Preserving our Arkansas newspapers

Arkansas historians were excited to learn recently that a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will enable the Arkansas State Archives to digitize microfilmed newspapers for placement on the Internet. Once posted on the Internet, these newspapers will be searchable, making them of far greater access for researchers.

Lisa Speer, the State Archives director, said the $208,128 grant will enable the digitization of 100,000 pages of historic Arkansas newspapers. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History will provide technical support during the digitization process.

I developed a keen appreciation for newspapers at an early age. I can vividly recall the Weekly Reader newspapers distributed in my elementary school classes. It was from that simple newspaper that I developed a familiarity with geography and a love for maps as well as current events.

While in junior high school I made a deal with the school librarian that I would have first shot at reading the newspaper in exchange for walking out to the highway and retrieving the paper each morning before classes began. So for the next six years I began my school day by reading the Arkansas Gazette, a practice which followed me to college, and which I eagerly follow to this very day--albeit the Gazette of those years is no more.

Many Arkansans have a general knowledge of the Gazette and its founder, William E. Woodruff, but that title was merely one of hundreds which have been published in the state during the past 198 years. Indeed, the exact number of newspapers published in Arkansas is unknown, but it might have been close to 2,000. The State Archives have nearly 1,800 titles in its collections, representing an estimated 20 million pages. Historian Michael B. Dougan, who has written an excellent history of newspapering in Arkansas, estimates that at least 75 percent of the newspaper issues printed in the state have been lost.

About 200 black-owned newspapers have been published in Arkansas, going back to 1869--only four years after the Civil War--when the Arkansas Freeman began publication in Little Rock. The black newspaper with the longest run was undoubtedly the Baptist Vanguard, the official voice of black Baptists in Arkansas, which was established in 1882 and still exists, though it is a newsletter these days. Very few of the early black newspapers have been preserved.

Arkansas was also home to a few German language newspapers. The Arkansas Staats Zeitung and Das Arkansas Echo were both published in Little Rock and were fierce competitors--the editors engaging in a fisticuff in 1892, leaving one editor with "a black eye, a pair of beneficial kicks to the ribs, and a boxing of the ears ..." Among the other German language newspapers published in Arkansas were the Arkansas Volksblatt of Fort Smith and Der Logan County Anzeiger published in Paris, Ark.

Almost every town in the state had a newspaper, although many folded after only a few issues. According to Dougan, Carroll County in northern Arkansas was home to "over 40" newspapers during its history; Benton County had a staggering 55 newspapers.

While most newspapers published in Arkansas today are owned by corporations, this was not the case in the past. Great newspapers usually evolved from the sustained hard work of owners and editors. For example, the Sadler family was the sustaining force for generations behind the Cleveland County Herald in Rison. The Park family kept the venerable Van Buren Press Argus profitable for decades.

Most of the early newspapers in Arkansas were fiercely partisan. Democratic newspapers predominated, but Whigs were not shy when it came to telling their story in print. Albert Pike was the best known Whig editor, but fellow Whig editor C.F.M. Noland of the Batesville Eagle gained notoriety when he killed the nephew of Democratic Gov. John Pope in an 1831 duel.

Among the few newspapermen who tried to avoid partisan politics was William M. Quesenbury, generally known as "Bill Cush," who founded the Southwest Independent in Fayetteville. Cush, who was born in Arkansas, possessed many talents, including the ability to draw. His drawings were among the early cartoons to illustrate Arkansas newspapers.

Women have played a major role in Arkansas journalism history. Mary W. Loughborough of Little Rock established the Arkansas Ladies Journal in 1884, the first Arkansas periodical devoted to women's issues. Female journalists, editors, and publishers grew numerous during the 20th century. Maud Duncan, publisher of the Winslow American from 1918 to 1958, was known as "the little printer of the Ozarks" due to her weighing only 80 pounds.

Eastern Arkansas seemed to be especially endowed with renowned newspaperwomen such as Dorothy Stuck of the Marked Tree Tribune, Margaret Woolfolk of the Crittenden County Times, and Esther Bindursky, editor of the Lepanto News Record for 34 years. Charlotte Schexnayder of the Dumas Clarion was the first female president of the Arkansas Press Association as well as the first female president of the National Newspaper Association.

Two of the newspapers I hope the State Archives will digitize are the ones produced by the detainees at the Japanese Relocation Camps in southeastern Arkansas during World War II. Both papers, the Tribune published by professional journalist Paul Yokota at the Jerome camp and the Outlook at the Rohwer camp, edited by school teacher Barry Saiki, were replete with sports pages.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County--where he reads the Malvern Daily Record. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

Editorial on 08/13/2017

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