Belo Blues

What does Mark Cuban have that Belo doesn't? Money. Lots and lots of money.

If you didn't hear Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on The Ticket 1310-AM last week, you missed a beautiful thing: someone (besides us) launching an all-out piss-storm on The Dallas Morning News. Cuban--who declined comment after the show--told Ticket listeners that he'd just come from a meeting with News bigwigs and was steamed about several issues. Among them:

· That nowhere in that day's paper was there preview coverage of that night's preseason game against the Miami Heat.

· That the News-hyped CueCat sucked.

Mark Cuban, full-time owner of the Dallas Mavericks and part-time, spot-on business analyst of all things Morning News
Mark Cuban, full-time owner of the Dallas Mavericks and part-time, spot-on business analyst of all things Morning News

· That the News had informed him it wasn't going to produce a full, separate section to preview the Mavericks' season, as it does with the other major teams in Dallas. Cuban said he was told this was decided because "I didn't buy enough advertising" to support a separate section.

Breaking down each claim then...

Yes, the News treats the Mavericks like its bastard child. Even the beat writers get frustrated because their stories don't always see print. But it was a preseason game. Big deal.

Yes, the CueCat blows.

The last claim is more interesting, obviously. It's not unusual, really, that advertising sales folks would put the heavy on an owner to get more money, but never do you hear that owner come on the airwaves and disclose it. (I would have loved to be in the next morning's sales meeting aboard the Belo Death Star.) The implication is, of course, that coverage at the Morning News not only can be purchased but must be purchased.

Is that true? Well, Cuban may be "eccentric" in a mega-rich frat-boy way, but what would he have to gain by lying? OK, sure, eccentric is another word for "batshit," but still. More important, when you combine his statements with the news that management received last week, you get the idea that the paper's reps--anyone with a mortgage, anyway--might do just about anything to get some extra cash in the coffers.

Because, you see, the hammer came down at Belo last week. Came down hard. Bob Mong, president and general manager, gave the news to his executive editor, Gilbert Bailon, who relayed it to managing editor Stuart Wilk and the rest of upper management: Belo is staring at a $50 million shortfall for 2001.

Now, in a time long, long ago--say, the '90s--this wasn't a big deal. Everyone knew that newspaper profits run in four-year cycles. Post-election years are usually tough on newspapers, as all those expensive ads purchased by political parties go away. Couple this with a big increase in newsprint prices, as well as a few other factors (a decrease in online and tech ad buying, etc.), and you have a paper in the red. Back in the day, this was seen as the cost of doing business, and Belo sucked it up, rode out the revenue shortfall, and made it up during the fat times.

That was before Belo went public--in other words, before its stock price became more important than its commitment to high-quality journalism. Belo chairman Robert Decherd wants to do anything possible to keep that stock price from cratering. On one level, that means doing what people do when their paychecks don't cover the bills: pawn stuff in the garage. Look at last week's press release--sorry, story...I get them confused--in the News business section about Belo's sale of its Tulsa, Oklahoma, TV station, KOTV. After a bunch of blather about why this sale occurred, Decherd said the proceeds from it "can be productively applied in pursuing strategies we have described publicly over the past year." Included in these "strategies": enhancing its current assets.

Well, not exactly "enhancing." That would suggest, oh, I don't know, "additions," or "new things." Instead, the word has come down that all openings are frozen--no new hires. Given that the paper is undergoing a redesign (which, by the way, readers hate, according to editors and writers there) and that there are about 20 production jobs open on the edit side, this news wasn't met with joy. "Morale," says one editor, "is at an all-time low."

But it looks as though the folks who will be hit hardest by the belt-tightening will be the hair-dryer set at WFAA-Channel 8 and TXCN. One source says she was told that as much as $40 million of the shortfall will be attributed to the broadcast side. "Gilbert believes this will hit them much worse than us," she says, "and it's going to be bad for us." The sound you hear is the high-priced (read: vulnerable) talent at Channel 8 whispering to their respective financial planners, "Yeah, about that new house we're building in Southlake..."

But surely there's a silver lining, a savior, a plan that will silence the naysayers and provide everyone with healthy profits and the Lord's blessing, as it has always been at Belo. Sure: It's Mark Cuban's favorite new toy, the CueCat. After all, the soothsayers at Belo invested $42 million in this gadget, which allows users to finally install more software on their machines, add another gadget to their crowded computer desks, carry the paper with them to their computer, fumble with the pages so the bar codes accompanying stories can be scanned, and wait for either an error message or a Web site to pop up on their computers (assuming they were already connected to an online provider), thus alleviating the incredibly time-consuming task of typing www.dallasnews.com.

Alas, despite that airtight logic, it ain't lookin' good for CueKitty. First of all, influential Wall Street Journal tech columnist Walter S. Mossberg tee-rashed the device in an October 12 column. Mossberg wrote, "In order to scan in codes from magazines and newspapers, you have to be reading them in front of your PC. That's unnatural and ridiculous." He concluded that "the CueCat isn't worth installing and using, even though it's available free of charge."

No one listens to the press, though, right? Maybe so, but the number of hits the CueCat is generating to Web sites is "abysmal, much worse than expected," says a News editor.

What that means for subscribers and viewers of Belo entities is unclear. What it meant for Mark Cuban is that the advertising powers that be put the squeeze on him, apparently. The result, according to Cuban during his radio appearance last week: He has put on hold the announced plan to buy back Belo's 12 percent stake in the Mavericks until further notice. For more information on how this will affect Belo's stock price, swipe your CueCat here and see if it takes you to www.we-be-sucking-right-now.com.

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