Walter E. Hussman Jr. (1947–)
Walter E. Hussman Jr., who is best known in Arkansas as the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a third-generation newspaperman whose family acquired a chain of newspapers stretching from Tennessee to Missouri. As publisher of the Arkansas Democrat, Hussman went head to head with the larger Arkansas Gazette and won the so-called Little Rock (Pulaski County) newspaper war in October 1991. He purchased the assets of the Gazette from the Gannett Corp. and began publishing the Democrat-Gazette.
Walter Edward Hussman Jr. was born in Texarkana (Miller County) on January 5, 1947, to Walter E. Hussman Sr. and Betty Palmer Hussman and raised in Camden (Ouachita County) with his two older sisters. His parents moved to Camden in 1949 when his father became publisher of the Camden News, which he had purchased from his father-in-law, Clyde Palmer.
Hussman graduated from the private Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and later earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and a master’s of business administration from Columbia University in New York City. He was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity while an undergraduate.
Hussman went to work for Forbes magazine as a reporter in 1970 before being invited by his father to return to Arkansas.
Palmer, Hussman’s grandfather, had paid $900 in 1909 for the Texarkana Courier, which he renamed the Four States Press. Palmer eventually became publisher of the Texarkana Gazette. In the 1920s, Palmer purchased the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, the Magnolia Banner-News, the El Dorado News-Times, the Camden News, and a share of the Hope Star; by 2019, all except the Hope (Hempstead County) newspaper were still owned by Hussman family interests. Hussman’s parents had married in 1931, and Hussman Sr. had gone to work for his father-in-law after selling insurance for a short time. Palmer died in 1957, and Hussman Sr. became president and publisher of the Palmer Newspapers in south Arkansas.
“I served first as administrative assistant to my father, then as general manager of the Camden News,” Walter Hussman Jr. wrote in a history of the Palmer and Hussman families for the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. “I then moved to Hot Springs in 1973 to become vice president and general manager of the Palmer Newspapers. In 1974, our company bought the Arkansas Democrat, an afternoon daily newspaper with 62,405 circulation, compared to the Arkansas Gazette, a morning newspaper with 118,702 circulation daily. I moved to Little Rock, and at age 27, became publisher of the Arkansas Democrat.”
In 1977, Gazette publisher Hugh Patterson rejected Hussman’s overtures for a joint operating agreement. In 1979, Hussman decided to begin publishing a morning edition of the Democrat in an effort to reverse declining circulation. He received national attention in journalism circles for offering free want ads, doubling the size of the news staff and increasing the size of the newshole by fifty-eight percent. By 1984, the company had increased revenues from $6.7 million in 1979 to $18.4 million. Daily circulation had increased from 53,671 to 76,119. Sunday circulation had increased from 98,237 to 140,642. In 1984, the Gazette filed an antitrust suit against the Democrat in federal court. On March 26, 1986, a federal jury found the Democrat innocent of all the allegations in the lawsuit. Shortly thereafter, the Patterson family of Little Rock sold the Gazette to Gannett.
By 1991, the Democrat had pulled even with the Gazette in daily circulation with about 134,000 subscribers for each newspaper. The final edition of the Gazette was published on October 18, 1991. Gannett closed the Gazette at midday and laid off its employees. WEHCO bought the assets and produced the first edition of the Democrat-Gazette the next day.
In 1999, the Hussman-controlled WEHCO Media Inc. purchased the Chattanooga Free Press and the Chattanooga Times in Tennessee and combined them into the Chattanooga Times Free Press. In May 2008, WEHCO purchased three newspapers in Missouri—the Jefferson City News Tribune, the Fulton Sun, and the California Democrat. WEHCO merged its northwestern Arkansas media interests with Stephens Media in 2009 to form a joint venture known as Northwest Arkansas Newspapers LLC. WEHCO acquired Stephens Media’s share of the company in 2016 and began publishing an edition known as the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in the region.
Hussman became known for urging newspaper publishers nationwide to stop providing free online content. In a May 7, 2007, Wall Street Journal column titled “How to Sink a Newspaper,” he said readers had learned to settle for limited online coverage rather than paying for subscriptions. He described free online content as a “self-inflicted wound.”
Hussman was named Publisher of the Year in 2008 by Editor & Publisher magazine. He was a member of the board of the Associated Press from 2000 to 2009 and of the public affairs cable network C-SPAN from 1995 to 2003. He served on the boards of the Arkansas Arts Center (now the Arkansas Museum Fine Arts), the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra Society. In 2012, Hussman was inducted in the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.
Hussman has long been an advocate of education reform and the charter school movement in the state, which his newspapers have supported editorially. Hussman was among the founders of the eStem Public Charter Schools in Little Rock.
Hussman and his wife, Robena Kendrick Hussman, live in Little Rock and have three children.
In September 2019, the Hussman family pledged $25 million to the school of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which renamed it the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Two years later, Hussman received national attention after Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was offered the position of the Knight Chair at UNC’s school of journalism, but without the tenure that had previously been a standard part of the package. Journalists at Chapel Hill soon revealed that Hussman had sent messages to the dean of the journalism school, the chancellor, a vice chancellor, and at least one member of the board of trustees, expressing concerns about Hannah-Jones, who had two years prior overseen the creation of the New York Times 1619 Project, which had attracted the ire of conservatives for its interpretation of early American history. After intense public scrutiny, the Board of Trustees at UNC eventually voted to offer Hannah-Jones the professorship complete with tenure, but she turned down the offer, citing in particular the involvement of Hussman.
In December 2021, the National Association of Black Journalists gave UNC Chapel Hill and Hussman its annual “Thumbs Down Award,” saying that the situation surrounding Hannah-Jones’s tenure went against the mission of the association.
On October 20, 2022, Hussman announced that he would be retiring as publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at year’s end. In December 2022, it was announced that Eliza Hussman Gaines, Walter Hussman’s daughter, would succeed him as publisher starting the following year.
For additional information:
Bowden, Bill. “A Newspaper’s Survival Was Publisher’s Career.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 1, 2023, pp. 1A, 10A, 11A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/jan/01/hussman-retires-as-democrat-gazette-publisher/ (accessed January 3, 2023).
Edmonds, Rick. “A Year after UNC’s Journalism School Lost Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Fallout Continues.” Poynter, July 6, 2022. https://www.poynter.org/business-work/2022/unc-chapel-hill-journalism-nikole-hannah-jones-one-year-later/ (accessed July 11, 2022).
Hussman, Walter E., Jr. “The Palmer-Hussman Families.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 2004. https://www.arkansasonline.com/tools/palmerhussmanhistory/ (accessed February 3, 2021).
Massey, Kyle. “Hussman Reflects after 48 Years.” Arkansas Business, November 28–December 4, 2022, pp. 1, 6–7.
McConnell, Jerry. The Improbable Life of the Arkansas Democrat. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2016.
Schulte, Bret. “Against the Grain.” American Journalism Review (March 2010).
WEHCO Media Inc. http://www.wehco.com (accessed February 3, 2021).
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