The Improbable Life of the Arkansas Democrat is based on more than one hundred interviews with employees of the Democrat, including editors, reporters, feature writers, cartoonists, circulation managers, business managers, salespeople, typesetters and others, from the 1930s through the early 1990s, when the Democrat took over the more prominent Arkansas Gazette after an aggressive newspaper war.
This new addition to Arkansas journalism history provides vivid details about what it was like to work at the Democrat. August Engel, who led the paper with focused devotion for forty-two years, was famous for his thrift, creating austere conditions that included no air conditioning in the newsroom and sub-par wages. In spite of these drawbacks, the paper was still home to many dedicated journalism professionals endeavoring to do good work.
Readers who remember the ultimate acrimony between the two papers may be surprised to learn that for many years the Democrat and the Gazette owners operated under a tacit agreement of civility. The papers didn’t raid each other’s staff, for example, and when a fire broke out in the Gazette pressroom, Democrat management offered to loan the use of its press. Staffers recall that when the Gazette struggled with an advertising boycott and reduced circulation during the Little Rock Central High crisis because of its perceived progressive editorial stance, which infuriated many Arkansans, the Democrat did less than it might have to capitalize. The eventual newspaper war that combined the two rivals saw the end of any semblance of civility when the Democrat hired an aggressive and infamous managing editor named John Robert Starr.
Through these firsthand stories of those who lived it, The Improbable Life of the Arkansas Democrat tells the story of how the second-place paper overtook the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi, forever changing not only Arkansas journalism but also Arkansas history.
Jerry McConnell, now retired, was a reporter and managing editor at the Arkansas Democrat, a sports writer at the Arkansas Gazette, and a sports editor at the Daily Oklahoman.
“For most of its history, the Arkansas Democrat newspaper was taken for granted, existing in the deep shadows of the famed Arkansas Gazette. It was so easy to stereotype the Democrat as a second-rate newspaper, and in fact it did leave a lot to be desired. However, the story of Arkansas’ second newspaper is far more complicated than often assumed. Thanks to the work of veteran newspaperman Jerry McConnell, we now have an interesting and balanced look at the newspaper that won the great Arkansas newspaper war.”
—Tom Dillard, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 19, 2016
“A worthy addition to the literature on Arkansas’s rich newspaper history.”
“It is so easy to take the Arkansas Democrat for granted. For most of its long history, the Democrat existed in the shadow of the famed Arkansas Gazette—but it deserves a better historical fate. The nineteenth-century Democrat was often far more progressive than the Gazette, frequently publishing stirring editorials supporting the vote for women. The Democrat was also the first to hire black male and female journalists. Modern readers can thank the Democrat for discovering journalists such as John Brummett and Deborah Mathis. Thanks to the good work of Jerry McConnell, we now have an interesting and balanced history of the newspaper that won the Great Arkansas Newspaper War.”
—Tom Dillard, author of Statesmen, Scoundrels, and Eccentrics: A Gallery of Amazing Arkansans