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If It Ain’t Broke, Break It

Donna Lampkin Stephens

Published Date: May 4, 2015

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How Corporate Journalism Killed the Arkansas Gazette
300 pages
15 images
6" x 9"

About this book

The Arkansas Gazette, under the independent local ownership of the Heiskell/Patterson family, was one of the most honored newspapers of twentieth-century American journalism, winning two Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the Little Rock Central Crisis. But wounds from a fierce newspaper war against another local owner—Walter Hussman and his Arkansas Democrat—combined with changing economic realities, led to the family’s decision to sell to the Gannett Corporation in 1986.


Whereas the Heiskell/Patterson family had been committed to quality journalism, Gannett was focused on the bottom line. The corporation shifted the Gazette’s editorial focus from giving readers what they needed to be engaged citizens to informing them about what they should do in their leisure time. While in many ways the chain trivialized the Gazette’s mission, the paper managed to retain its superior quality. But financial concerns made the difference in Arkansas’s ongoing newspaper war. As the head of a privately held company, Hussman had only himself to answer to, and he never flinched while spending $42 million in his battle with the Pattersons and millions more against Gannett. Gannett ultimately lost $108 million during its five years in Little Rock; Hussman said his losses were far less but still in the tens of millions.


Gannett had to answer to nervous stockholders, most of whom had no tie to, or knowledge of, Arkansas or the Gazette. For Hussman, the Arkansan, the battle had been personal since at least 1978. It is no surprise that the corporation blinked first, and the Arkansas Gazette died on October 18, 1991, the victim of corporate journalism.



Saturday, April 11, WordsWorth, LR, 3-4:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 16, UCA, Mirror Room, McAlister Hall, 1:40-2:30 p.m.

About the author

Donna Lampkin Stephens worked at the Arkansas Gazette for six years, leaving when the company closed. She is now professor of journalism at the University of Central Arkansas and the producer of the films The Old Gray Lady: Arkansas’s First Newspaper and The Crisis Mr. Faubus Made: The Role of the Arkansas Gazette in the Central High Crisis.


“The death of a great newspaper is a collective human tragedy as well as a historical one for the community it served. Donna Lampkin Stephens records the throes of both with an insider’s fascination and a great reporter’s attention to riveting detail. More than an epitaph for the Arkansas Gazette, which was older than Arkansas itself, If It Ain’t Broke, Break It is a cautionary tale about the bane of corporate media for democratic institutions.”

—Ernie Dumas, columnist, Arkansas Times


“Donna Stephens’s account of the Arkansas Gazette’s last days offers no sympathy for the Gannett Corporation’s managers who drove the old paper down in its one-hundred seventy-second year. She is unsparing in her blow-by-blow reporting on the outlanders’ actions that changed the paper from an organ of information to a target of disdain among discerning readers and serious journalists.”

—Roy Reed, author of Beware of Limbo Dancers: A Correspondent’s Adventure with the New York Times and editor of Looking Back at the Arkansas Gazette: An Oral History

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