John Robert Starr (1927–2000)
John Robert Starr was a reporter, columnist, author, and educator who served as the managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat (and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette) from 1978 to 1992. He is most known for his role in the newspaper war between the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette.
John Starr was born on December 29, 1927, in Lake Village (Chicot County), the oldest of three children of John Phillip Starr and Thelma Russell Starr. The family lived in various locations in southeastern Arkansas, northern Louisiana, and Mississippi during Starr’s childhood. After Starr’s father died in 1932, Starr’s mother moved with the children to Lake Village and the family then moved to Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) when Starr was in the fourth grade. Starr graduated from high school in Pine Bluff in May 1945.
After two years in the U.S. Army, including time spent at Camp Joseph T. Robinson in North Little Rock (Pulaski County) and Camp Chaffee (now Fort Chaffee) in Fort Smith (Sebastian County), Starr worked for one year at Standard Oil in Memphis, Tennessee. He then attended Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College), where he edited the college newspaper. Starr married Norma Jeanette Wilson of Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) in 1948; they had two sons and one daughter.
When Starr graduated from Southwestern in May 1952, he became a sportswriter for Memphis’s Commercial Appeal. During the 1950s, Starr also began a newspaper in Pine Bluff, the Star-Reporter. In 1957, he joined the Associated Press (AP) and became their Little Rock (Pulaski County) bureau chief in 1966. In the fall of 1976, he left that position to teach journalism at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock (UALR). He then began working on a master’s degree at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Starr had completed about half the work required for a doctoral degree when he was persuaded to join the staff of the Arkansas Democrat.
Starr’s work for the AP covered a time of turmoil in Arkansas. Starr later wrote a book, Yellow Dogs and Dark Horses (1987), about his career as a reporter covering Orval Faubus, Winthrop Rockefeller, and Dale Bumpers. Starr expressed strong skepticism of Faubus’s claim that sending the National Guard to Central High School in 1957 was necessary to prevent violence from segregationists. Starr also described his admiration for Rockefeller’s efforts to communicate openly with the media.
In 1978, Walter E. Hussman Jr. of the Arkansas Democrat hired Starr as the managing editor. Starr later wrote that he met with Hussman first only to advise him and that his desire was to remain in the academic world, but that Hussman finally persuaded him to join the staff. Hussman was in the process of starting a newspaper “war” with the Arkansas Gazette, which, at the time, was the oldest continuously published newspaper west of the Mississippi River. Starr increased the size of the news staff and also added additional pages of news coverage to the Democrat. Since additional advertising was also added to the paper at that time, the result was a noticeably thicker newspaper.
In 1979, Starr appeared on the cover of the Arkansas Times magazine, posing in a helmet, shirtless, holding a knife in his teeth, and squatting atop a Gazette newspaper box. Starr made it clear that he was determined to lead his paper to victory in the ongoing newspaper war. He demanded that Democrat reporters cover news stories in every part of Arkansas and that they write for the average reader, not for “newspapermen.” Starr sought to improve the quality of writing and news coverage in the Democrat by vigorously critiquing each issue. He was later said to have “energized” the news staff with his aggressive and confrontational attitude.
Starr vigorously attacked the Gazette through his leadership in the newsroom and in his daily columns in the Democrat. After it had been purchased by the Gannett Corporation, Starr portrayed the Gazette as the property of out-of-towners who wanted only to take money from Arkansas. He lampooned the efforts of the Gazette to promote and improve its own news coverage. When the Gazette editorial pages criticized Starr and the Democrat for printing the name of a rape victim, Starr refused to apologize and instead accused the Gazette editors of hypocrisy.
The newspaper war ended with the closing of the Gazette and the acquisition of its assets by Hussman and the Democrat. On October 19, 1991, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette began publication, with Starr still as managing editor. The following June, however, Starr resigned his position, saying that it was “no longer necessary for anybody to do all the things that I did.” He continued, “I always saw my role as putting this newspaper on a war footing and keeping it there until the war was won.” Following his resignation, Starr continued to write a daily column (later, three columns a week) for the Democrat-Gazette. His attacks on President Clinton frequently contained the nickname “Slick Willie,” which he helped to popularize.
After his retirement as managing editor, Starr moved to Palatka, Florida. On April 1, 2000, he died of a heart attack in Del Norte, Colorado, where he was visiting his son.
For additional information:
Clinton, William J. “Statement on the Death of John Robert Starr.” Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents 36.14 (April 10, 2000): 697.
Dougan, Michael, Community Diaries: Arkansas Newspapering, 1819–2002. Little Rock: August House Publishers, 2003.
Martin, Douglas. “John Robert Starr, 72, Editor And Longtime Columnist, Dies.” New York Times. April 4, 2000. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940DEEDC163FF937A35757C0A9669C8B63&sec=&spon (accessed August 23, 2022).
Moreau, Andrew. “Starr Plans to Continue Daily Column.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. June 24, 1992, p. 10A.
Pearce, Charles W. “They Both Bled Red: The Little Rock Newspaper War.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 2000.
“Starr Dies; Ex-Editor, Columnist.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. April 2, 2000, pp. 1A, 6A–7A.
Starr, John Robert. Yellow Dogs and Dark Horses: Thirty Years on the Campaign Beat with John Robert Starr. Little Rock: August House, 1987.
Terry, Bill. “The Democrat vs. the Gazette.” Arkansas Times, May 1979, pp. 30–32, 35–38, 40–43.
Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
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