Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Executive Editor Griffin Smith stepped down from his position suddenly and mysteriously on Monday. Smith, 70, led the paper since June 23, 1992. He framed the move as a resignation, rather than a retirement, telling the Democrat-Gazette’s Gavin Lesnick that he didn’t want to “cut [himself] out of the job market.”
“The famous J.P. Morgan said every man has two reasons for what he does: the real one and the one that sounds good,” he told Lesnick. “My real reason is the one that sounds good: It’s simply time to go.”
When Smith announced his decision to the newsroom, his wife, Libby, the paper’s travel editor, was in the dark along with everyone else.
“She’s learning about this for the first time right now,” according to the Democrat-Gazette account. “I love you dearly and I hope you’re looking forward to becoming the chief bread winner in the Smith family. Life is full of surprises.”
Smith did not return a call from the Times before our deadline. To the best of our memory, he hasn’t returned one of our calls since the early ’90s.
Managing Editor David Bailey, who Smith hired in 1993, will lead the paper. Publisher Walter Hussman said no replacement would be hired for the immediate future. This follows the pattern of the Hussman-owned Chattanooga paper, where a departing executive editor wasn’t replaced and the managing editor assumed newsroom leadership.
Bailey, who had advance word of the change (and who also didn’t tell his wife, but she was out of town), told the Arkansas Times he wasn’t currently contemplating any changes at the paper, but also “wouldn’t rule anything out.”
Smith was travel editor of the Arkansas Democrat from 1987 until he was elevated to executive editor. His CV also includes co-founding Texas Monthly, where he also worked as a senior editor, and writing for National Geographic and Saturday Review. When he took the executive editor position in 1992, Smith told the Times he had “no desire to be in the limelight.” For the two decades he held the job, he stayed true to that desire, rarely, if ever, writing a column or speaking in public on behalf of the paper.
His critics, the Times perhaps chief among them, knew him mostly through his stylistic quirks. We’ve written often about Smith’s efforts to reshape history pertaining to the Little Rock school crisis to put Orval Faubus in a more favorable light (his father, Griffin Smith Sr., an attorney, represented parties trying to prevent and delay integration). Among other favorites: Smith’s insistence that seatbelt use not be mentioned in reports on fatal auto accidents and a prohibition of use of the word “spokeswomen.”
Asked if he would review those sorts of style considerations, Bailey said such matters were low priority at the moment.
“This has been an unusually successful paper because of the way it does things,” he said. “I’d have to consider anything very carefully before I changed them.”
He said he was excited about the newspaper’s prospects, even more so in recent weeks with reporting and investigating successes by the staff.
On Monday, Hussman announced plans to end mandatory furloughs for the newsroom staff, which amounted to a 5 percent reduction in pay. The furloughs have been in effect since March 2009.
Bailey said the end of the one-day-a-month furlough had been under discussion for some time and was met with warm applause from the staff. “I think things are looking up,” he said.
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