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Hussman Named Publisher of the Year

Posted on Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Walter E. Hussman

Editor & Publisher magazine on Monday said it has named Walter E. Hussman Jr. of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette its Publisher of the Year.

The trade publication for the newspaper industry cited Hussman’s resistance to cutting newsroom staff or “newshole” — the amount of newsprint devoted to news as opposed to advertising — at a time when “even family-owned papers” are aggressively cutting costs.

An Editor & Publisher Web site article also cited the Democrat-Gazette’s efforts to remain a statewide newspaper while papers in other states cut circulation areas and focus only on local news.

“When you’re a state newspaper, your reputation is enhanced, and you’re a little more influential,” Hussman told the publication. “It would be more profitable not to be statewide, but we look at it like a public service.” Hussman’s strategy of charging for most content on the newspaper’s Web site and his early adoption of free classified ads also were mentioned.

Mark Fitzgerald, the Chicagobased editor-at-large for Editor & Publisher who wrote a profile of the 61-year-old Hussman for the magazine’s April issue, said Monday that the fact that some of Hussman’s strategies go against those of many newspapers makes his success more remarkable.

“It’s been very interesting and maybe instructive for the newspaper industry, because here’s a guy that’s been saying, ‘Keep the newshole up. Don’t give your Web content away for free.’ And he’s actually grown circulation as a result of it,” Fitzgerald said.

For the six months ending Sept. 30, Monday through Friday circulation at the Democrat-Gazette grew 1.2 percent from the year-earlier period, to 178,186 from 176,154. Sunday was up 0.4 percent, to 271,815 from 270,645.

During the same period, circulation for more than 500 daily newspapers reporting to the Audit Bureau of Circulations fell 2.6 percent, and Sunday fell 3.5 percent, the Newspaper Association of America said.

The Democrat-Gazette’s editorial employees, including its Little Rock and Northwest bureau newsrooms and other bureaus, numbered 265 people in February, up from 240 a year earlier.

Griffin Smith, executive editor of the Democrat-Gazette, said Monday that the paper has “a very generous newshole.” Smith said he couldn’t remember in his 16 years as the paper’s top editor being denied extra newsprint when the news required it, citing, for one example, a 16-page Afghanistan project that contained no ads.

Fitzgerald said Editor & Publisher doesn’t think Hussman’s strategy is something that can work only in Arkansas.

“My personal conclusion, anyway, is that Little Rock, and Arkansas in general, is not so remarkable a market that the rules of capitalism don’t apply, or the rules of the newspaper don’t apply.

“It seems to me there probably are lessons from Arkansas for other newspapers,” he said.

Fitzgerald said there’s no formal vote to decide on the publisher of the year. Names are suggested by the publication’s staff, which comes to a consensus. The decision ultimately is made by Greg Mitchell, the publication’s editor.

“We’re looking for success stories, really,” Fitzgerald said.

John Morton, a Marylandbased newspaper analyst who has done consulting work for Hussman, said his “bottom line answer is that the key to his success is to publish a good newspaper. A lot of publishers are starting” to cut staff and newshole.

“If you deliver less, you reduce the standing of the newspaper, and that flows out to everything: It flows out to brand name; it flows out to presence in the market; it flows out to what people think of you. Those are very important attributes of a newspaper and they’re all being in most places diminished in an effort to protect the bottom line.” Morton believes the era of exceptional newspaper profits is over, but “if anything, they ought to be spending more” to serve their markets.

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