The Arkansas press

The Arkansas press

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The annual awards ceremony for the Arkansas Press Association was a virtual affair this year due to the pandemic, but I couldn’t say “no” to APA executive director Ashley Kemp Wimberley when she asked me to again host the event.

For starters, Ashley is almost like family. We’re a small state with only two degrees of separation. Ashley’s grandparents became best friends with my parents when they were students in the 1940s at what’s now Ouachita Baptist University. Those friendships lasted the rest of their lives.

The other reason I couldn’t say “no” is because I have fond memories of the days when I was a young sports editor at the Arkadelphia newspaper, coming to APA banquets to pick up an award or two while getting to visit with editors and reporters from the “big papers” in Little Rock. It was heady stuff for a college student with a lifelong interest in the newspaper business.

At a time when the industry is struggling nationwide, the work done by journalists has never been more important. I’m convinced that the Arkansas cities that do best economically in the years ahead will be those that support local newspapers through subscriptions and advertising, even if those publications become more of an online product than a print product.

The watchdogs employed by those businesses–reporters who keep an eye on actions of city councils, county quorum courts and schools boards–are essential for ensuring government efficiency. It’s fascinating to watch publishers adapt to changing technology while continuing to play that watchdog role.

APA was established in October 1873 to “promote the interests of the press by securing unity of thought and action in relation to the profession of journalism and the business of publishing, to elevate its tone, purify its expressions, enlarge its usefulness, advance it in wisdom and justice, extend its influence in the work of true civilization, and to cultivate friendly relations and a spirit of fraternal regard among its members.”

The first meeting of what’s now the oldest trade association in Arkansas was held in Little Rock with James Torrans of the Little Rock Republican serving as chairman of the convention.

“The 17 charter members were from all parts of the state,” Dick Browning wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It was hoped that the association would allow its members to exchange ideas and have a united voice when dealing with state government. The first elected officers of the association were J.N. Smithee of the Arkansas Gazette as president, Torrans as vice president, Jacob Frolich of the Searcy Record as secretary and William Burke of the Helena World as treasurer.

“The challenges of the frontier press were varied and many, the availability of newsprint chief among them. The association helped its members solve problems and fought to require all levels of government to publish all legal sales, notices and lists of delinquent taxes.”

In a history of mass media in Arkansas, the late Dennis Schick (a longtime APA executive director) wrote about the importance of the newspaper industry in the years following the Civil War.

“The rapid development of the telegraph and railroads linked not only all corners of the state but also the state with the rest of the nation,” he wrote. “Now news was more plentiful, was fresher and could be sent to readers more quickly. Roads were developed and improved. County fairs sprung up, giving a much-needed new source of advertising revenue to newspapers.

“Community newspapers were the lifeblood of their towns and counties. They provided a public diary of the community for all to read. Local institutions–retailers, schools, businesses, governments and churches–depended on newspapers to tell citizens what was going on and how to be informed and involved. People also depended on newspapers to provide them news from the state, region and country. Some news came via telegraph. Much came from exchange copies of other newspapers.”

Schick noted that newspaper publishers had to deal with subscribers who failed to pay, economic downturns and a dependence on patent medicines for advertising revenue. Still, the number of newspapers grew steadily in the years after the war. By 1870, there were 56 newspapers in Arkansas. By 1885, there were 10 dailies and 147 weeklies.

At the celebration of the APA’s 50th anniversary, association historian Fred Allsopp said that 1,478 newspapers and periodicals had been established in the state since the founding of the Gazette at Arkansas Post in 1819. There were 286 publications at the time of that 1923 banquet.

“In the late 19th century, typesetting machines were introduced to Arkansas, following the invention of the Linotype machine in 1886 and the subsequent appearance of other brands,” Schick wrote. “In 1895, Louie Freeman bought one of the early machines–probably the first by a weekly in the state–and brought it to Harrisburg, where he established the Modern News. A newspaper in Des Arc continued to set type by hand into the 1950s.”

As the industry matured, Schick noted, there were “modernized printing presses, an independence of the press from politics and a more sophisticated coverage of the news, including more professional reporters. On Nov. 20, 1906, the Gazette became the first seven-day-a-week publication. Two years later, it introduced color comics to Sunday readers.”


Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He’s also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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