John Troutt Jr., a defender of public information

by Paul Holmes ( 143 views 

The passing of former Jonesboro Sun editor and publisher John Troutt Jr. recently put me in a reflective mood, not just about the near quarter century I spent in his employ, but also about the state of journalism generally.

If John could read this column, he might not like it, primarily because it is entirely too long. Though certainly he knew well Shakespeare’s work, John didn’t invoke the Bard when a slow-writing reporter held up the press run. It wasn’t “brevity is the soul of wit,” but rather “Come on, we’re not writing the Bible here,” that the offending deadline-buster was likely to hear from a certain booming voice across the newsroom. It had the desired effect.

Perhaps many folks in Arkansas — and virtually all of the Arkansans in the news business — know the Troutt story. John was the third-generation owner of a Northeast Arkansas daily paper bought by his grandfather in 1901 that under John’s leadership became a Pulitzer Prize contender. Circulation grew from 10,000 to more than 28,000 daily and 31,500 on Sunday at the time of the sale to Paxton Media in 2000. The Troutt family published the paper for 99 years and during that time never missed putting out a single day’s edition.

The Sun under John Troutt was a tireless defender of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Over the years, the paper and its individual reporters denied access to meetings or records filed suit against the offending public body or individual. And it never lost one of about a dozen such cases.

Two of those cases went to the Arkansas Supreme Court. One, North Central Association v. Troutt Bros, is considered a landmark case for affirming the concept that institutions funded wholly or in part by public money are indeed public.

The North Central Association is an association of schools and colleges in a number of states and is funded by members’ dues. NCA accredits schools and maintains standards for educational curriculum. The Arkansas Board is composed of educators who volunteer their time.

In that case, the NCA’s Arkansas State Committee conducted a meeting with the Jonesboro School Board regarding accreditation of the school district. NCA denied a Sun reporter access, and The Sun sued.

The trial court ruled in favor of the newspaper, ordering the release of the meeting minutes and records, ruling that the NCA was in fact subject to the act because it was primarily funded by public funds. The NCA appealed the decision, arguing that it was not subject to the law because it was not created by the state, but the Supreme Court sided with The Sun.

In the other case that went to the Supreme Court, The Sun was denied access to the jail records regarding some juvenile females who had overpowered a jailer, taken her keys and escaped driving her car. The Sun sued, maintaining the law allowed access to those juveniles’ names and ages, and the paper lost at the trial level. At the Supreme Court, The Sun prevailed, and the high court in its ruling indicated if the relevant provision in the law should be changed, legislators must do it, which they later did.

The Troutts’ paper was known for its extensive — and it had better be factually correct as well as fair — coverage of local and regional news. Errors were corrected promptly in print, and if the error was egregious, the offending reporter also got one of those dreaded notes signed “jtjr.” Again, that had the desired effect.

The Sun was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s top honor, three times while John was editor and publisher. The runner-up finish came in 1998 for The Sun’s coverage of the 1998 Westside Middle School shooting and its aftermath.

John made us understand we had to own the story since it was in our backyard, yet we had to remember we must live and work in the community long after the satellite trucks rolled on to the next tragedy. His editorial after the shooting summed up the community’s state of mind and set the tone for our reporting. “We all hurt,” was the headline on that editorial.

John was not only a newspaperman — he eschewed the title “journalist” — but  also an astute businessman. He understood he and the newspaper had a stake in the prosperity and well-being of the community. After an economic slump, John and several other business leaders got together, threw in $1,000 each out of their own pockets and formed what became the economic development entity Jonesboro Unlimited. He was also a member of the board of the Arkansas Science & Technology Authority, serving as its chairman.

He approached a group of ministers in the community and asked for their help in bringing a faith-based organization to provide after-school activities and mentoring to disadvantaged children. That resulted in the founding of what is now called CityYouth, the agency that seeks to improve the chances for disadvantaged youth to succeed in school and life.

Roy Ockert, who succeeded John as editor following the Paxton purchase of the paper, said he believes John’s greatest legacy was protecting and preserving the Freedom of Information Act.

John Troutt Jr., Bob McCord, Carol Griffee and John Robert Starr, who have all passed, were staunch defenders of the FOIA. While reflecting on John’s passing, I heard in my head that country song, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?”
Paul Holmes is editor-at-large of the Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. The opinions expressed are those of the author.