As the longtime publisher of Arkansas’s largest and best newspaper, Hugh B. Patterson loomed large in momentous events, the best remembered being the Little Rock school integration crisis of 1957 and, some 30 years later, the sale of the family-owned, much-decorated Arkansas Gazette to a huge newspaper chain that oversaw the historic journal’s demise within a few years’ time, depriving the state of its strongest progressive voice. Patterson probably got less credit than he deserved in the first case, and more blame than he deserved in the second. It’s doubtful he lay awake nights fretting over this lack of appreciation. A big, bluff, sociable man, he was sure of his judgment if others weren’t.
Patterson, who died Monday, married into the family that owned the Gazette. When the paper stood fast for peaceful compliance with court-ordered integration — at great financial risk to itself — Patterson’s father-in-law, J. N. Heiskell, and Harry Ashmore, who wrote the Gazette’s noble editorials, tended to get most of the praise. But Patterson was very much a part of the ’57 fight, and of all the Gazette’s bold positions over the years. He embodied what is often referred to, sometimes disparagingly, as “the country club liberal.” Arkansas has always needed its country club liberals, never more so than in 1957.
The newspaper world was changing, shrinking, even in ’57. By the mid-’80s, it was apparent that Little Rock could no longer support two daily newspapers. A bloody newspaper war ensued, the Gazette ostensibly against the Arkansas Democrat, really against a chain that owned the Democrat and a number of other papers that were profitable enough to subsidize the Democrat. The comparatively shallow-pocketed Gazette was forced to sell, as independent newspapers across the country had done.
When the Gazette was closed in 1991, Arkansas lost a cherished institution and several hundred employees lost their jobs. Some people blamed Patterson. Some blamed the paper’s last owner, Gannett. But the Gazette fell mainly because the publisher of the family-owned Democrat, with no public stockholders to satisfy, was willing to incur huge losses indefinitely. The Patterson Gazette could not continue in such fashion. The Gannett Gazette would not.
Because of his manner, his habits, his marriage to the boss’s daughter, Patterson was sometimes regarded as lacking in substance. That was a misapprehension. He could be a formidable figure. And in a sincere if sometimes clumsy sort of way, he tried to connect with his employees across the gulf that separated them. Most publishers today are clumsy and insincere. Moving from one chain newspaper to another, they form no attachments to individual papers, the people who work there, or the cities they are supposed to serve. Hugh Patterson loved being publisher of one paper, the Arkansas Gazette. The industry and the country could use more like him.