BeloWatch

Death to Dallas Life
The Dallas Morning News has put a long-suffering stepchild out of its misery.

On Monday, November 14, a one-page memo was posted in the paper's newsroom, announcing the demise of Dallas Life Magazine. The Christmas Day issue will be its last.

In the memo, News executive editor Ralph Langer blamed the declining advertising market for Sunday magazines and increased costs for the 24-year-old publication's demise. "While revenues were declining, costs increased dramatically, despite many steps taken to reduce them. For several years this has resulted in an annual loss in the millions.

"All of us had high hopes that the recent redesign and content changes would reverse this trend, but the dramatic rise in newsprint costs has made the situation far worse than expected. And advertising support failed to materialize at the hoped-for level."

One day later, the News informed readers of its decision with a business-section story by marketing-media beat writer Laura Castaneda. The article went into even more extensive detail about the burdensome economics of the newspaper Sunday-magazine business--as though the publication's death were absolutely, indisputably inevitable.

But Castaneda also noted that while the number of newspapers publishing their own Sunday magazines has declined, that number still totals 32. That means 32 other newspapers--many smaller and less profitable--continue to publish Sunday magazines.

As the News loves to point out in other circumstances, with circulation of about 540,000 daily and about 840,000 Sunday, it is the nation's eighth-largest paper--and indisputably one of its healthiest.

On the very day that the News told readers about its need to kill its Sunday magazine, the New York Times published a business story focusing on the A.H. Belo Corporation's extraordinary prosperity. Wrote Dallas-based business writer Allen Myerson: "Executives at the company are reveling in their good fortune as the bidding frenzy for television stations and a wave of political advertising have helped push Belo stock this month to its highest price, $55.125. And there still may be more where that came from."

Belo stock is climbing where other newspaper stocks "are down about 10 percent and the big broadcasters [stocks] are mixed," Myerson noted.

"...While afflicted by the same circulation declines as other metropolitan dailies, The Morning News has been helped by a lively Dallas economy that makes the weekday paper as hefty as many Sunday papers elsewhere."

The bottom line is that Dallas Life did not have to die. It was, in truth, a victim of journalistic abuse and neglect. Left without an editor or strong focus for more than two years, it was massively redesigned--after a full year of "study"--as a showcase for consumer products, in a craven attempt to lure advertising.

That happened in July, producing a format so shameful and shameless that Dallas Life writer Bryan Woolley, when asked to stay on temporarily under the new format, told his boss: "I'd rather drink lye."

After four months--a fraction of the time News executives spent simply conceiving the magazine's re-invention--the paper decided to pull the plug.

BeloWatch has previously offered the humble opinion that the redesigned format is a journalistic atrocity. But Langer insisted content wasn't the problem, declaring in his memo that new Dallas Life editor Bob Bersano and his staff "did a fine job in every way."

Curious, then, that the News offered such a pitiful commitment to the new format--a format that the paper's best management minds had labored so long to hatch.

The simple truth is that the News is unwilling to invest enough intelligence, money, and energy to publish a Sunday magazine.

It's not that the paper has no choice.
And it's an example of the kind of money-versus-quality judgment that--Pulitzer Prizes notwithstanding--will forever separate the Dallas Morning News from the great newspapers of America.

How quickly they forget
It's nifty that former Texas Governor Bill Clements decided to bestow $10 million of his oil-drilling fortune on his alma mater, SMU.

But is it really necessary for the News to sugar-coat history in reporting it?

Linda Stewart's October 29 story chattered on for 22 happy paragraphs--discussing Clements' seventh-grade history teacher, his large private library collection, and his Christmas gifts from his mother--before noting: "He was chairman of SMU's former Board of Governors when the university became embroiled in a pay-for-play athletics scandal that resulted in the temporary suspension of its football program."

It then chattered on about other subjects for four more happy paragraphs.
Two days later, a News editorial praised Clements' gift as "a farsighted boost."

Amid five paragraphs of kudos, the editorial declared: "Though some are sure to cavil that Mr. Clements' role in the football financial controversies of the 1980s diminished his contributions as chairman of the board of trustees, his record has been one of generous, thoughtful support of higher academic standards."

Cavil? For those of us without a Morning News-quality education, that means "to raise trivial and frivolous objection."

What the heck--BeloWatch wants to cavil.
Former Texas Governor Clements, in fact, was a key figure in one of the most despicable cheating scandals in the history of college athletics.

While he was chairman of the university's board, the NCAA discovered that boosters had been making payments to varsity football players, in gross violation of NCAA rules. What was his "generous, thoughtful" response in "support of higher academic standards"?

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