By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
When you work for an alternative weekly, it's not popular to say that you like or admire the publisher of your town's daily newspaper. So my approbation for Dallas Morning News publisher Burl Osborne needs explanation.
Osborne, who also holds the Belo-conferred title of "president/publishing division," is, to me, a known quantity, someone who acts in a manner I can understand. If you are rich, he likes you. If you cross him, he remembers. He wants his newspaper to operate in a tough but fair way, unless that means a) screwing with his rich friends, or b) reporting fairly on those who have crossed him. This is why he tried to shape coverage of the Trinity River bond election in favor of rich Dallas Plan members, why his subordinates watered down legitimate criticism of Belo's financial involvement in the new arena, and why ignoring the Dallas Observer in print is official Belo policy. None of this bothers me. Rich white folk are Osborne's homies. He has their collective back. The Observer is constantly playa-hatin'. He would therefore like to bust a figurative cap in our alternative ass. This all makes sense to me.
Besides, on a personal level, he can be charming. When I had something to offer him--as editor of the now-defunct Met, we met with Belo bigwigs several times because the News helped out the paper financially, under the table, because the execs hated the Observer so much--he seemed magnanimous. He praised our wackiness, our joie de vivre, our pretentious use of French. He told us how much his son enjoyed the paper, which was incredibly insulting but delivered genuinely as praise. He asked what we thought of the whole Internet thing, wondering aloud how it could be best used to make billions. (I swear, I never mentioned CueCat.) A Belo officer even took us to lunch and shared secrets on how he, Burl, and the gang had become so darn successful in the media world. It was simple, he said: Make everyone think you're a friend. "During our negotiations to buy the Dallas Times Herald, the executives there thought we were the greatest guys in the world," said the Belo man between sips of ice-cold gazpacho. He smiled. "They thought that until the day we shut them down."
See? Pure evil, easily understood. As someone who is supposed to explain or comment on the Morning News, this makes my job easier. (Editor: "Celeste, why is Belo selling some of its newspaper properties in other markets?" Me: "Because they're evil! Next question, please!") But I'm getting worried that this will soon change in ways that--heaven forbid--may confuse me.
Multiple sources (OK, two, but they're, you know, highly placed and all) have told me that Osborne has begun making plans for his exit from Belo. They say they've heard he could retire as early as this summer, this fall, or early next year. Or later. No matter. It's bound to happen sometime soon. The man has been at the paper since 1980, when he took over as executive editor after 20 years at The Associated Press. And he can, my points above aside, afford to rest on his laurels: The paper became a much better product--not as good as Belo thinks it is or as good as it should be, but its passion deficit aside, a solid daily newspaper. (It has slipped markedly since the Herald closed, but we all know that.)
Osborne didn't return a call seeking comment, but if he had, I could have asked him to deny or confirm his rumored replacement: Jack Sander, executive vice president/media operations. (Sander also didn't return a voice-mail message.) Sander is now over all broadcast properties for Belo, and he's seen as the driving force behind Channel 8's recent push toward getting younger and perkier at the expense of, say, getting better.
Why would a broadcast guy replace a print guy? Synergy, baby. Belo is committed to this concept and wants to find new ways to streamline information-gathering and sharing among its three key media: print, broadcast, and online. Sander is seen, according to a Channel 8 source, as the man most amenable to forcing each entity to work together. This is vital since Belo is committed to pouring money into Belo Interactive, even as it is cutting its payroll--an irony that others say Sander would ignore, since he is not exactly described as a "people person."
"The guy is a blowhard, but he's the darling in corporate for some reason right now," a Channel 8 staffer told me recently. "They're going to create a new position that basically means he'll be head of all 'content.' Who knows what that's gonna mean."
Not me, other than that I'll sure miss Burl.