By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Bob Mong stood in front of several hundred journalists at the Hyatt Regency this past November to sell them his dream. Mong, editor of The Dallas Morning News, told his staff, "I want to speak to you today about our aspirations...as a newspaper." He told them he's in charge of a great paper, but asked, "Are any of you satisfied with where we are today? Don't you think we can be so much better? I know that we can be."
The speech was heartfelt. Mong had wrestled with it for weeks, certain that his oration would fill reporters with hope, make them ready to tackle the city with investigative zeal. He included in it a simple, telling anecdote that illustrates the difficult path the DMN faces, likening the paper's journalistic progress over the past 20 years to a sprinter who's shaved his 100-yard dash time from 11 seconds to 10 flat. But, he said, to be world-class, we've got to go from 10 to 9.75 seconds--not nearly as far, but twice as hard to achieve.
When he finished, Mong took a drink of water. "Any questions?" he asked the throng. Not one reporter dared to question, praise or challenge.
That wasn't surprising. Morning News reporters, beaten down for years by a Belo Corp. known for its thin skin and intolerant attitude toward dissent, are used to keeping quiet. Later, some took the key phrase of Mong's speech, one that he'd hoped would offer a beacon to help them find their way out of the darkness of Belo's culture, and changed it from "passionate virtuosity" to "pliable pomposity." Few sounded hopeful that the changes Mong suggested--making the paper more aggressive, more concerned with producing hard-hitting, relevant stories--would come to pass.
This is partly a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the very people who complain are the ones who could do something about the paper's long-acknowledged stodginess. But newspaper reporters are, on the whole, whiny, self-absorbed babies.
Now, Bob Mong is their baby sitter. He is the DMN's editor as of July 2001, the high-profile boss who wants his to be the best regional newspaper in the United States. It is Bob Mong who will define what type of newspaper readers will see in 2010.
Actually, should current trends hold, Mong may define the paper readers are not reading. Daily newspapers are losing readers by the thousands as they fail to stay relevant in the fast-paced Internet age of information. The Dallas Morning News is no exception. At a time when North Texas is becoming increasingly diverse, it is staking its future on wealthy, white suburban readers to pay the bills. Mong takes over the paper at a critical time, when such forces threaten to undermine the paper's position as the dominant, authoritative voice of Dallas. Reversing this decline is what consumes him.
During the past few months, Mong has met with reporters and editors in small groups, during brown-bag lunches and via e-mail, practically begging them to voice their concerns. He asked them why they think they can't do their best work here, why so many good-to-great reporters have left in the past several years, why they are so cynical about the paper's plan to revitalize itself in the coming decade. A brave few broke it down for him like this:
They said there is a reason The Dallas Morning News is perceived as it is: a solid, stolid, white-bread and timid newspaper where management winks at the powerbrokers who selfishly run the city as they see fit, a paper that sends its most aggressive reporters after cows that are not sacred. They say there are other roadblocks to doing good work:
That the "Collin County initiative," a plan to fully stock the Plano bureau of the paper with seasoned journalists and produce several more pages of Collin County news five days a week, will further erode the paper's ability to cover Dallas proper--especially the predominantly black and Hispanic areas of Southern Dallas. And that this plan to attract more readers and advertisers in Collin County will deplete an already ravaged Metropolitan news staff and hurt the paper's ability to write meaningful stories about the police department, DART, DISD, City Hall, the criminal courts--the core of the city whose name is on the masthead.
That the paper isn't addressing its real problems head-on: It isn't breaking enough local news because the culture of the newsroom--"Belo knows best"--has forced its ass-kicking reporters to take jobs in other cities, which leaves fewer reporters capable of finding and writing big, important, aggressive stories.
That Mong himself, a man who made his youthful reputation on award-winning investigative stories, hasn't shown that he has the authority--some say cojones--to do the things he knows will take the paper from good to great. They argue that it is those with balance sheets in their minds and Belo in their bloodline--Belo chairman Robert Decherd and News publisher Jim Moroney III--who matter, who make the decisions, who dictate the paper's future.
"I just don't see that people have confidence that Mong's vision will work long-term," says a longtime staffer. "What I do see is that the company has gone from a new newspaper in Arlington, an incredible waste of money on CueCat and the experiment of I-don't-know-how-many zoned editions  for the suburbs. Well, most of them have been spectacular failures. So from a decision-making standpoint, it's hard to have a lot of confidence in the decision-makers around here with this new plan...You know, what is the new plan tomorrow, guys?"