Striving for mediocrity at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Price says she edits many stories in her efforts to enforce high standards of fairness and quality in her newsroom. She cannot worry about the other things people say about her. "I know who you have talked to, and there are a lot of unhappy, disgruntled former employees out there," Price says.

It is highly unlikely, however, that Price knows who spoke with the Observer, although she repeated the assertion several times during an interview. Of the nearly two dozen current and former Star-Telegram employees interviewed for this story, only a few agreed to be quoted by name. Many still work at the paper, and fear that being quoted by name could cost them their jobs. "I'm shuddering right now talking to you, thinking Debbie's going to find out," one reporter said. "That is the fear that she has fostered up there. It's absolutely paralyzing."

If Price's goals were fairness and accuracy, her staff would have no quarrel with her, they say. They wonder, though, how Price, resting on sparse laurels, came to believe that she has a monopoly on professional virtue. "She essentially doesn't know what she is doing," says one long-time reporter. "Her ego has gotten the better of her, and somehow she has convinced herself that she deserved this job."

Price's ferocious editing, editors and reporters say, is chilling the newsroom. Reporters balk at taking on complex or high-profile stories, knowing that their work will be "Debbied" before it can make the paper. Mid-level editors have become so paranoid about incurring Price's wrath that they engage in self-censorship, throwing reporters into even greater confusion.

"One thing that has seemed to really mark Debbie's tenure as editor at the time I was there was that your mid-level editors would put the fear of God into reporters about 'Debbie wants it to say this, Debbie wants it to say that,'" says former reporter Cutbirth. "If a reporter would say, 'I found a bunch of pineapples,' they would say, 'Debbie wants egg salad.' I'd say, 'Well, there's not any eggs out there, but there's plenty of pineapples.' They'd say, 'Debbie wants an egg salad, dammit. Write egg salad.'"

Price's style has also driven away many of the paper's veteran editors and reporters. Since her ascent, the paper has replaced almost all of its line editors--the rough equivalent of assistant coaches--including those overseeing government coverage, the city reporting staff, features, and the Sunday paper.

Mark Murphy, former city editor of the Los Angeles Times and one of the paper's most respected line editors, is now editing books. Former city editor Raul Reyes has moved to the San Antonio Express-News.

The paper's Washington and Austin bureaus have both lost reporters that were not replaced, and important beats such as county government, politics, courts, and City Hall have changed hands. Even rookie journalists sense the unhappiness in the newsroom. Some start looking for new jobs not long after starting at the Star-Telegram.

Discontent, Price and Connor say, is the price of change. "We've been very aggressive over the last two and a half years turning over the staff," says Price. "It's not an accident that so many people have left. We just don't have room for whiners and complainers."

Both Price and Connor say they do not know what the newsroom turnover rate is, although they say the rate for the entire company is about 1 percent. Pressed as to why an executive editor would not know the turnover rate in her own department, Price replies, "If you'd ever managed almost 300 people, you'd understand."

Whatever the rate of departures, she says, she does not find it bothersome. "We're pushing real hard, and that turns up the heat. It puts a lot of pressure on people. There are some people here who are shining, who are really just shining stars and doing great work, and then there's some people who've kind of been left in the dust. They're not here anymore."

Were the Star-Telegram producing remarkable journalism, more of her staff might be prone to agree with Price, but there is little to brag about. Like many newspapers, the Star-Telegram is trying to shift its focus to more intense local coverage, buying into the fad of "community journalism," which sees papers trying to be good citizens in their communities. The paper is running fewer long takeouts or investigative projects, and more shorter, happier stories.

Employees contend Price is weakening the paper's stories and watering down coverage. Price's record for diluting or scuttling hard news stories has been so consistent that it has even spawned competing conspiracy theories. Some believe that she knowingly waters down the paper's content so she won't offend Connor and the powers that be in Fort Worth. Others argue that Price doesn't understand how to pursue and present journalism with guts.

"Do we have a mandate not to piss anybody off at all and be real dull, or does Debbie just not get how to tell a story with any impact?" asks one veteran reporter. "It's happened so many times that people think it's deliberate. A reporter will come down with a story that has got some edge to it. It says right up there, 'So and so is fucking up.' Debbie will come back and say the story's really about something completely different. By the time she gets done submerging all of the interesting things in the story, you get a 70-inch piece of typing. You wonder why the story's in the paper."

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