Forty years. Good God. Has it really been that long? Over a third of a century? Then again, you don't want to oversell it. We haven't always been right, nor always true to the spirit that moved us in the first place. We'd like to think, however, we've always been honest, and we've always had guts. As long as the inkwell stays full and the lights stay on, truth and guts are enough. We must admit that keeping the lights on has been, at times, a struggle.
Let's just call it a long time, then. "Long" is one of those adjectives like "little" or "old" that means something different to everybody, but we feel safe in saying that we've been at this long and long. The lifespan of most underground, stick-it-to-The-Man newspapers started by college kids in the 1970s was roughly that of a peeled peach on a hot windowsill, so we feel justified in saying Arkansas Times is a rarity. Four unbroken decades of anything these days is so much scarcer than you would imagine, a miracle brew of people and dedication, of folks whose enthusiasm kicked in as that of others waned, of id and ego, of bad news and good, of disasters both embarrassingly private and baldly public. Of fear. Of love. Of anger and joy. Of pride and shame. Of turncoats and thieves. That Arkansas Times has survived 40 years is kind of like mixing together all the chemicals in your garage, taking a slug of the resulting goop, and realizing you've discovered The Elixir of Life instead of Dow Chemical Presents: Insta-Death. To sink into the pale pink of sentimentality, this place has always been a labor of love. Love for this place we call home. We sure ain't doing it for the money.
We are a culture that has perfected the art of the discard, the dispose, the never-look-back. The cynic might say it's fitting, then, that the main product of one of the longer running businesses in Little Rock is what has been not fondly referred to by those who hate us as: That Throwaway Tabloid. We have, for the record, always liked it when people call us that rag, that fishwrapper, that liberal shill. It means they're reading us. Too, in addition to the old saw about Follow the Money, we have learned this one over the years: Follow the Self-Righteous Indignation.
Since you asked, here's the secret of our success: Arkansas Times may be free these days, but the stuff inside has always come dear, paid for in sweat and tears, stewing over politics as the Thanksgiving turkey sat slowly cooling to vulcanized rubber, 10 million gallons of cold coffee, wrong turns in the darkest heart of Smackover and Delight and Pangburn on the way to an interview, second jobs, second mortgages, nights and weekends and dreams deferred. Not to get too inside baseball on you, but there's a hell of a lot that goes into bringing all this something to you for nothing month to month and week to week. A lot of hands. A lot of people who worked themselves right over the edge or into the ground for a job that likely pays less than an assistant manager at the local Kroger.
But don't cry for us, Argentina and Augusta. We have won a few, and lost a few. But we — the royal we, even the ghosts of the dead that hover over this place, because we've lost some friends in 40 years — have loved it all, even when we cursed the job and the red editor's marks, when we fought like cats and dogs over comma placement, when we despised the damn words, words, words that refused to line up and march across the page in brilliant lines. We loved it, even when financial realities forced us to move on, even when we quit and came back, even when we quit and never did. We never cashed out in 40 years. That's where the blade meets the hilt of the thing: we never cashed out. God willing, we never will.
A recollection then, on four decades of Arkansas Times, whatever she was and whatever she became (we'll leave "whatever she will be" to our descendants, if there's anybody left to remember us 40 years from now). Part gripe session. Part history lesson. Class reunion and old soldier's reunion and family reunion. Creased photos, passed hand to hand, and the long silences while trying to remember names. The best of us and the worst of us. The places we got it right, where we got it wrong, and where we managed to do the best thing writing can do, bar none: to move the needle even one thin degree in a positive direction.
That's all easier to see in retrospect. Harder are the questions we need to know the answer to in the now: Are we still carrying on the fine traditions of all the great writers who have been published in these pages? Are we getting it right or wrong? Are we still moving the needle?
Answer unclear, traveler. Ask again later. For now, let's just leave it at: And miles to go before we sleep. And miles to go before we sleep.