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What Happened to the Dallas Morning News?

Dallas’ daily newspaper has become a shadow of its former self. But it didn’t have to be this way.
By Ed Bark |
Image
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Can the Dallas Morning News survive for another five years? Or is that being way too optimistic?

Such questions seemed out of the question after the fall 2004 layoffs, which claimed 65 newsroom staffers. And they still seemed far-fetched when this writer and more than 100 other editorial employees took company-offered buyouts in the fall of 2006.

We didn’t doubt that The News would be further diminished journalistically. How could it not be? But surely the paper would survive, even if it someday transitioned fully from doorsteps and vending boxes to computer screens alone.

There have been two more rounds of layoffs since then, the latest in April. Times obviously have changed—and in a hurry. The recent, rapid demises of the longstanding Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer were big jolts to the newspaper eco-system. Numerous other newspapers are either in bankruptcy or being ordered to downsize or die. A debilitating economy has made everything almost immeasurably worse.

And this is nearly five years after James M. Moroney III, publisher of The News, gathered staffers at the Dallas Convention Center to outline a “perfect storm” of economic woes that, in his view, made those 2004 layoffs necessary.

Could some of this have been averted, or at least slowed to a crawl? Where did The News go wrong? Or is there a certain inevitability to the downfall of the so-called dinosaur newspaper in tandem with the rise of the seemingly impregnable Internet?

The views here aren’t from a top-down CEO perch, admittedly. Instead they’re drawn from some of what I witnessed during almost 27 years at The News, most of them as the paper’s TV critic. So subtract the C, substitute a P and add an N at the end. This then, is the PEON perspective, which every good CEO should appreciate.

PUBLICLY HELD—SOMETIMES IN A STRANGLEHOLD: The News entered the heady world of the New York Stock Exchange in December 1981, when its owner, A.H. Belo Corp., became a publicly held entity. During the go-go years, this was great for raising capital and even buying out rivals such as the Dallas Times Herald in December 1991.

But Wall Street demands a sizable return on its investments. And when the 20 percent or better annual revenue increases began shrinking, well, something had to give. Cutting costs and staff started to become routine, even when profits were still well into the multimillions.

What if The News had remained privately owned? And what if its owners were content with merely making a halfway decent profit in the service of first-rate journalism? Many of us at the paper constantly asked that question. But what did we know?

Lorraine Branham, director of The University of Texas School of Journalism, is unequivocal on this subject.

“When you’re publicly traded, you have no choice in many cases except to kind of dance to the tune that they’re playing,” she says in the 2008 documentary Stop the Presses: The American Newspaper in Peril. “And that’s unfortunate. I think publicly owned newspapers was the worst thing that could have ever happened to journalism.”

HAVING YOUR CAKE, BUT NOT EATING IT, TOO: During its aggressive acquisition of TV properties, Belo obtained a majority ownership of The Food Network. But in September 1997 it gave the network up to a media company that’s proved to have more vision, the E.W. Scripps Co. Belo acquired San Antonio-based KENS-TV and KENS-AM radio from Scripps, in exchange for a majority interest in The Food Network and $75 million in cash.

In retrospect, that was like trading Babe Ruth for Wayne Terwilliger. Scripps has built a lucrative lifestyles empire that also includes the HGTV (Home and Garden), DIY (Do It Yourself) and Fine Living networks.

Meanwhile, Belo’s lone expensive cable venture, TXCN, has gone into virtual eclipse after failing to establish itself as the CNN of the Southwest.
BARK BARK/MEOW: OK, I won’t dwell on the much-ridiculed CueCat, which was supposed to be the ultimate in digital convergence technology during the formative years of the Internet. But Belo sunk $37.5 million into the thing before quickly abandoning it in September 2001. No, that’s not a misprint. It was, however, a colossal waste of money.

THE WEB SITE FOR NOTHING AND YOUR CLICKS FOR FREE: Many of us worker bees wondered about the paper’s belated but headlong devotion to dallasnews.com.

How was it going to make any real money? Might it cannibalize the ink-fed mothership? Those questions were constantly asked at meetings with management. To no avail.

What if this had been the approach from the very start? Subscribers to The News would receive free access to the paper’s web site via a password. Non-subscribers would have to pay a monthly fee for dallasnews.com. It’s likely way too late for that now, even though management lately is talking openly of taking another stab at some sort of “pay model.” Well, you had your chance.

FOCUS, PEOPLE: Us newspaper types used to scoff at focus groups and marketing research. They were commonly deployed by TV stations in hopes of divining what viewers wanted. But newspapers were above that—until all of a sudden they weren’t.

Who knows how many millions were spent after The News got the bug sometime in the 1990s? But those who were there can readily identify the biggest boondoggle. Several years ago the paper became obsessed with attracting young readers and suburban “soccer moms.” Many a newsroom meeting was built around surveys and focus groups aimed at retooling The News to fit their needs. Older “core” readers were slowly dying off, after all. And they’d supposedly cling to the paper no matter what kind of piffle it gave them.

The upshot: Management eventually deduced that younger readers basically were “unattainable” and that The News in fact had alienated too many older readers into un-subscribing. So it was time to chart a “new” direction by reversing course and trying to re-engage the remaining “core” readership. Sheesh.

NOT ENOUGH LATITUDE/ATTITUDE: It’s still too easy to deride Dallas’ only daily as The Dallas Morning Snooze or The Dullest Morning News. People also have been known to twit the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as the Startlegram. But at least startle is an active word with a pulse.

For too many years, management at The News fostered a climate in which a good day was a day without reader phone calls. For the most part that meant that no one had been offended—or activated in any way—by anything they’d read in that day’s paper. Raising hell wasn’t an option. Instead editors worried unduly about their bosses spewing breakfast Cheerios over something that wasn’t deemed “appropriate.”   

The only exception was Sports Day, a fiefdom unto itself under former editor Dave Smith. He built a national reputation for the section by ruling with an iron fist, marching to his own drummer, and spurring many of his writers to greatness. He had your back if you were good, but wouldn’t tolerate mediocrity. Smith got what Smith wanted, and that pretty much was that. For the rest of us, it was often foolhardy to be a firebrand and safer to be folksy.

AND IN THE END? Print circulation of The Dallas Morning News continues to decline, although some of that is offset by the increased price. Web traffic at dallasnews.com continues to increase, but advertising revenue is down. All signs point to more reductions in the work force in coming years.

Was it all indeed inevitable? Maybe so. But from the PEON perspective, this freight train toward Dead Man’s Gulch could have been slowed, or maybe even braked, by its conductors.

In that respect, the wistful words of photographer Randy Eli Grothe still resonate. He had seen and shot it all during his 34 years at The News before being laid off in April. His long and colorful farewell on the in-house, ad hoc dmncuts blog included this passage:

“I was lucky enough to experience print journalism when the cotton was high and this was a bad-ass newspaper firing on all cylinders. We were all living way above the cloud line. At that time the possibilities at this outfit seemed limitless.”

Still, we both hope that The Dallas Morning News somehow survives in some form to dance lightly on our graves. But in truth, the possibilities seem—limited.
        
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.