By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The need for a new leader came with the formal announcement late last month of the departure of longtime managing editor Bob Mong, appointed as publisher of a small paper recently acquired by A.H. Belo, the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer in Kentucky.
Belo announced the acquisition December 4, and Mong's departure was widely rumored--if not happily anticipated--in the newsroom by the middle of the month.
Now 46, Mong has worked at the paper since 1979, and won many fans as he worked his way up the ladder from assistant city editor, serving as business editor, projects editor, assistant managing editor, and deputy managing editor before assuming his current post.
Mong earned a reputation as a straight shooter, a good newsman, and a fresh thinker--as well as a man who could skillfully navigate the News' intensely political, conservative editorial bureaucracy. He was no revolutionary--revolutionaries don't survive long at Dallas' Only Daily, especially in the glass executive offices--but he was on the right side in most newsroom conflicts, as well as a cautious proponent of evolutionary change. He knew what needed to be done, but could carry out the party line when his superiors wouldn't let him do it.
For all those reasons, advocates of more aggressive reporting and brighter writing are lamenting Mong's departure--and it sounds like Mong is, too.
His appointment moves him from a big fish in a large pond (with daily circulation of 530,000, the News is the eighth largest paper in the country) to the biggest fish in a very small pond (the Owensboro paper's circulation is 33,363). He rose from third-ranking news executive at the News--below strongman editor-publisher Burl Osborne and executive editor Ralph Langer--to boss of both news and business operations at the Messenger-Inquirer. The Messenger-Inquirer is, of course, in Owensboro--a city with a population of 55,000 on the western edge of Kentucky, right next to...Indiana.
BeloWatch could not reach Mong for comment.
But in the December 23 story reporting his appointment--while including the perfunctory "I am really excited about this opportunity" quote--Mong sounded downright underwhelmed about the sudden move: "I love being managing editor of the Morning News and was absolutely and totally committed to that--I wasn't thinking of anything else."
Contrast that with the comments in the News just four days later from Donnis Baggett, the News state editor just appointed as publisher of Belo's other recent acquisition, the even-smaller Bryan-College Station Eagle (daily circulation 20,381): "I see it as a long-term assignment. This is home now."
Wisdom at the News is that Mong, the ultimate company man, has been assured his stay in Kentucky will be of limited duration, and will give him the seasoning to allow him to return to the News at a higher level after the considerably older Osborne or Langer--or both--have departed their current posts.
"He's renting, not selling his house," says one News reporter. "Everyone thinks he'll be the next Ralph or Burl."
Langer was quoted in reporter Michael Saul's December 23 story saying he would select Mong's successor from an internal pool of candidates by the end of January.
An additional comment--"we are going to use this period to look at how we are organized as a news organization"--has spurred speculation that the managing editor's duties might be split among three editors.
This "troika theory" focuses on deputy managing editor for sports Dave Smith, assistant managing editor for metro-desk coverage Gilbert Bailon, and assistant managing editor for lifestyles Sue Smith. According to the theory, all three would retain and expand on their current duties.
This "please everybody" approach would further tangle the News' already considerably tangled editorial bureaucracy. But it would avoid offending Sue Smith, a previous also-ran for Mong's post, while elevating respected Hispanic and female editors.
Other theories have Bailon or Sue Smith getting the post solo--a more daring move. As a contendor for the high-profile spot at the News, Smith carries the black mark of several years at the Dallas Times Herald, as well as a soft-news background that would encourage fears of an accelerated retreat from investigative work.
Either solo opponent would leave out two white male deputy managing editors, Dave Smith and Stu Wilk. Both are aggressive editors and often-abrasive personalities. In political parlance, they carry high negatives. Their potential personal unhappiness might be addressed with new titles or corporate duties in Belo's new publishing division.
In any case, Mong's departure makes it more certain that the News will remain very much the same. In the December 27 story on Baggett's move to Bryan, Langer went out of his way to make that point.
The article noted that Langer declared the departures an opportunity to evaluate the newspaper's structure, but should not be interpreted as "a mandate for change." Said Langer: "I think the paper is successful and is moving in a good direction. There is no revolution.