A Journalist’s Junket

It felt like a Journalist’s junket.

To spend a day with a successful publisher talking about the news business is one of the perks of a dean’s job.  Add to it that the publisher is an alum, and his hometown of Little Rock also boasts a presidential library and you have a recipe for a day that is sheer delight.

Walter Hussman is the third member of his family to lead the newspaper business in Arkansas.  His grandfather started newspapering in the state in the early 20th century.  His father built it from there, expanding its reach to more communities. Walter with his father merged their Little Rock evening newspaper with the stronger morning paper.  The Arkansas Democrat Gazette has been the dominant news voice ever since.

I love family stories about newspapers because they reveal so much about the history of public communication, and business savvy and a community’s path to prosperity.  As we drove through town, Walter showed me the building the company owned that had housed a huge printing press that they didn’t need after the merger.  He turned it into a vibrant museum and a location for restaurants and businesses.  Like so many older cities, these strong built-to-last factories or manufacturing warehouses now are the center of vibrant downtown civic life.

But I leave Little Rock—a city that has a personality; it doesn’t feel like every other city— with two vivid take aways.

First, a picture of sitting with Walter in his spacious and comfortable office looking at apps on his I-Pad.  The company has created an app for each of the papers it owns and he reads them all first thing in the morning.  They look like the paper – laid out like the final edition.  He likes reading the paper on line: he he can increase the print; he can send the article to editors with comments. Unlike the print edition, the digital is movable and sharable.  Digital intrigues him and he is exploring how it will advance the paper.   He knows the cost of printing and trucking hard copies to smaller communities miles from “home base” is not efficient.  Digital apps will someday be an alternative to print on your driveway.  But Walter still wants to produce a product that is value added for the reader, full of information that is important and well written and edited so that the reader doesn’t have to do all the work of being informed.

Wonder still animates Walter Hussman when he talks about what he does.  Not fear.  Not naïve optimism.  Wonder.

The other take away is the power of the newsroom.  Bright and welcoming…alive with reporters at computers.  The desks are all red.  Sort of jaunty and modern though they are far from new.  Junk covers most desks and dividers and light fills the third floor newsroom from old-fashioned skylights.  It’s a place that I’d want to go to each day.  It doesn’t feel sad like many newsrooms I’ve visited in the past decade.

Here Walter admitted finances have been tough in this transition to the future.  They haven’t had to cut that many on staff, but there haven’t been raises for 5 years.  2013 was a kinder year and Walter explained that when they made a profit in the first quarter they gave reporters and editors bonuses of 2% . When they made a profit again second quarter, they did the same.  Third quarter profits – ditto.   It’s not a raise you can count on, but it says to dedicated journalists—the lifeblood of a news operation—you are important and when we make money you will too.

Believing and experimenting with digital.  Investing in the newsroom.  Those are two trends that make a dean’s heart swoon.

Uncertainty persists.  Family owned and run news companies are endangered.  But on this day in early 2014, the curiosity of Walter Hussman and the company’s belief in investting in those who create value:  the journalists, made me believe that journalism in American communities can survive.

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