Editor’s Note: Zack Plair, managing editor for The Dispatch, is a Warren, Arkansas, native and served as The Eagle Democrat’s editor from 2005-2011.
WARREN, Ark. — In a lifetime rich with successes, Danny Cook will remember “a big screwup” until his dying day.
It was early in Cook’s career at The Eagle Democrat, and another week’s edition had just finished printing — or so he thought.
“One of my jobs was what they called ‘killing out the paper,’” Cook explained, referring to the old process of melting down the metal letter molds from the press so that the metal could be used again.
Cook had “killed out” half the front page when he learned there was a problem.
“The front hadn’t printed yet,” he said. “You could hear a pin drop in that room from us trying to figure out what we were going to do.”
In the back shop of The Eagle Democrat’s office, on West Cypress Street in the southeast Arkansas city of Warren, still sit several of the pieces of long-retired press equipment Cook operated at some time or another in his more than five-decade career. That includes the Heidelberg Windmill hot-type letterpress he used when he started working there straight out of high school in 1968.
Cook, 71, and his wife Pam have owned the equipment and the newspaper for the past 24 years, and they plan to publish their last edition March 30. If a deal to sell the newspaper doesn’t come through soon, that date could also mark the end of The Eagle Democrat altogether after 137 years as a community institution for Bradley County and its roughly 11,000 residents.
“Neither one of us are healthy enough to keep doing what we have to do to keep it going,” said Pam, 70. “Unless someone comes forward, we have to do what’s best for us.”
Danny also runs Cook’s Heating and Air. At a recent doctor’s visit, he said he was advised to choose one of his businesses and let the other go. After consulting with Pam, the couple opted to maintain the HVAC business and started shopping The Eagle around for a buyer.
A few suitors showed interest, Pam said, but a deal never came through. The Cooks’ two daughters live out of the area and have families and careers of their own. Now, Danny and Pam are faced with the real possibility they will be the last owners of The Eagle Democrat, something they would have seen as unimaginable when they bought it in 1998.
“We’re still profitable, we still have a good readership and lots of subscribers,” Pam said. “The Eagle is one thing that hasn’t changed in Bradley County. It’s a staple that helps hold the community together.”
Beyond readers, The Eagle Democrat still boasts plenty of loyal advertisers. In addition to weekly paper support, nearly 100 businesses bought annual Christmas Greetings ads in 2021 and 78 supported the annual Miss Merry Christmas special edition. The high school football special section, which previews the upcoming season for the Warren Lumberjacks and Hermitage Hermits, garners similar advertiser support.
“The community has been good to us,” Pam said.
The newspaper’s history
John Crawford Jolly began publishing a newspaper under The Eagle Democrat in 1917, when he was only 24. He combined the Bradley County Eagle he had started four years earlier with the Warren Democrat News, which traced its origins to the Bradley County News that E.A. Bradley first published in 1885.
The newspaper for decades has also published the weekly Bradley-Cleveland County Shopper’s Guide.
The Eagle Democrat’s centennial edition reported that the lead story in the second issue of the Bradley County News in July 1885 covered the public hanging of a man named Abe Frazier, who was convicted of murdering Lewis Davis.
“A large and appreciative crowd of several hundred” witnessed the hanging on the court square, according to the original story. The centennial edition notes, “Frazier was apparently not among the appreciative.”
The Cook era
Danny Cook had his mind set on attending vocational training with some friends for HVAC work after he graduated high school. His friends backed out, and the Warren native started looking for something closer to home.
His job at The Eagle Democrat came with “backbreaking work and long hours.”
Aside from the newspaper, The Eagle printed third-party jobs for local businesses — ranging from the banks and the city water department to Potlatch Corporation and the Warren-Saline River Railroad Company.
“It was hard, nasty and hot,” Danny said of his work in the early years. “We didn’t have air conditioning in the back shop.”
Pam started at the newspaper in 1969, first as a typesetter who transferred copy onto the tape to run through the linotype machine and later taking on some bookkeeping duties.
“It was like typing on an old typewriter, only harder,” Pam recalled. “You had to pound the heck out of it.”
She worked there 10 years, marrying Danny near the midpoint of her tenure in 1973.
Danny finally did make it to the vocational school in 1980, attending classes three nights a week after work to become certified in HVAC, which he needed to launch Cook’s Heating and Air. A year later, Danny became the newspaper’s general manager.
The Cooks actually bought the West Cypress Street building and rented it to The Eagle for years before buying the newspaper itself. When the couple bought the business, Pam returned to support it — doing everything from “cleaning the toilets” to proofreading every word of copy that goes into each edition.
“During our time at the newspaper, we have tried our best to serve the community,” Pam said. “We both, more or less, grew up in the newspaper business, so it just got in our blood.”
Never was the “community service” aspect more evident than when a storm in April 2020 knocked out power in swaths of Bradley County, including most of Warren, for almost a week. The Eagle operated on a generator during business hours. When the paper closed, Danny loaded the generator in his truck and spent the evenings charging refrigerators and freezers at other people’s homes.
“I was going from work to Good Samaritan duty all that week,” Danny recalled.
Bryan Martin’s family history in Warren is nearly as long as The Eagle’s.
His grandfather opened Martin’s clothing store in 1904, and Martin, the third-generation owner, ran the family business on the corner of Main and West Cypress — next to The Eagle office — for 35 years.
Martin became mayor in 2005, serving until 2018. Two years into his first term, he sold Martin’s to focus solely on his work at City Hall. Seven years and two owners later, the iconic Martin’s building burned, and firefighters posted on top of The Eagle building to keep the newspaper from also being destroyed in the blaze.
“The Eagle sold a lot of clothes for my business,” Martin said. “We depended on The Eagle. I’d say 70 percent of our advertising revenue went to them. We’d always fight over Page 3 because that’s what you saw first when you opened the paper. It usually had social page items — weddings, anniversaries, things like that — on it, too.”
Martin heavily advertised in The Eagle during his election campaigns and weathered scrutiny of city business from its editors during his administration.
“I look forward to reading The Eagle every week because it’s just an integral part of life here,” he said. “It’s resonated with people over the years, especially in how it’s covered children’s events and accomplishments. … It’s also important to have the Fourth Estate. I’m a firm believer that it’s an essential part of democracy.”
John Lipton and his wife, JeNelle, agree.
“The Eagle is the basic history book on Bradley County,” said John, longtime state legislator and former Speaker of the House of Representatives who also served 10 years on the state Highway Commission. “To lose it would be devastating.”
JeNelle, the president for the Bradley County Historical Museum board and longtime volunteer for the county’s annual Pink Tomato Festival, keeps boxes of Eagle editions for that reason. She has always appreciated the paper’s history of “printing the facts.”
“We need an unbiased newspaper,” she said. “If we lose it, there will be a really big void.”
The Eagle has remained old school, even as the digital age has fully come into its own. It has a small social media presence but no website.
Any buyer, John said, would need to develop a strong web presence quickly but not abandon the print product.
“Most people still prefer the print,” he said. “There’s just something about it.”
‘The right decision for us’
Over the next week, the Cooks have considerable ground to cover.
They will notify subscribers that their subscriptions will be prorated and refunded based on how many issues they won’t receive.
Bound books containing nearly every issue of the paper dating back to 1932 also sit in the back shop. If no one buys The Eagle, Pam will likely call JeNelle Lipton about those.
Though resolved to his decision, Danny keeps going back to a letter he received recently from a cousin who lives in Texas.
“It was thanking us for continuing to put out the paper,” Danny said. “It’s how she keeps up with what’s going on here.”
Danny knows his cousin isn’t the only one who feels that way.
“I know we’re going to get some phone calls when we publish the last edition,” he said. “People just can’t understand why we’re quitting. This has not been an easy decision. However, after much prayer and deliberation, we believe this is the right decision for us.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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