David Bailey, managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has announced that he will retire March 16, the Democrat-Gazette reports. Bailey, 70, has been in the role since 1999 and been the top editor since 2012 when Griffin Smith Jr. resigned as executive editor. That position was never filled. Shortly after Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. announced Bailey’s retirement, he announced that his daughter Eliza Hussman Gaines would succeed Bailey as managing editor.
Gaines, 32, has been vice president of audience development for her family’s WEHCO Media, based in the Democrat-Gazette newsroom. She got a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina, now known as the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media after her family gave the school a $25 million endowment last year, the largest gift in school history. She also has worked as a travel editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, as assistant publisher of the Democrat-Gazette and editor of the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record.
Hussman told Democrat-Gazette staff that Gaines had earned the position, but also extolled the benefits of keeping the newspaper in the family. (Nat Lea, Hussman’s nephew by marriage, is CEO of WEHCO Media. Hussman remains publisher of the Democrat-Gazette).
“We try to operate a meritocracy around here even though we’re a family business,” Hussman said. “I’m so encouraged we’ve got a fourth generation of the family that wants to continue. I think there’s a lot of benefits of that. Too many newspapers in America have sold to corporations. Some of them went to public, and they’re answering to shareholders first, instead of readers first. And now we have private equity groups who come in and have taken over newspapers, and they’ve tried to get everything out of newspapers as long as they’re around, and I don’t think they have a longterm plan for them being around. We have a different set of priorities.”
Bailey said his wife had been pressuring him to retire, but he had been putting her off as the paper worked through a digital delivery conversion plan. He said his wife had been understanding that he’d been married to his job for his whole career, but that now was time “to spoil her a little bit.”
Hussman has been celebrating the success of his digital conversion project in recent weeks. The newspaper has shifted subscribers in 63 counties to digital delivery of the newspaper to the iPad, which the Democrat-Gazette has provided to readers as part of their subscription. (The 12 counties served by the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette haven’t been subject to the switch yet.) Hussman said at the outset of the project that he needed a 75 percent conversion rate to avoid cuts to the newsroom. He says he’s getting 78 percent ,with around 36,500 subscribers making the switch thus far. That’s a precipitous decline in subscribers from nine years ago. In 2011, the Alliance for Audited Media reported that the Democrat-Gazette had an average of 142,000 daily print subscribers.
The newspaper cut 28 non-newsroom jobs last week, Arkansas Business reported.
Bailey had a quiet tenure at the newspaper, steadily guiding the newsroom while other parts of the paper grew sclerotic. The Democrat-Gazette’s hard news operation remains strong, with a good mix of tenured reporters and young talents, though their reporting often isn’t enough to fill the paper’s B section, so we’re left with the latest on the Texarkana parks department or other filler from WEHCO papers throughout the state. Will Gaines be able to maintain (or improve) that while reinvigorating other parts of the newspaper? Though she’s young and reportedly tech savvy, the Democrat-Gazette hasn’t lately distinguished itself through digital innovation, which has been under her purview as director of audience development. (The iPad conversion may be a business innovation, but the tech behind it is ancient.) Holding onto longtime subscribers is one thing. Getting new subscribers to pay $400 a year is a whole ‘nother ball game.