MISSING THE TARGET: Copies of the DMN’s new Briefing too often are ending up homeless. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Briefing: DMN’s Latest (Struggling) Experiment

Briefing, a new product from The Dallas Morning News, promises more than it delivers.

Fair is fair. So immediately before writing this column—and on the very precipice of a pressing deadline—I felt duty-bound to make one last expedition through our South Garland neighborhood.

As on two previous jaunts, I again wanted to see firsthand whether The Dallas Morning News’ new, free mini-me—otherwise known as Briefing—at least had hit a front lawn or two, let alone its designated “upscale” target audience of households earning at least $75,000 annually. It was launched in late August as a Wednesday-through-Saturday “quick read” alternative for those who aren’t subscribing to the shrinking mothership. 

“What we’re giving advertisers are 200,000 more readers who have disposable income,” said DMN senior vice president of niche products Cyndy Carr, quoted in the daily paper’s Aug. 26 edition.

Besides providing another outlet for advertisers, Briefing “is designed for consumers who are engaged and interested in the world around them but who are not able to fit the traditional newspaper into their busy lifestyles,” added DMN president and general manager John McKeon.
But on the early afternoon of Oct. 6, it didn’t look good for busy bees, advertisers, or the overall appearance of the neighborhood. I used to deliver newspapers as a kid, learning to hit front porches with impressive precision. But lately I’ve been serving as our neighborhood’s ad hoc garbage man, a paper picker-upper trying to keep the streets clean.

This latest reclamation project yielded another 14 orphaned Briefings in just a three-block stretch of Club Meadow Drive. At least half were in the street, and not one had made it any farther than a sidewalk.

None of the Briefings were even yesterday’s news anymore. Three were in the general vicinity with Saturday, Oct. 4 datelines; another four stretched all the way back to Sept. 12.

One of the destitute Briefings, ravaged by the elements, was soggily decomposed beyond recognition despite still residing in its red, white and yellow “oxo-biodegradable” plastic bag. Its date of origin was impossible to determine. Envision it as a corpse that needed a CSI forensics team to dig deeper.

Altogether, my three excursions netted a total of 56 Briefings left to die lonely deaths unless retrieved and buried in a common grave known as our outdoor garbage receptacle. The plastic wrappers say, “It’s new. It’s news. It’s free.” Add “It’s litter,” and you’ve got the full story.

Before discarding them, though, I’ve looked closely at the innards of a dozen or so Briefing editions, which range from 12 to 16 pages in the same “broadsheet” format used by the DMN.

 The content, mostly a mix of wire copy and condensed DMN-generated reporting, is a well-arranged, easily digested window on the world.

Those who actually manage to get their hands on Briefing pretty much get a given day’s big picture, plus a wealth of color pictures, some of them pretty big. And the Page  2 “Your Day” compilation always has a first-person, mom-dad-and-the-kids column from either Darla Atlas or Tyra Damm.

Atlas in particular may be even cheerier than a PBS pledge-drive solicitor. And yes, that can get old in a hurry. But she’s also a talented, resourceful, and relatable writer who consistently punches through with humor, self-deprecation, and a few well-chosen words that can make all the difference.

It’s all the more reason to re-state what’s become obvious. By and large, Briefing’s content is infinitely superior to what appears to be a remarkably shoddy, haphazard, hit-and-miss distribution system. And we haven’t even gotten yet to the bait-and-switch aspect.

‘Power Boost’ Is MIA

Our home was among many receiving a four-page mailbox insert promising we’d be among the lucky recipients of “a powerful new edition of The Dallas Morning News.”

Even better, the coupon-laden “Neighborhood Shopper,” also a DMN satellite product, would now be within the pages of Wednesday’s Briefing instead of in the mailbox.

“People who are on the go”—and yeah, that apparently included us!—would get Briefing every Wednesday through Saturday.

As Aug. 27 neared, another enticement arrived.

“You’re about to get a power boost,” said a little yellow box that also made it to our mailbox. Within was a symbolic little packet of powdered Powerbar brand electrolytes to “replenish what your body needs to help you charge through your day.”

Of course, Briefing would be the magic pill to render such potions beside the point. “Delivered to your doorstep” four days a week, it also would offer the chance to win fabulous prizes, including a year’s worth of gas, electricity, or groceries.

Well, Briefing never made it to the Bark abode and still hasn’t as of this writing. Neighbors and its helpful, money-saving coupons now are missing in action, too. What a deal.

Adjacent Club Meadow Drive, on the other hand, is pockmarked with Briefings, which initially arrived only on Friday. Lately there’s no telling what day they’ll show up or what homes are being targeted.

So far, the only nagging certainty seems to be rampant indifference to the product itself. But that’s to be expected when a notable number of Briefings tend to land in neighborhood nowhere lands—streets and gutters. “Delivered to your doorstep?” That’s the biggest stretch since Joan Rivers’ inaugural facelift. 

Readers of unclebarky.com, my homegrown TV Web site, say they’ve had very similar experiences with either the false-start mailbox come-ons or unsightly litter.

Some say they’re relieved.

“I was promised (threatened with) it in my East Dallas neighborhood, and luckily, it hasn’t shown up yet,” one reader wrote. “I don’t want it as I’m not home every day—and when I am home, I don’t always walk the perimeter around the front yard.”

On dallasnews.com, reader comments on the newspaper’s Aug. 26 story—“Dallas Morning News ‘Briefing’ to hit upscale lawns Wednesday”—were almost uniformly negative. A majority denounced the new product as little but litter.

“In a time when communities are focusing on recycling and reducing waste, it is irresponsible to litter the lawns of homeowners, with an unwanted newspaper,” one commenter complained.

Of the 25 comments posted as of my D CEO deadline, only one found Briefing to be exactly as envisioned by its creators: “I received my first copy of Briefing this morning and LOVE it. I have gone from being an everyday subscriber to Sundays only, because I don’t have time (or desire) to read the full paper everyday. This is something I would want to continue to receive.”

Well, that’s one to grow on. But can Briefing’s life-support system—its advertisers—keep being persuaded that their sales pitches actually are being seen by 200,000 “upscale” readers a day during its weekly Wednesday-Saturday cycle?

Its most prominent advertisers to date, some of whom frequently fly their flags with full-page spreads, include Rooms to Go, Ashley Furniture, Dillard’s, Macy’s, Calloway’s Nursery, Gemco, and numerous auto dealerships.

But content can’t carry the day, and advertising obviously can’t work, if the pages on which they’re printed are left lying face down in streets, gutters, sidewalks, and parkways. 

Unfortunately for Briefing, it seems that way too many copies are ending up homeless. I’ve seen them, retrieved them, read them, and then buried them. What I won’t do is deliver them to doorsteps. That’s someone else’s job. And good luck with all that.
Ed Bark, former longstanding TV critic for The Dallas Morning News, is now prop­­­rietor of the web site unclebarky.com, which was launched in September 2006. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a past president of the national Television Critics Association.