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Revolution at Dallas’ Daily

With profits plummeting and a newsroom cowed by political correctness, Dallas Morning News publisher Jim Moroney has his work cut out for him.
By Craig Flournoy |

ON THE MORNING of January 22, more than 800 employees of the Dallas Morning News
filed into a hotel ballroom to hear the publisher’s annual
state-of-the-newspaper speech. Jim Moroney strode to the podium, a
gangly 47-year-old knot of energy in a powder-blue shirt and a
red-patterned tie. In years past, his presentation had been brief, his
goals modest. Not this time.

The News, he declared, was
like an outwardly healthy person with serious physical problems. “The
patient may appear healthy, but, frankly, he’s slowly dying.” In the
past three years, profitability had dropped 35 percent, he said. Home
delivery had declined 10 percent since 2000.

Moroney, who had
been publisher of the Belo Corp. newspaper for less than three years,
compared the paper to the American colonies and France in the 18th
century and Russia in the early 20th century. In each case, he said,
arrogant heads of state ignored the needs of those they governed. Those
societies needed radical changes, and so, now, did the News. “We need a revolution of our culture,” Moroney said.

To
accomplish this, the publisher insisted, the newspaper needed to shake
off ennui. Managers should stop stifling the staff’s criticism. Editors
should praise—not punish—dissenters. “Be thankful for the people who
speak up,” he said. “They are our best hope for getting it right.”

Moroney’s
“Fidel” speech lasted an hour and 20 minutes. In the final minute, he
used the word “revolution” seven times, and the crowd in the ballroom
gave him a standing ovation. Many were stunned by what they’d heard,
particularly Moroney’s praise for newsroom hell-raisers. “I thought he
was talking right at me,” says Pam Maples, a 14-year veteran of the
newspaper and a Pulitzer Prize winner. “When he was saying things like
that, I felt like I finally fit in.”

The publisher is proud of
his call to arms. Unlike his predecessor, he encouraged staffers to
speak on the record for this story.

Moroney has definite ideas
for the paper’s transformation. For one thing, he sees investigative
reporting as central to revitalizing the News. “Enterprise
reporting is essential to a great newspaper,” he says now. “The highest
calling of this profession is well-done investigative journalism.”

In the last decade, Brooks Egerton has been the most prolific investigative reporter at the News.
Moroney’s message excites him, but he wonders if the paper’s culture is
too entrenched. “In recent years, the Morning News has tended to hire
people—both as editors and reporters—whose orientation is not to rock
the boat,” Egerton says. “They have bred these rabbits to be docile.”

Whether the rabbits or the revolutionaries will win is an open question.

POWER LUNCH: Moroney held a brown-bag meeting with reporters. Managers were barred.

DAVID HANNERS CAN STILL recall his sense of excitement when he landed a job with the News in 1982. The paper was hiring young, hungry types like him and unleashing them. For decades, the News had displayed little appetite for enterprise journalism. But at the time Hanners got his job, it was battling the Dallas Times Herald for journalistic supremacy. One would win; the other would fold.

What occurred in that period demonstrates that great journalism is mostly a matter of will. Before 1986, the Dallas Morning News
had never won a Pulitzer. Between 1986 and 1994, it won six. George
Rodrigue and I won that first Pulitzer for a series we did on racial
discrimination in public housing. A series demonstrating that Texas
prosecutors routinely excluded blacks from juries was cited in the U.S.
Supreme Court’s 1986 ruling prohibiting that practice, and it earned a
grand prize from the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards. Four
reporters and a photographer who produced a special section about the
homeless in Dallas won the Newspaper Guild’s 1986 Heywood Broun award.
All this in a single year.

More awards rolled in. So did real-world results. The News
convinced the federal government to shut down taxpayer-funded slums and
kill plans to build new ones. It took on institutionalized violence
against women from Thailand to Texas. “The paper had an appetite for
red-meat journalism,” says Dan Malone, who teamed with fellow reporter
Lorraine Adams to produce a series of stories exposing police
misconduct that won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 1992.

But by then the atmosphere was already changing. This became clear when a sheriff sued the News
for libel over stories exposing drug dealing in South Texas. That led
to an internal showdown at the paper. At a November 1991 meeting, the
paper’s management demanded that their attorneys be allowed to reveal
confidential sources if, in pretrial depositions, they denied having
provided information. The reporters—Gayle Reaves, David McLemore, and
Hanners—refused. They said this would not only betray promises of
confidentiality, but also could endanger lives.

Jim Sheehan,
then the president of Belo, disagreed. According to Hanners, “Sheehan
told us, ’This company can protect sources, or it can protect
shareholders. Given that choice, you can rest assured this company will
always fall on the side of the shareholder.’” Sheehan, who retired in
1993, did not return several phone calls.

Months later, one of
the men who had been subpoenaed as a possible source was shot and
seriously wounded. In the end, the suit was settled out of court, and
the sources were not outed, but the reporters never forgot that
meeting. “Our bosses sat there like bumps on a log,” says Reaves, who
won one Pulitzer and was a finalist for another. “It was hard to have
respect.”

Bob Mong, the paper’s managing editor at the time of
the dispute, now its editor, acknowledges that he and other editors did
not defend the reporters during the meeting with Sheehan, but he says
they did so in other ways. “Could we have handled that situation
better? Yes,” he says. “Did we handle the situation behind the scenes?
Yes—and very well.” But Hanners, who had won a Pulitzer for explanatory
reporting in 1989, feels that the episode “marked the end of aggressive
investigative reporting at the Morning News. After that, they lost their stomach for the fight.”

The landscape also seemed to shift a month after the meeting with Sheehan, when the Dallas Times Herald
folded, leaving the News with a monopoly. It was after that, some staff
members say, that the paper’s culture turned against its hell-raisers.
“Your career didn’t always go where it should if you were too vocal,”
says Maples, projects editor since 2000. “The culture and the coverage
go hand in hand. If you breed a culture like that, then your coverage
gets softer.”

Reporters cite several casualties of the softer
era: stories involving American Airlines; Ross Perot’s run for
president; and a North Texas congressman (whom one editor referred to
as a “good friend” of the newspaper); coverage of tax and bond
elections in 1998 that benefited Tom Hicks, Ross Perot Jr., and a slew
of developers; and a business editor at the paper forced to step down
after, among other things, he resisted giving preferential coverage to
the Belo company itself.

The News won a Pulitzer for
breaking news photography this year, its first in a decade that saw the
departure of many of its best reporters. Adams left in 1992. Two years
later, Hanners moved to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In 2001, Reaves left to edit the alternative Fort Worth Weekly,
which has a circulation of about 60,000. Malone joined her a year
later, and both are convinced they made the right decision. Malone no
longer has the resources he had at the News, “but I can work
on stories that make a difference,” he says. “That’s what I want to do
with my career—to make a difference. I had lost that ability at the Dallas Morning News.”

IN
THE SPRING OF 2001, Robert W. Decherd, chairman, president, and CEO of
Belo, asked Jim Moroney if he wanted to be publisher of the Dallas Morning News. Moroney responded: “You’ve got to be kidding.”

He had good reason to be stunned. Like Decherd, Moroney is a great-grandson of G.B. Dealey, the founder of the News. But in his 23 years with Belo, he had had almost no news or newspaper experience. His background is in sales and television.

Still,
Decherd thought he had the right man. “Jim Moroney has spent his entire
professional life believing in and implementing a philosophy that our
news product defines our company,” he says.

In May 2001, Decherd announced Moroney as publisher and Mong, a 22-year veteran of the News,
as editor. Moroney first focused on advertising, marketing, and
finance, installing his own choices as bosses. Mong ran the news side
with managing editor Stuart Wilk, whom Mong had brought to the News from the National Enquirer in 1980.

Even
though he initially stayed away from the news side, Moroney says he
sensed some trouble there. “I had always heard there were sacred cows
at the Morning News,” he says. “You put that notion in a
newsroom, and you are on a downward spiral toward mediocrity.” Moroney
says he asked Mong if that were true; Mong said no. “Everything I ever
felt that needed to be in the paper, got in the paper, from the time I
was managing editor” in 1990, Mong said. Wilk, who replaced Mong as
managing editor in 1996, agrees.

But try persuading Todd Bensman
of that. Beginning in 1999, Bensman wrote dozens of hard-hitting
stories about Terrell Bolton, Dallas’ first black police chief. The
stories reported that Bolton may have ordered the police to ease
enforcement at a topless bar; that Bolton tried to have the head of the
Dallas FBI office transferred; that Bolton improperly demoted several
top commanders, prompting a federal lawsuit that cost the city millions
of dollars.

Some black community leaders were outraged. In the
spring of 2001, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and two
dozen other protestors staged demonstrations in front of the News’ headquarters—including setting newspapers on fire.

Bensman,
now an investigative producer for CBS Channel 11, says Bolton and his
allies pressured management to stop the stories. And, he says, it
worked: “In July 2001, the city editor told me, ’You are never to write
about Terrell Bolton again.”’

Egerton, brought in as Bensman’s
editor, confirms that management obstructed coverage of the police
chief. “I do know that stories were being killed. Some were edited to
death,” he says. “Management succumbed to political pressure. It was
extremely disturbing to people in the newsroom.”

Nonsense, says
Wilk. “There were no stories about Bolton that met our reporting
standards that we failed to publish,” he says. Bensman wrote 31 stories
about Bolton between November 1999 and July 2001. During the next six
months, he wrote not a word about the chief. This despite a tip he got
in September 2001: a source told Bensman that the Dallas police had
arrested more than two dozen Hispanic men for dealing drugs—cocaine and
methamphetamine, according to tests done by the cops. But, said the
source, the district attorney’s office determined that the “drugs” were
gypsum.

Bensman said he knew he would not be allowed to pursue
the tip, so he sent an e-mail to the appropriate editor, hoping another
reporter would be assigned to the story. Months passed. In November,
two reporters, Holly Becka and Tim Wyatt, who covered the Dallas County
district attorney’s office, got tips on the same story from separate
sources. They, too, informed their editor, who said she had it covered.

Six
weeks later, ABC Channel 8 broke the story—resulting in the revocation
of charges against more than 50 defendants. For its work, the
television station, also owned by Belo, was awarded the duPont-Columbia
and Peabody awards, the highest honors in broadcast journalism. Wilk
concedes that the newspaper should have broken the story. “We clearly
did not handle it as aggressively as we should have,” he says.

Wyatt
got a new tip in February: in 2000, beer distributor and philanthropist
Bill Barrett had been kicked and scratched by his wife. Angie Barrett—a
board member of a battered-women’s shelter and a convicted felon—was
charged with assault. Bill Barrett had asked District Attorney Bill
Hill—who had received $2,000 in campaign contributions from him—to drop
the charge. It was dismissed, six days after being filed, despite a
tough policy on prosecuting domestic abuse. Wyatt wrote a story.

Bill Barrett, whose family had contributed $250,000 to the Dallas Morning News
charity fund drive, says he asked Mong and Wilk to kill the story. They
did. Wyatt was devastated: “The message sent was that the story was a
sacred cow, and we couldn’t touch it.” Mong and Wilk say Barrett did
not get favored treatment. A few weeks later, two reporters at the
paper wrote a story about a district attorney in a neighboring county
who chose not to prosecute two campaign donors accused of assaulting
their spouses. The News ran it on page one.

Jeffrey Weiss, a religion reporter at the News,
is a 16-year veteran. He is no rebel, but he understands the ripple
effect when a story is stepped on. “You don’t have to be bit more than
once before you decide not to go back,” he says. “The people who pursue
investigative reporting at the Dallas Morning News do so out of an excess of determination.”

ON NOVEMBER 7, 2002, Mong delivered a speech to several hundred employees of the News,
in the same hotel where Moroney would give his “Revolution” speech 14
months later. Mong, like Moroney, made a long speech. Like Moroney, he
called for improvement: “Don’t you think we can be so much better?” he
said. “You and I know that we can be.” But he also defended the paper
against “voices in our newsroom, speculating” that the News
was slipping and was not as good as it was 10 years ago. “Clearly, in
nearly every measurable way, we are far better today,” he told the
crowd, ticking off more than a dozen areas of coverage. The audience
responded with polite applause.

These days, Mong endorses Moroney’s call for a revolution in the culture of the News,
and he believes he is the right person, with the publisher, to lead it.
Moroney agrees. He says that several months ago, Mong put together a
list of people who they “are methodically trying to attract to the
newspaper to increase the number of great journalists.”

Nearly a year after Mong’s speech, on October 31, 2003, Moroney held a brown-bag meeting with some 18 News reporters. Managers were barred. The publisher and the reporters talked for two hours. “Unprecedented,” Weiss says.

Reporters
hesitated to open up until Moroney assured them that there would be no
retribution for what they said. Finally, one reporter told the
publisher that “we have a climate here in which reporters are treated
with contempt.” Reporters talked about stories killed, delayed, or
watered down. “We told him we thought the paper was in real trouble and
that the news operation was weak,” Egerton says. To fix it, he added,
“there has to be a change in leadership.” Moroney promised change.

At first the rebuilding moved slowly. Keven Anne Wiley was hired away from the Arizona Republic
to rejuvenate the editorial page. Maples was allowed to more than
double her projects staff to five. But then came the serious shake-up,
on April 29. At 8:20 a.m., Mong met with the paper’s management council
and outlined more than a dozen changes. Among them, the new managing
editor was Rodrigue, 48, the head of Belo’s news operations in
Washington, D.C., and the only reporter to win two Pulitzers at the
News; the new Metro editor would be someone from outside the News, the first time that has happened in more than 50 years.

These
changes, Mong says, mark the start of the revolution. The newsroom
remains on high alert. “What Moroney has done is create expectations,”
Weiss says. “He could just as easily fail as succeed.”

Craig Flournoy was an investigative reporter for the News for 22 years. He is an assistant professor of journalism at SMU.


A longer version of this story appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2004. Copyright 2004 by Columbia Journalism Review.

Photo: David Woo/Dallas Morning News