BeloWatch

News plans new Arlington daily; suburban newspaper war looms
The Dallas Morning News has declared war on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram by announcing a blitzkrieg invasion of Arlington.

After learning that BeloWatch and others were onto the story, the News on Tuesday ran a page-one article to unveil its closely held plans to launch a separate, five-day-a-week newspaper in Arlington. The paper, to be called the Arlington Morning News, will have its own editor-publisher--Gary Jacobson, former executive business editor of the News--and its own editorial staff of more than 20 reporters and editors.

The paper's launch is scheduled for April 3, and it will appear Wednesday through Sunday, skipping the two slowest days of the week for newspaper advertising.

The News has tried to keep a tight lid on the project; everyone involved was warned to keep the plans "top secret." But it became apparent something was up about two months ago, when high-level editors appeared in the paper's small mid-cities bureau in Arlington to count desks and measure office space.

The internal rumor mill swirled wildly, until Deputy Managing Editor Gilbert Bailon appeared in Arlington two weeks ago to advise mid-cities staffers what was up, and editors began approaching individual reporters and part-time correspondents about working for the new daily.

The News' massive move into Arlington--a town it has previously covered with just one bureau reporter, Dianna Hunt---is an aggressive challenge to the Star-Telegram, which has long held a substantial circulation lead and maintained a major editorial presence in the city of 261,000. Arlington is highly attractive newspaper turf--an affluent and rapidly growing market which lacks its own full-fledged daily newspaper--but it has received limited journalistic attention, especially from the News.

The Star-Telegram has for four years published a zoned Arlington edition, with local news, editorials, and columns. It also publishes a small weekly containing community news, the Arlington Citizen-Journal. A Belo subsidiary publishes a skinny twice-weekly paper, the Arlington News, which will cease publication with the launch of the Arlington Morning News.

Some staffers of the Arlington News will work for the new paper; other positions will be filled with new hires and transfers, though staffers hired to work for America's eighth-largest daily have expressed reluctance to accept a transfer to a new 20,000-circulation suburban operation. News executives are hastily trying to assemble a reporting staff for the new paper.

The News' interest in Tarrant County has waxed and waned over the years. A 1980s foray into Fort Worth, involving a zoned section and increased staffing, failed; the News eventually dropped the section and cut staffing. The News now has just three reporters in its mid-cities bureau, which also covers Irving and Grand Prairie, and three reporters assigned to its Fort Worth bureau.

The Star-Telegram, by contrast, has its own building in Arlington and about 60 employees, including about 35 editorial staffers.

In recent years, the News and Star-Telegram have maintained an informal truce, with each cashing in on its monopoly status in its own city, while avoiding any expensive conflict in the mid-cities terrain where their dominions overlap.

But since the beginning of 1995, Belo--having fully exploited the News' circulation and advertising growth in Dallas and its immediate suburbs--has become increasingly aggressive. The company named its publisher-editor, Burl Osborne, as president of its new "publishing division," then began giving him an empire to rule by acquiring small daily newspapers in Owensboro, Ky., and Bryan-College Station. The News has aggressively backed The Met, propping up the unprofitable weekly from a likely demise, in what is officially described as a "consulting agreement." This month, the News announced a set of editorial promotions, with a goal of grooming editorial executives to run new acquisitions. A recently announced stock offering, possibly for use in acquisitions--in addition to an existing $800-million line of credit--leads to the inevitable conclusion that a Belo buying binge is in the offing.

In the meantime, Belo has turned its expansive sights once again on Tarrant County, where it can reasonably perceive the Star-Telegram is vulnerable.

The Fort Worth paper's owner, ABC-Cap Cities, has just completed a merger with Disney, which will likely require the sale of the Star-Telegram for antitrust reasons. A company looking to unload a newspaper isn't likely to want to make costly moves to defend that paper's turf. The paper's top management is also weak. Publisher Rich Connor is a caustic, unpopular boss; Editor Debbie Price's erratic news judgment and personnel decisions have driven off many talented journalists and hurt morale among those who remain.

The News fired its first salvo at the Star-Telegram earlier this month, with the launch of a twice-weekly zoned section focusing on the northeast Tarrant County suburbs of Hurst, Euless, Bedford, and North Richland Hills, a group of affluent, fast-growing bedroom communities. That's precisely where the Star-Telegram publishes a zoned daily edition, manned by a large bureau of editorial and advertising staffers based in Bedford.

The second wave of attack--far bigger and far more threatening--will come in Arlington, turf the Star-Telegram has long taken for granted as its own.

The News' page-one coverage of its own plans--written by Michael Saul and Jennifer Files--neglected to mention a critical fact: The Star-Telegram out-circulates the News in the area by a margin of more than 2-to-1.

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