The Arkansas Gazette of Little Rock was a newspaper of a now almost vanished breed. It was the kind of place where staffers wanted to spend the rest of their careers, doing pretty much what they had always done: covering their city and their state and the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. The value of such a paper came to the fore in 1957, when its seventy-five-year-old editor-in-chief, John Netherland Heiskell, took a law-and-order editorial position, in effect endorsing integration of the Little Rock schools. (Heiskell was joined by the paper’s new executive editor, Harry Ashmore, and by its publisher, Hugh B. Patterson, his son-in-law.) The Gazette suffered severe losses in circulation and advertising, but recouped. Recouped, that is, until modern times, when the old newspaper fell behind its local competition, the Arkansas Democrat, and was sold to the Gannett Corporation. The faltering enterprise died in 1991, when Gannett turned it over to the Democrat, thus ending 171 years of continuous publication. Under the direction of Roy Reed, who worked for the paper and later for The New York Times, a Gazette oral-history project at the University of Arkansas has compiled more than a hundred interviews—with insiders, outsiders, friends, opponents. These are now distilled into a single volume. Looking Back offers a fine-textured recounting of the Gazette and its journalists, of a kind beyond the reach of conventional histories. (One staff memo, which may have marked a losing battle with propriety, warned, “No fucking on the roof.”) This group portrait contains more bitterness than nostalgia, especially at the way Gannett erased the local character of the old Gazette. Former staffers may have smiled grimly this year when they read that the newspaper that had put them out of business, the Democrat-Gazette, now has its own troubles—and is, like everybody else, scheduling layoffs. 

 

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.