This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the Pulitzer Award and the 25th Anniversary of the closing of the Arkansas Gazette newspaper, which received the Pulitzer for its coverage of the Little Rock Central High School desgregation crisis in 1957. A recent reunion of former Gazette friends and colleagues reminded me that I memorialized the final hours of the Gazette with a short essay, written in 1991 after the close of the venerable newspaper.)
It felt like the last day of school. Everyone was dressed casually, more casually than they could have gotten away with under normal circumstances. No one was really working, only going through the motions, half-assing their usual assignments. Waiting.
The atmosphere was charged with an odd euphoria, like a controlled free-fall. Any second, our time here would be over, so it wouldn't matter how we behaved in this moment. We were waiting for an announcement that may or may not come that day, but it was an announcement we knew would come eventually. The Arkansas Gazette newspaper would close, and we would be summarily dismissed, marking the end of an era.
The Gazette was iconic for having taken a tough stance during its coverage of the 1957 Central High School integration crisis. The newspaper had taken the side of the law instead of the side of the segretationists. The stance had cost the Gazette readership, advertisers, and lots of money, but it won them two Pulitzer Prizes in one year and put them on the map in the company of big name publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post. The state daily seemed like a god after that, or at least Mount Olympus, which made the impending fall all the more tragic.
I was sitting at my terminal in the Features section, trying to work but finding it impossible to concentrate. I had brought carrot cake for Lori's birthday, but the cake was too much for the people in Features to consume, so I was sending computer messages to people in the Newsroom and Business section to come and get it.
There were a lot of cameras at work that day. Mike (or Bill) was taking still shots with a 33mm. So was I. I did my imitation of a runway model when Pat Patterson came through the department with his camcorder. It was inconvenient to repeat the act for Lamar, so I photographed him recording me, and vice-versa.
Around 11 a.m., the only people in the department who had actually been working announced that they had been ordered to stop work. Nancy and Jeff had been making corrections in the paste-up shop when Carson told them to scrap the corrections and give him the boards. We knew then that it was over.
There was some optimistic grumbling that maybe the paste-ups were needed for inspection by the new buyers. There was some pessimistic speculation that we may be forced to help put out a combined edition with the Arkansas Democrat, the would-be victors in the newspaper war.
I put all hope to bed with a call to a friend at the Democrat. Were our paste-ups over there, I asked.
"You won't believe what's going on over here," she whispered urgently into the phone. "You're not going to believe tomorrow's paper."
"Do you guys have our paste-ups," I asked again.
"Yes," she hissed, swearing me to secrecy. She was very busy, she said. She had to hang up. I asked one last question: Would we be helping them produce a combined edition of the newspaper for the next day?
"No," she answered. "I really have to go." She made me promise again not to tell where I got my information, then hung up.
I messaged the Features staff. The Democrat had our paste-ups.
It wasn't yet noon, but the end was here. We were watching our iconic newspaper expire with an emotion that far surpassed fear. The preceding weeks of speculation had brought anxiety, butterflies, sleepless nights. But this was much worse. This was IT. The war was over and we were the casualties.
We went into evacuation mode. Not just clearing out our belongings; we had been doing that since Labor Day weekend. By now, there was very little left in our desks that anybody wanted. Now we were purging the spirit. We were frantically destroying computer files - stories that we had conceived and created - stories we didn't want to share with the victors. Voices were urgent yet oddly controlled as we tossed commands back and forth.
"Did you get your files from the library?" an editor asked me from across the room. She was standing over her terminal, systematically destroying stories she had written with swift key strokes.
"I got them yesterday," I called back without looking up from my task. I was getting printouts of my articles before destroying them.
"Do you want me to kill the wire?" an editor asked the department head. The 'wire' was the news transmitted from national and international sources.
"No, just get the local stuff," he ordered.
Two editors across the room were hunched over their terminals killing master files, internal messages and crucial formats. The scene reminded me of the evacuation of Atlanta in "Gone With The Wind" when the South blew up its ammunition to keep it from enemy hands.
Our weaponry was only slightly less volatile than artillery. Computer codes, format commands, future copy, planned projects. That information could ease the transition for the conquering force. We wouldn't afford them the luxury.
Around noon, a friend from the Newsroom messaged that armed guards had been stationed at all entrances. The story sounded too preposterous to believe, I replied. Did he have visual confirmation?
He had seen it with his own eyes, he replied.
My hands were shaking. My stomach was knotted. This was it. I had spent my entire career in this newspaper war. It felt apocolyptic now that it was ending.
I went through my desk one last time to make sure there was nothing left that I wanted. I fleetingly thought of taking my tape dispenser, but immediately dismissed the idea. We had been warned that anyone caught stealing would lose their severance package. I closed the drawer with the dispenser in it.
A general message from the State editor flashed on our computer screens: Anyone leaving the building would need an ID to re-enter.
My pulse was racing. I had to get the last of my belongings out before it was too late. But what was left to retrieve? My copy? My spirit? Deep down I was afraid some vital part of me would be left behind in this place and I would never get it back again.
B----, the loudmouth receptionist, returned from her lunch break with a startling announcement. The guard at the front door had told her we were all to be escorted to the Stephens building for a 1 o'clock announcement. Everyone in the Features section questioned the information, but she insisted it was true.
I glanced at my computer screen. It was nearly 1:00 now and only half of my more than 30 files had printed. I was calculating, praying, holding my breath and hoping that I would have time to get the hard copies of my work before the guards came for us.
Moments later, a second announcement came from the State editor. There was no meeting in the Stephens Building. The meeting would be in the newsroom at 1:30. We let out a sigh of relief. Thank goodness we wouldn't be escorted out like criminals. But tension continued to mount because now we knew a 1:30 announcement would bring the end, and 1:30 was less than an hour away.
I glanced back at my computer screen. My personal articles were nearly printed. I started destroying the electronic copies with rapid key strokes. Some 10 minutes after my last file was purged, the computer screen went blank. SHUT FOR MAINTENANCE, it read. For a surreal second, I thought the terminals might reboot momentarily like they always had in the past. A split second of hope before the true meaning dawned. SHUT FOR MAINTENANCE. Code for THE END.
(Hal Wofford Hutchison was employed at the Arkansas Gazette from 1990 through 1991 when it closed. Prior to that, she spent 7 years at the Arkansas Democrat, the publication that won the newspaper war.)
Hal Hutchison, M.Ed.
Hal Wofford Hutchison, M.Ed., is a former columnist, writer and editor for the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette newspapers. She has also been a secondary educator, and a university counselor and administrator. She lives in Little Rock, Ark., with her husband of 23 years and their daughter.