The Arkansas Times celebrates 40 years of publication this week. I feel a little like Jimmy Buffett's pirate of song. Looking at 40, he muses on the switch from sails to steam. The cannons thunder no more, he laments. He's a victim of fate, too late for the glory days of sail.
I did see the glory days of newsprint in the Great Little Rock Newspaper War. And the gory ones, too, as an industry desperately searches for a survival manual.
Times founder Alan Leveritt was an obit writer with marginal typing skills when I met him on his weekend shifts at the Arkansas Gazette, where I was a backline general assignment reporter in 1973. I admired his grandiose idea of starting a "New Journalism" magazine for Arkansas. You probably should put "magazine" in quotes. The first issues were not slick — on account of more than the rough paper.
It was laughable that Gazette management fired Leveritt for starting a "competing" publication. Compete with the Arkansas Gazette, the oldest business in Arkansas? Who could do that?
I once agreed to write an article for Leveritt under a pseudonym. I produced hard-hitting journalism on eating barbecue at every joint listed in the Little Rock phone book. He still owes me $10. He also screwed up the layout of the article, a favor maybe, given the wannabe-Tom Wolfe prose. How far have we both come?
The Arkansas Times is no longer a magazine, but a weekly newspaper and around-the-clock Internet publication.
The Arkansas Gazette is defunct. I've worked for the Times since it closed, but now write mostly for the Arkansas Blog, our 10-year-old digital outlet.
Little Rock no longer has a phone book.
More barbecue joints than newspapers have survived since 1973, though barely. HB's, Sims and White Pig Inn are still dishing.
In the last week, it seems like I've read nothing but bad news about publishing. The Gannett Corp., which bought the old Gazette from the Patterson family for a handsome sum and then quit Little Rock in the face of Walter Hussman's willingness to continue to lose millions competing with Gannett, is in the midst of a national bloodbath. Its once profitable newspapers are slashing staff and coverage to survive. Other newspaper chains with famous nameplates have suspended efforts to sell them. No buyers. One newspaper was reportedly shutting off power during the day to hold down costs.
The Arkansas Times still keeps the lights on all day, I'm happy to say. A/C, too. Arkansas Business and El Latino, to name two, continue as sister publications and monuments to founder Leveritt's catholic publishing passion.
We scrap, we reinvent, we sometimes take pay cuts and lay people off. But, for 40 years, we've survived. And we've done so despite unrivaled publishing courage on the part of Alan Leveritt. Time and again, if the price of an ad or continuing good relations was killing a story or backing off one already in print, Alan Leveritt declared — sometimes in profane terms — that the price was too high.
Since I was hired as an out-of-work Gazette columnist in 1991, Alan Leveritt has given me something worth far more than my paycheck — freedom. He's winced and argued more than once. And contributed plenty of good ideas. But we write what we want to write and Alan keeps selling, no matter how difficult our work might have made his.
I'm happy to have been along for almost 23 years of his 40-year ride.