cheap - around $400 would set you up nicely - but it was hard to find anyone who could pay for a subscription much less buy an ad. The city's leading subscription man of this time once listed the items that he had taken in trade for three months of the Gazette, and those items included chitlins, cheese, wool socks, sawdust, prunes, potatoes, persimmons, cordwood, possums for baking, marbles, chalk, a live alligator, and an extremely unsociable wolf. A Dewitt publisher accepted coonskins, honeycombs, and onions; a Rogers editor balanced his ledger with a heifer and some laying hens. It was the worst of times to go into business, and the worst of places, and yet the newspaper business exploded then, in Little Rock and all over Arkansas. Historian Michael Dougan thinks the coming of railroads had something to do with it - as horizons expanded, and for an isolated people the big world suddenly opened up. The political and social turbulence produced issues aplenty calling for strong editorial voices. Dozens of newspapers appeared in Little Rock in the 1870s and 1880s, though few of them lasted very long, and hundreds of them in Arkansas. Towns that wouldn't even exist at the turn of the 20th century sported three and four and five newspapers. In nine years time, from 1876 to 1885, Hope launched 13 newspapers. At one time during the period, Benton County had 27 newspapers, three of them in the metropolis of Eldorado Springs and a good half of them in communities that themselves would soon dry up and blow away. Allsopp estimated that 150 newspapers came and went (all but two of them went) in the capital city in its first 100 years, and 10 times that number arose and then disappeared across Arkansas. Fifteen hundred newspapers bellying up in a hundred years. Usually when one of them died back in the old days, its mechanical parts were transplanted like hearts or kidneys in our time, soon to be turning out identical-looking boilerplate and liniment ads under different mastheads in different towns. It's hard to appraise them, even to make much of a guess, at this remove. The Little Rock press was qualitatively in league with that of other "western" cities - St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, Cincinnati, even Chicago and Pittsburgh. A prominent press critic ranked the Gazette as one of the three best American newspapers, an assessment certainly more Al Neuharthian than A.J. Lieblingesque. Hot Springs had a thoroughly cosmopolitan press too, with a number of entertaining crackpots. Pine Bluff had two proud if rather stiff dailies, both published by old-school bourbon aristocrats, and Fort Smith had a concatenation of anal-retentive newspapers that are given as much credit as Judge Parker for transforming the wildest frontier town in America into one of the most conservative within 20 years' time. Jonesboro, Batesville, Rogers, Fayetteville, and Helena seem to have been adequately served. The boondocks hebdomadals ran the quality gamut as well. The Carlisle Prairie Flower, the Washington Telegraph, the Pea Ridge Pod won wide admiration - they were blue-ribbon entries in a small-town sentinel tradition that went back to the territorial period and continued 150 years into the 20th century twilight, by which time most of the best of the small papers had been snatched up and neutered by these insipid see-no-evil Palmerian chains, just as the big urban newspapers had been by the bigger chains a generation earlier. The trend wasn't always toward editorial excellence, even in the summer of bullyragging. The mouthier papers were, in fact, the ones that folded, more often than not, and the ones that survived managed to do so (or so they thought) by ever timider editorial timidity. In the parlance of the time, the plungers got their thumbs on the fire-eaters, and seldom let up. The state's first historian of note poured scorn on the gathered editors and publishers of the Arkansas Press Association in 1885: "We puff all and every kind of character at one dollar a line. We sell patent medicines that we know are worthless. We hesitate to speak unpalatable truths for fear 20 subscribers will haul off the names. Great Scotland, is THIS the editorial goal?" Well, yes, sadly, for most of his audience, that WAS the goal. Even if they'd got into the business originally to make a racket - to flap their arms and emit wild cries, as H.L. Mencken would describe it - the ambition had mellowed. Accommodation, prudence, inoffensiveness became the rule. "Reporting" involved a lot of looking the other way. Interesting papers back then - did I mention the Star City editor who had no arms? - but newsprint is short-lived stuff in more than one sense, and microfilm didn't show up in these parts until there was no longer much need for it. Some numbers of some of those old papers still exist in archives, the Gazette almost complete, but historians and researchers are the only ones who see them, and for all practical purposes they are lost, gone. Those researchers go looking for particular items, and the papers themselves - the magical things - don't really exist for them as they existed for the original readers, the farmwives and blacksmiths, the stranded lightning-rod salesmen and marooned carnival geeks waiting out yellow fever quarantines back home. Newspapers mirrored the times then as now, and when times change the newspapers become relics, museum pieces, their fire and fury quieting away to quaint. Even the mumbling goes quaint. Finally quaint is all that's left of them. "There were journals [then] that had very little excuse for living except that their publishers wanted them," Allsopp wrote. "… Some of them were puny things, little adapted to weather the storms of the journalistic world, (and most) were compelled to give up the ghost after brief existences." Many of those that did survive into the 20th century were finished off by the Great War, during which the government made first claim on all the paper milled domestically and saw to it that "friendly" newspaper publishers got first dibs on what was left. By 1920 only a couple of the old printing firms on Newspaper Row were still operating, and all of the great old newspapers were gone, either relocated or kaput. A curious fact is that the Civil War had killed off two-thirds of the country's antebellum newspapers in exactly the same way, by starving them for paper. One famous issue of the Washington Telegraph in Hempstead County was printed on scrounged wallpaper. ***** That is all by way of wrapping a little context around the newspaper before you now, the Arkansas Times, which turns 30 with this issue. Only a couple of Little Rock papers, the promiscuous parents of the current bastard daily, have lasted as long. It's tempting to say the Times might be the oldest newspaper of its kind west of the Mississippi, except it's impossible to say what kind of paper it is, or has been. Miller Williams, the poet, might have come closest to defining the type when he said the Times was one of those newspapers with a whiff of possum about it. So suffice it that the Times is the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi with a whiff of possum about it. Our succincter critics prefer just calling it crummy. Or the scatological cousin. Newspaper Row died, and needed a new century, the 21st, to reincarnate with a much different character. The old bustle is back out there on East Markham but it's more to do with waitpersons and library docents than gypsy printers and butcher boys on their newfangled bicyclical riding machines. The newspaper isn't really produced here as much as it coalesces here somehow on the edge of cyberspace and then zips off to emerge fullblown like Venus from the sea 200 miles away in the custody of strangers. More newspaper magic but without the mud, the ink, the clatter, the hullaballoo, the bullyragging. The contrast makes the quiet of the modern operation seem funereal. There are only a couple of other newspapers, both Arkansas Times spinoffs, within hollering, and they are silently prestidigitated into manifestation the same curious way the Times is. The Arkansas Times is one of those Little Rock newspapers that Fred Allsopp described that had no better reason for coming into existence than that the publisher wanted to put one out. The Democrat and Gazette were already locked in their mortal combat in 1974 and between them covered as much news as needed covering, and then some, and around town there was a good assortment (or soon would be) of alternative and specialty publications to fill the gaps and catch the crumbs. None of these latter enjoyed much of a life expectancy, but they sure bled the ad market. Business was at a kind of frenetic bond-daddy spike, but parlous times loomed, with Jimmy Carter 20 percent-plus interest rates just around the corner, a Charybdis on which new small ventures by the thousand would crash and founder. The Sun Belt was just coming economically into its own, but if there was one town in Dixie that looked to be going nowhere commercially, Little Rock was it. Prospects looked better in Shreveport, in Chattanooga, and, though still a yokel pipedream, in the lonesome banjo cottonfields of Tunica County, Mississippi. In the rocky sheep pastures of outlying Branson, Mo. As a hundred years before, there was just no good reason to be launching a new Little Rock newspaper - and plenty of reasons not to be. The Times crew were young people mostly, in that awkward time between hippie and yuppie, looking to put all the idealism of the late, lamented 1960s to some practical use. To feed a few mouths with it. Until maybe something better came along. This was just before Woodward and Bernstein glamorized and re-energized journalism, retroing into "reporting" some of the high-mindedness if not the stylishness of the old "personal journalism," and the young folks of the Arkansas Writers Project Inc. had no discernible agenda. They might have thought they were going to save the world, but their early issues promised such hard-hitting coming-attractions articles as "The Real Story Behind the United Way," "How Will Little Rock Look in 1990," and "Where Can You Go for the Biggest and Best Plate Lunch in Town?" Their new paper wasn't graphically enticing - OK, it was ugly - and it didn't have anything as grand as a mission statement, fashionable nowadays, until after 1992 when then-editor (also now-editor) Max Brantley formulated one in three words: "Fill the hole." That was his way of reminding his bushy-tailed editorial staff, especially the columnists, that their role at the Times was the secondary one of supplying filler for the empty spaces between advertisements. He wasn't kidding about that - the newspaper business's business really is business, as Calvin Coolidge nearly said - but he wasn't exactly testifying under oath, either. Because the mission of the Arkansas Times isn't making money. Never has been. The mission early on wasn't to make sufficient net so that the reviewer of those biggest and best plate lunches in town could actually afford to eat one of the things and pay cash money for it. The mission wasn't even to make enough money to get out the next issue. That was the imperative the first few years, but it never was the mission. Alan Leveritt, the first editor and publisher, was 22 years old when he shepherded and jerry-rigged and kitchen-sinked and nickel-and-dimed and help-me-jesused the first excruciating issues into existence. Among the people who had influenced him were I.F. Stone, whose iconoclastic weekly newspaper devoted to rooting out and exposing government corruption and mendacity would serve as a continuing model of the kind of paper Leveritt wanted to put out; and Ayn Rand, the novelist whose philosophy of Objectivism laid out an entrepreneurial course for young publishing wannabes. Rand has been described as a writer whose heroes "are achievers who build businesses, invent technologies, and create art and ideas, depending on their own talents and on trade with other independent people to reach their goals." Case in point, Big Al. The I.F. Stone Weekly ceased publication just a year before Leveritt started the Times, but on retiring Stone made a 62-minute 16-millimeter movie about his independent, anti-establishment approach to journalism, and the crusty, bulldog-stubborn idealism it showed rattled Leveritt's teeth and made him want to halleleujah and amen. He was so impressed that he obtained a copy and showed it to just about everybody he knew, including prospective employees of the new paper he wanted to start on similar principles. That movie gave him his mission statement. Both I.F. Stone and Ayn Rand soon fell out of fashion but they'd had their effect, and it's unlikely - it's inconceivable - that the Arkansas Times could have squeezed and strained through the hard years of its early existence without their inspiration. Another inspirational influence, or influential inspiration, was the first Arkansas Writers' Project, a federal make-work program during the Depression. That original AWP hired down-and-out Arkansas writers and photographers, for a subsistence wage and an occasional hoop of welfare cheese, to produce a book of history and descriptive travel about the state, and Leveritt in 1974 hoped to coax out Arkansas starving-artist material of comparable quality on the similar cheap for his new paper. He and his cohort paid tribute to the original Arkansas Writers' Project by naming their company for it. Buoying as those I.F.Stone, Ayn Rand, and federal Writers' Project ideals might have been, they didn't translate quickly or easily into a first-rate paper, or a second-rate one. Leveritt assembled a small and mostly volunteer staff, and drove a taxicab nights to keep the lights on (heat they did without) and to keep the rent in only disreputable rather than evictable arrears, and charmed some name boonies writers into letting him call them "contributing editors," and the Little Paper That Could sputtered on. It didn't start humming, catch fire, take off. It would've died in two months time in the Newspaper Row era - probably would've died, opened again under new management with a new name and ideological persuasion, and then died again. Leveritt knew the paper just wasn't much good under his editorship, and he and his right hand, a young man named David Glenn, considered shutting it down out of sheer disillusionment. But just when the optimism of Objectivism had just about played out for them, a genuine news story fell into their clutches and gave them second wind. The Arkansas Times remained an iffy proposition for a long time. Not for just a year or two, but for a decade or two. Or three. The paper assumed more different forms than horny Zeus - from scruffy bi-weekly to slick monthly back to tabloid newsweekly then to sleeker and more colorful newsweekly. It survived a motley collection of editors that included a birdwatcher, a kind of pulp fiction geyser, an erstwhile Moon paper scribe, and a triptych of redneck fat boys. It outlived such of its offspring as the late, great Southern magazine, and kept a-goin' (as Henry Gibson sang in "Nashville") when others of its breakaway offspring made off with the family silver. (Some of the help did that a time or two, also.) The Arkansas Advocate came and went, Spectrum came and went, Arkansan Magazine came and went, Southern Magazine came and went, even the Gazette at long last expired. Through it all, the Arkansas Times hung on by its chopper enamel, perennially teetering on the brink but ever so slowly developing into the local outlet of choice for Arkansas storytellers. It won big magazine awards, and so many prizes in the local press competitions that envious runners-up at the dailies got it barred from some of the contests. It salvaged more treasure (if of the immaterial kind) from the Arkansas Gazette than the lowlifes who scuttled her did. But for all of that, the Times remained and remains an iffy proposition. From the first, its place has been on the edge of the abyss, and there's a feeling at the Times, going back to the first, that the back door opens out over the bottomless pit. You get used to that feeling, but it doesn't go away. In the Newspaper Row days, it wasn't uncommon for a veteran Little Rock newspaper hand to come to work of a Monday and find the door nailed shut with a GTT sign on it. Stood for Gone To Texas, usually a lie. The proprietor hadn't gone anywhere, except maybe to work for one of his jackass competitors two or three doors down. The GTT was just his craven but good-humored way of giving his notice. Happened so often it got to be no big deal. Thirty years now it hasn't happened at the Arkansas Times - a good long life for an Arkansas newspaper - and making a second 30 has come to seem a lot more likely than surviving the first 30 ever did.

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