Tecumseh resident’s book tells story of Arkansas newspapers
Arkansas Press Association (APA) historian Michael B. Dougan’s goal was to visit every newspaper office in Arkansas. He almost made it.
“I was only partially successful in traveling to each office, but I did interview hundreds of people while writing the history of Arkansas newspapers,” he said. “I attended the summer APA meetings and worked really closely with Dennis Schick, then the executive director.”
Dougan’s interest in Arkansas newspapers began long before his work with APA. His master’s thesis at Emery University was about Little Rock newspapers during the Civil War. In the early ’70s he came to know journalist Ernie Deane and others through the Arkansas Historical Association. He frequently contributed guest editorials and feature articles for Arkansas newspapers.
Now a distinguished professor emeritus of history at Arkansas State University, Dougan is a native of Neosho, Missouri, where his family traces newspaper history back 200 years. One great-grandfather brought the first press to Oregon County, Missouri, and his paternal grandfather was circulation manager for a newspaper in North Dakota. His family owned the building where the Neosho Times was published.
“One of my first interviews for the book was Wilson Powell of the Batesville Guard, and he gave me several other people to visit,” said Dougan. “Everyone I interviewed led to someone else who had a story to tell. Locating the right people was most important.”
APA history is filled with stories of generations of publishers, editors and reporters who took tough stances on the issues of the day and, often at the same time, soldiered on in seemingly mundane tasks. For every Tom Dearmore whose Baxter Bulletin decries the dangers of segregation legislation, there is Powell accompanying the county agricultural agent on his rounds to keep his hand on a pulse of the community.
Erwin Funk, who began his 64-year career in 1896 and served as president of both APA and NEA (now the National Newspaper Association), left a diary that was particularly helpful to Dougan. “He was the consummate professional, taking advantage of every improvement in technology for his Rogers newspaper,” Dougan wrote. “No one ever reflected better the high ideals and practical business sense that are needed to make a success of a newspaper.”
Dougan’s book covers the APA from its beginnings on Oct. 15, 1873, when representatives from 17 newspapers formed the association while they were in town covering the State Fair, to the beginning of the new century, when APA joined several other states in adding web pages as a category in its news-editorial contest.
The book was about to be printed in the fall of 2001, but Dougan insisted on holding up publication to add information about how Arkansas newspapers covered the events of Sept. 11. “I didn’t have much time. I emailed, called and read everything I could. In fact, I changed from being a historian into a reporter for that last portion of the book.”
In the book’s 2002 introduction, Dougan wrote, “There is little doubt that in the years ahead the newspaper ‘as we know it today’ will undergo intensive changes. Yet two things will remain constant. People want news, and they have a strong need to express themselves about the meaning and application of that news. Newspapers, in whatever form they may take, will remain the core medium.”
Asked if he still stands by the statement, he said it assumes that newspapers are owned, edited and published by people who believe in news and not just advertising. “For all the changes we’ve seen in the past 16 years, locally owned weeklies are surviving. They still report local news, still hire locally, still have country correspondents and still produce a product that readers find interesting.”
Dougan subscribes to two dailies and a weekly – the Jonesboro Sun, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Ozark County Times in Missouri. He writes guest editorials and speaks to civic clubs and historical groups about different facets of Arkansas history. In fact, Dougan is still open to invitations to speak to groups about the history of newspapers in their area.
“In writing the history, you read the newspapers and follow the columns of Arkansas journalists. You become part and parcel of their industry, sharing their pain and their success. You internalize it, the whole framework of caring and writing,” he said.
For a copy of Dougan’s book, Community Diaries: Arkansas Newspapering, 1819-2002, contact the APA office (501-374-1500) where the books are available at a discounted price of $20 each.