By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It's called Fresh Ink--Behind the Scenes at a Major Metropolitan Newspaper. As the cover illustration, if not the title, makes clear, that paper is the Dallas Morning News.
The book's author is David Gelsanliter, a former executive for the Knight-Ridder Newspapers chain who now lives in Corrales, New Mexico. Gelsanliter spent many months in Dallas beginning in 1991.
The book began as a "week-in-the-life-of-a-daily-newspaper" treatise, intended, as Gelsanliter puts it, "to reveal how a newspaper comes into being each day." With the demise of the Dallas Times Herald a month after his chosen week, Gelsanliter expanded the book's range, adding a section on "Demise of the Times Herald."
Well into the project, his original publisher, NAL/Dutton, chose not to proceed with the book--a particularly striking judgment since, according to Gelsanliter's introduction, an editor (presumably there) had proposed the idea in the first place.
Eventually the book ended up in the hands of the considerably smaller University of North Texas Press, which published 5,000 copies of Fresh Ink in May. By then, the passage of time required an update, and Gelsan-liter added a six-page chapter, simply titled "Two years later."
In the interests of full disclosure, Belo-Watch must note that the book's limited treatment of the Observer is snide--and on small details, factually inaccurate--offering self-serving motives for slamming the book. The book also lifts phrases for its summary of Belo's history from a July 1985 Texas Monthly article about the News by Peter Elkind, now editor of the Observer and author of BeloWatch.
But in truth, Fresh Ink's shortcomings offer plenty of other grounds for criticism. The book's writing style is bland, choking the life and drama out of the events it chronicles. And its structure is as stiff and predictable as a college thesis (which it resembles, with chapters titled "The Players," "The Community Reacts," and "Conclu-sions").
Worst of all, Gelsanliter regularly stumbles onto a situation that begs for perspective and a point of view--criticism, praise, outrage, something. But this veteran observer of daily journalism is unable to bring himself to offer more than an occasional bit of analysis and hint of dismay. Though he is allowed to observe much, he scrupulously refuses to pass judgment.
It's the book's biggest failing. Fresh Ink--not coincidentally, like the News itself (Gelsanliter is the News' sort of journalist)--too often fails to connect the facts to reach even obvious conclusions. This is a problem endemic to daily newspapers; for a book, it is a major flaw.
Having said that, BeloWatch turns to what nuggets Fresh Ink does offer--and, thanks to Gelsanliter's extraordinary access to events at Dallas' Only Daily--there are several.
From Belo chairman Robert Decherd and publisher Burl Osborne, Gelsanliter gained wholesale cooperation. He was allowed to attend any newsroom or executive meetings he wished and given unrestricted access to interview Belo officers, as well as News executives, editors, and reporters.
Because he had been deemed a worthy and responsible chronicler of the News tale, Gelsanliter concluded: "Newspapers have a reputation for poking into other people's business, while being highly circumspect about their own. I didn't find this to be true at The Morning News." (Never mind that Osborne has for years barred his entire staff of journalists from speaking to outside reporters without explicit high-level permission.)
The result of this is a handful of interesting anecdotes, telling comments, and intriguing details, reenforcing both accounts of specific episodes chronicled in BeloWatch, but also this column's notions of life inside the News. The book offers a good portrait of the dynamics steering Dallas' Only Daily. After plodding through 200 pages, it does become clear just why the News is the way it is. (What to think about that is another question.)
Particularly striking is how self-consciously at odds the paper is with the muckraking, stir-things-up tradition of American newspapering. As Gelsanliter notes early, with great understatement: "Balance is a priority here, I soon learn."
There's nothing wrong, of course, with balance.
But Gelsanliter soon learns of the lengths to which the News goes not just to be fair (though that's the way they see it), but to avoid controversy altogether--to avoid even offending anyone.
"At The News...often the more interesting (and controversial) parts of a story are found in the continuation, or jump. This struck me as odd...But apparently readers have been trained to know that The News will take care not to be provocative."
Notes Gelsanliter on another occasion: "In their placement of stories, editors have taken care not to be provocative or give offense."
Toss in a relentlessly pro-business, boosterish, upbeat spin on events, and--though Gelsanliter never says it--you have a paper that often distorts reality.
The coverage of the November 1991 elections offers a clear example of why The News falls far short of its grand journalistic ambitions.
Gelsanliter writes: "Pre-election coverage has been wide, if not deep. Editors have tried not to be controversial. Each council district has been profiled and each of the fourteen council races awarded a story, but by a different reporter so there are scarcely any comparisons or attempts to ascribe meaning. All press conferences and most of the candidate forums have been covered, and whether incumbent or unknown, each candidate has received the same number of paragraphs. There has been no detailing of campaign finances or any but the merest mention of who is behind this or that candidate."