Snoozepaper

Striving for mediocrity at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

In mid-November, journalists and editors from across Texas gathered at a downtown Dallas hotel for the annual rite of self-congratulation known as the Katie Awards. Seats cost $50. Valets parked cars. A chocolate pate dessert followed dinner. Free wine flowed as the assemblage settled in for a marathon presentation by the Dallas Press Club.

Hours were consumed passing out more than 100 "Katies" honoring the best work of all things journalistic--to newspapers, television stations, radio stations, magazines, and public relations firms. (The nickname--Katies--is a mimic of the more famous Oscars. The trophies themselves are statues of a busty, naked woman, a design also loosely borrowed from the Oscars.)

By the close of the ceremony, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram had picked up five awards. It was not a particularly impressive showing for a major Texas newspaper, but it left publisher Rich Connor in an exuberant mood. He had even won an award for his own editorial writing.

Afterward, in an upstairs hotel suite, wine continued to flow, some of it onto Connor's shirt. He removed the stained shirt, then put his tuxedo jacket back on.

Bare-chested, tux jacket open, each hand clutching a statue of a naked woman, Connor strutted about the party in celebration. Sweet victory.

It did not take long for word of Connor's performance to pass among the 300 or so writers and editors of his newspaper. Many shuddered at the spectre of their publisher's jubilation. A handful of Katies aside, the Star-Telegram is a deeply troubled newspaper.

Finances are not the problem. A comfortable monopoly daily, the paper remains a profitable cog in the Capital Cities/ABC Inc. media machine.

But discontent in the Star-Telegram's newsroom has been mounting since about June 16, 1993, the day Connor selected columnist Debbie Price to take over as the paper's executive editor. Price's ascension to the top editorial spot stunned the newsroom staff, and sent murmurs of curiosity throughout journalism circles. Her selection was somewhat akin to a football team naming its place- kicker as head coach.

When promoted, Price was a 34-year-old columnist and onetime reporter who had no experience as an editor. Her career had been only modestly distinguished, offering no obvious reason why Connor would pluck her from the ranks and hand her the reins of the newsroom.

Connor did so, he says, because he felt Price had the ability to seize control and put a halt to what he saw as unacceptable coddling of reporters and editors. "The newsroom was the proverbial tail wagging the dog," Connor says. "This is a place where people used to be able to come, the last 20 years, and retire. Where people would sit down and negotiate what was in a story and what wasn't in a story and the way it was written. I don't believe in that. I believe strong editors make good newspapers.

"I told her this was not a popularity contest with the newsroom," Connor adds, "that they had to learn to get along with her."

To a great extent, Connor seems to have gotten what he wanted: Price has seized control of the newsroom with a righteous fervor. Many current and former employees describe the Price newsroom as an exercise in chain-gang journalism, with reporters and editors shackled to the unpredictable whims of a vituperative warden.

During the past two years, a startling number of the paper's most seasoned reporters and editors have left. A fair number of those remaining say they wish they could leave, too, but that journalism jobs are too hard to find these days.

Neither Price nor Connor has been ruffled by the departures. "I see very few people leaving here that, in my opinion, we don't want to go," Connor says.

But the paper's problems extend beyond turnover and personality clashes. Numerous current and former employees contend Price is beholden to the publisher who vaulted her to prominence because she lacks seasoned editorial judgment of her own.

Before Price, they say, the newsroom had been run by journalists with enough professional stature to countervail any tendency Connor might have to cozy up to the rich and powerful. Now, they complain, the paper has lost its guts, leaving its news columns marked by timidity and puffery. They say they have seen news stories softened, or outright killed, at Connor's behest, in apparent deference to local business and political leaders.

Connor and Price dismiss those characterizations. Price calls them falsehoods passed on by "people with agendas."

"We have a large disgruntled element. We have a lot of people who are not happy because we've made some big changes," Price says.

Reporters do love to complain, and newsrooms are fractious by nature. But the turmoil at the Star-Telegram eclipses the discord normally present at a large newspaper.

In large part, the turmoil is a product of Price's management style, which some employees describe as the "Off With Their Heads" approach. "If she came in and her muffin wasn't puffed, 'Off with their heads,'" says one former reporter.

But the criticism is also a reflection of a new reality dawning in newsrooms across the country. Scrambling for circulation and in some cases survival, newspapers are searching for ways to make themselves more palatable to readers. While the Star-Telegram is in no danger of folding, it does face uncertainty this month when its corporate parent--Capital Cities/ABC Inc.--will be absorbed by the Walt Disney Co. in the second-largest corporate merger in U.S. history. Rumors abound that the paper will be sold to new owners--possibly even A.H. Belo Corp., owner of The Dallas Morning News--although Disney has not revealed its intentions.

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