Snoozepaper

Striving for mediocrity at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Price had joined the Star-Telegram as a reporter in 1980 after graduating with a journalism degree from Southern Methodist University. She left to work as a reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News and the Washington Post. She returned to the Fort Worth paper in 1991, along with her husband, Larry Price, who now runs the Star-Telegram's photography and graphics departments. Not long after her return, Price became a metro columnist.

"She was a very good columnist," says one former assignment editor. "She was controversial, created debate in the community, touched on the hot issues. She did what I think a columnist should do, which is provoke, so people will think."

Price as a columnist was fine. But as executive editor? Even she says the prospect gave her pause. When Connor first broached the possibility, Price jokes, "I knocked over my water at lunch. I thought he was kidding. It took me a while to tune in, to tell you the truth."

Initially, Price says, she resisted. "I first told him I was happy writing a column and didn't think I'd be interested. Then I thought about it a little bit more, and I thought, 'Nobody is ever going to hand me this kind of opportunity again.'"

Some staffers were receptive to Price's quantum leap through the ranks. "My initial reaction was, 'Hey, this could be pretty neat,'" says Stan Jones, a projects reporter who Price promoted to government editor. "I knew that Debbie was a talented columnist and a talented writer, and she'd been around in journalism for several years."

Any feel-good bonhomie that staff members might have felt for Price, however, began dissipating soon after she settled into her new office.

When he promoted Price, Connor says, he wanted an editor who would reassert control over the newsroom, whip the staff into shape, and get rid of those who could not measure up. "I wanted somebody in this newsroom who would run it with a strong hand," Connor says. "I wanted a hands-on editor who looked at stories, who evaluated the performances of people, who said, 'This is what we do at the Star-Telegram, and this is what we don't do.'

"I didn't want a consensus builder," he continues. "I didn't want somebody who sees reporters as artists, and thinks that therefore with that goes all sorts of license and freedom. I said, 'I want you to go in there and put your stamp on this newspaper. I want you to run it as if it was yours.'"

Price seems to have taken her patron's wishes to heart.
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Former Star-Telegram government editor Stan Jones, who now runs his own insurance franchise in Fort Worth, says a big reason he quit the paper was the "Friday night massacres."

Since the Sunday paper is generally considered a showcase because it has the largest readership--the Star-Telegram's Sunday circulation stands at just over 340,000--Sunday stories tend to be carefully edited, receiving their final tuning on Friday night. Under Price, Jones and other editors say, the process is a nightmare.

Price edits many of the Sunday stories herself, and at about 6 p.m. on Friday, the copy starts coming back to the editors and reporters, often marked up with notes and questions from Price that are longer than the original stories.

No one quibbles with the right of the executive editor to change copy. But they say Price nitpicks stories to death, unable to concede even the smallest judgment of style or substance to her editors and reporters. Once Price makes up her mind about a story, they say, there is no room for discussion. "When she knows that somebody is working on a story, she has in her mind how she would write that story if she were the reporter, and in her mind there is no other way to write it," says an editor still at the paper. "The reporters and the other editors do not have the leeway of developing that story as they see it. It has to be done as Debbie sees it."

Price's heavy-handed editing, they say, is just one reflection of a management style that seems premised on the theory that Price always knows best. She is known to berate editors and reporters for perceived failings, and is not hesitant to do so with others watching.

Even employees who generally respect Price's professional judgment find her management skills appalling. "I disagree with her tactics many times," says one reporter. "It's like that old thing where I don't feel so good about myself, so I'm going to trash you."

One editor recalls going into Price's office to talk about his future. He says he had uttered just one sentence when "she slammed her fist down on the desk and told me to stop whining, to be grateful I had a job. She told me when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. I'm not kidding."

Others say that Price zeroes in on employees and rides them until they leave the paper in frustration. "Once you get on the outs with Debbie, you can't do anything right from there on in," one source says. "I've seen her handle a lot of people that way. Once you start snowballing, you probably have to leave."

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