I come to the floor today with the senior senator for Arkansas, Senator Boozman, to celebrate a great anniversary. 200 years ago this week, the very first newspaper in Arkansas was published. It was called The Arkansas Gazette; today we know it as The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It’s the oldest paper west of the Mississippi, an institution in our state, and a credit to the many outstanding journalists who have made it possible over two centuries.
From its first issue, The Arkansas Gazette was a pioneering newspaper—published by a young man named William Woodruff who crossed the mighty Mississippi into a brand-new territory, dragging behind him a wooden printing press and other tools of the trade.
The Gazette was first published out of a log cabin in the territorial capital, Arkansas Post. It reflected the bold aspirations of American settlers moving west to fulfill our manifest destiny on the continent. And it reflected these landlocked settlers’ keen awareness that events far beyond our little plot of soil could shape their lives in dramatic ways.
The first story in the very first edition reported on a Navy expedition to open the Pacific Northwest for American traders. It speculated with excitement about the prosperity that would flow to our nation as Americans followed Lewis and Clark west across the country.
“The plan may appear visionary,” The Gazette remarked, “but that which is now speculation will . . . shortly become a fact, and this country will be enriched by the overflowings of its benefit.”
As the Arkansas Territory grew, Arkansas’s newspaper grew with it. Woodruff moved the paper from Arkansas Post to Little Rock in 1821, where it would continue to publish for the next 198 years—with few exceptions, like a devastating fire in the 1850s or military occupation during the Civil War.
And just as Arkansas kept our rough-hewn pioneer character, so too did Arkansas’s newspaper—whose staff were involved in not one but two gun battles, including the last recorded duel in Arkansas history, between, I’m compelled to report, the owners of The Gazette and its upstart competitor, The Democrat.
If William Woodruff was the Founding Father of the Democrat-Gazette, John Netherland Heiskell was its Lincoln, bringing the paper triumphantly into maturity.
Heiskell became editor in 1902, and served in that position for an incredible 70 years until his death in 1972.
The one interruption in Heiskell’s remarkable tenure came in 1913, when the Governor selected him to serve as United States Senator after the death of a sitting senator. He only served in this body for 23 days before a successor was elected. And then he hurried back to Little Rock and the Gazette—because the news waits for no man.
Over the next half century, the Gazette established itself as a world-class newspaper.
It was during this period the Gazette took a bold stand for truth in the finest tradition of journalism by declaring its support for desegregation well ahead of the pack, in 1957.
The Gazette and its editorial writer, Harry Ashmore, covered the turmoil surrounding Little Rock’s integration with decency and firmness, insisting that Arkansas fulfill its obligation to all our citizens on an equal basis, without regard to race.
This editorial crusade lost more than a few subscriptions—but won the Gazette two Pulitzer Prizes, “for demonstrating,” in the words of the committee, “the highest qualities of civic leadership, journalistic responsibility, and moral courage.”
And so the Arkansas Gazette entered the modern era as a famous and award-winning publication.
In 1991, after years known as “the newspaper wars,” The Gazette’s old rival, The Democrat, bought the paper and created what we now know as The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Fortunately, I hasten to add, no duels were needed this time around.
And now the Democrat-Gazette is again changing with the times, through the capable leadership of Walter Hussman, his family, and David Bailey, the managing editor. This time the paper is transforming for the digital era, moving from paper to screen—and it’s even giving away free iPads to subscribers to ease the transition.
So if you’re not a subscriber already, consider supporting our local journalism in Arkansas. It’s got a bright future ahead.
Today, unfortunately, many venerable newspapers have fallen on hard times. Too many journalists can’t be bothered to get the story right. Too many local communities are losing parts of their identity.
Which is all the more reason to celebrate newspapers like the Democrat-Gazette, which do get the story right and have preserved their distinctive character throughout the years.
Some things may change. The Democrat-Gazette of the future may be heralded by the bright glow of a screen rather than the rustle of the news page.
But other, more important things stay the same. Like integrity, impartiality, and credibility: The Democrat-Gazette holds its reporters to the highest standards of accuracy and ethics. Walter Hussman publishes these high standards that won the Gazette two Pulitzer prizes every day on Page 2 of the newspaper and its Statement of Core Values.
That statement reads “Credibility is the greatest asset of any news medium and impartiality is the greatest source of credibility.” And the Democrat-Gazette practiced what it preaches—and for that reason it continues to succeed two hundred years on.
There’s also its Arkansas focus. As ever, the Democrat-Gazette earnestly pursues stories in Arkansas for the benefit of Arkansans. It’s this proud local focus that has made the Democrat-Gazette a beloved institution in Arkansas—and that will sustain it in the years ahead.
And finally, the pioneer spirit: From the Arkansas Territory to the frontiers of digital journalism, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will travel confidently into the future.
So today I join Senator Boozman in congratulating the Hussman family, The Democrat-Gazette, and all of their many hardworking professionals and journalists.