Donna Lampkin Stephens, a sports writer for the Maumelle Monitor finished her educational requirements and over the Christmas holidays was awarded her doctorate from Southern Miss University.
She was hooded during ceremonies in Hattieville, Miss., by David Davies, dean of the university’s Honors College and a former co-worker at the Arkansas Gazette.
Stephens said her dissertation was entitled, “If It Ain’t Broke, Break It’: How Corporate Journalism Killed the Arkansas Gazette”.
She said the quote is from Deborah Mathis, a former Gazette writer and local TV anchor who became a syndicated columnist for several national publications during the 1990s. The dissertation shows what happened to the Gazette after the family sold it to Gannett and is relevant beyond that story today with what is happening to newspapers nationwide.
It took a year and a half of work with most being completed on weekends, during summer breaks and on holiday breaks in school after finishing all the coursework and comprehensive exams, she said.
Asked how the subject developed, Stephens said, “At The Old Gray Lady premiere at the Clinton Library on Oct. 18, 2006, the 15th anniversary of the closing, David Davies, who was education reporter for the Gazette when I was there in the 1980s and is now the dean of the Honors College at Southern Miss, told me, “You need to come down and work on your doctorate.” I told him I couldn’t quit my job and move there for a few years, and he told me they would work with me via on-line classes and directed studies plus two summers on campus for my residency. And he said, ‘We want your dissertation to be on the history of the Gazette.’ We had hours of videotaped interviews we’d done for the film with old Gazette employees, Arkansas politicians and Walter Hussman but obviously were able to use only a fraction of those for the film, so I thought, ‘This is a sign from God. I’m supposed to do this.’ I spent the summers of 2007 and ‘08 going full-time, living in the dorm (and freelancing from afar), and summer 2009 studying abroad with British Studies in Journalism through USM. The Southern Miss faculty was absolutely incredible about working with me.”
Stephens hopes her doctorate work is eventually published as a book.
“I think it’s an important story, and my committee thinks I can get it published. I have already had some interest by publishers, so maybe there will be a book soon. I graduated Dec. 14, and Dave Davies hooded me. It was quite a moment,” Stephens said.
The years of hard work paid off, Stephens said, not just for her current full-time job as a faculty member at the University of Central Arkansas but to help her deal with her younger experiences on the Gazette staff.
“I’m so glad I did the Ph.D. program,” she said. “It has made me a better teacher and certainly a better scholar. And I have a far greater appreciation for what the Gazette meant and what it stood for. I was so young and dumb when I was there, but looking back, it was probably going to take someone young to be able to write the story after a few years of perspective. So maybe it was meant to be.”
Stephens is an assistant professor of journalism at UCA and director of public relations and community relations in UCA’s College of Fine Arts and Communications.
She began as a sports writer for the Monitor in 1994 and primarily covers Central Arkansas Christian athletics for this newspaper.