Snoozepaper

Striving for mediocrity at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

With daily newspaper readership sliding--the Star-Telegram's daily circulation slipped 3.3 percent to 240,659 in 1995--publishers and editors are groping for ways to keep readers buying their products.

But as Connor and Price reshape the Star-Telegram to their liking, they are doing more than just changing the content of the paper and running off experienced journalists; under the mantra of "reader satisfaction," they are also breaking faith with the underlying tenets of good journalism.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has always labored at the edge of Texas journalism. For years, while competing dailies slugged it out in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, the Star-Telegram had Fort Worth to itself.

"Over the years, the Star-Telegram always had a reputation of having a lot of good writers and kind of being this big tree that falls in the forest," says former reporter Joe Cutbirth. "Sometimes there are people there to hear it, and sometimes there are not."

The paper won its only Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 1985.
In 1986, Capital Cities installed Rich Connor as publisher. He came to the Star-Telegram after eight years in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he earned his stripes with the parent company by helping break the unions at the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. In this extroadinarily bitter 1978 labor dispute, virtually all of the paper's employees went on strike and were permanently replaced.

Shortly after arriving in Fort Worth, Connor brought in a new editor, Mike Blackman, from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Many reporters and editors recall the Blackman years with fondness. "It was the dawn of the golden era," one reporter recalls. "[Blackman and his hires] just took Fort Worth and kicked it in the teeth. We were getting assignments like 'Go out and find out who runs this town.'"

In 1991, the Star-Telegram hired another editor of national stature--Mary Jo Meisner, city editor of the Washington Post--to serve as managing editor. With the death of the Dallas Times Herald later that year, the Star-Telegram had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to establish itself as a major Texas voice rivaling The Dallas Morning News. Reporters and editors were optimistic that Meisner would lead the charge.

A reporter who has remained at the paper through several regimes credits Meisner with drawing the best from the paper's staff. "With Mary Jo, we always felt we knew what she wanted--we knew where we stood," says the reporter. "Boy, you just wanted to go out and get that great story, because you knew Mary Jo would recognize really great reporting and a good story."

But Meisner would not stay at the paper long, and the opportunity was squandered.

Shortly after Meisner became managing editor, Connor subdivided the newspaper into three departments, wiping out much of Meisner's domain. Independent newsrooms were carved out of the staff to publish separate editions in Arlington and Northeast Tarrant County. The zoned editions had their own editors, publishers, and reporters who did not report to Meisner.

Rather than attempting to expand the Star-Telegram's coverage and turn it into a regional newspaper, Connor envisioned an emphatically local newspaper that did not stray much beyond the borders of Tarrant County. He told staffers he wanted the Star-Telegram to be "the best small-town newspaper" in America.

In early 1993, Meisner left to take the editorship of the Milwaukee Journal (now the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel). Meisner declined to discuss her reasons for leaving the Star-Telegram, except to say that she was offered a great job and took it. Star-Telegram veterans believe Meisner left at least in part because she was frustrated that Connor's new three-newsroom structure had undercut her role as managing editor.

When Meisner left, many of the paper's downtown staff members expected, and hoped, that the mantle would pass to her well-liked and respected deputy, Ken Bunting. Blackman was still the paper's top editor, but, under the new structure, the managing editor effectively ran the Fort Worth newsroom.

One day in June, Connor summoned the paper's staff for an announcement. Many thought Bunting would be named managing editor. They were wrong.

Connor announced there would be no new managing editor. Instead, columnist Debbie Price was being named to the newly created post of executive editor, reporting directly to Connor. Blackman retained the title of vice president and editor, and theoretically stood above Price on the organizational chart, but from that day on, Blackman would disappear from the daily operations of the downtown newsroom.

Although he still holds the vice president's title, Blackman now oversees the paper's opinion pages and edits the Arlington edition. He says he grew tired of the bureaucracy and hassles of running the whole show, and relishes being a hands-on editor again.

Ken Bunting would eventually leave to become managing editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Connor's announcement put Price squarely at the helm of the downtown newsroom. Stunned silence followed. "People were shocked when Rich made the announcement," Price says. "There was not a peep. Nobody said a word. Certainly there wasn't any applause."

Staffers say it took a while for them to realize that Connor was not joking. Price was a perfectly good journalist, they say, but none of her colleagues thought of her as executive editor material.

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