Dateline, Buzz Central

DMN welcomes staff introspection

If you've been busy traveling the world and not filing expense reports the past month, perhaps you've not heard of the "Jayson Blair saga" that roiled The New York Times. A quick recap: A young reporter, Blair, made up facts, plagiarized and lied about traveling to various locations to cover stories. It would be like if Buzz wrote about city politics and almost never attended an actual city council meeting. Oh, wait a minute...

Anyway, this scandal cost Blair his job, and in its wake a top writer and the Times' top two editors also resigned. The whole ugly mess caused much journalistic hand-wringing and navel-gazing--pretty picture, no?--at all newspapers not named Observer. (Hey, we're above this sort of stuff. We're past ethics. We're ultra-ethical. Nay, über-ethical.)

Not so at The Dallas Morning News, where the Blair incident has led to much staff introspection.

"It was clear that people here wanted to talk about the issues that came of this," says Morning News President and Editor Bob Mong. "So we set up a series of brown-bag lunches and went over our rules on datelines, using stringers [freelance writers], confidential sources, expense reports, everything."

From these meetings, Mong says, a few recurrent themes have emerged. Most heartening, he says, is that "universally, the people here want to get it right, and they want to get it right every day." Which looks a whole lot more "no, duh" on the page than it does when he says it.

Some of the charges did gripe that there is a star system in place at the DMN. (Which every newsroom gripes about.) More troubling--at least they should be--are the complaints Mong received that suggest, well, that people are scared to complain. "There is still some reluctance for folks to come forward to their managers with concerns and complaints," Mong says. "And that can't be. We have to make it a hospitable environment for that sort of dialogue."

Very true. But you can understand the self-preservation gene that kicks in at the DMN. It's all well and good for the big boss to say no one will retaliate if you bring problems to the fore. But when reporters are still being threatened with being shuttled off to Collin County or Denton bureaus--and wasn't that pitched just six months ago as a promotion by management?--that creates a fearful environment. When your parent company, Belo, has just told its Guild employees at The Providence Journal in Rhode Island that, yes, we will offer you a contract for the first time in three years, but it can only take effect if the National Labor Relations Board expunges the 27 guilty counts against us that we incurred because of our illegal bargaining tactics--well, they ain't stupid. They see how upper, upper management views dissent.

Would it help to have an ombudsman, someone to air these journalistic or personnel concerns in the paper? Mong says not necessarily, because then managers don't feel accountable. Handling problems is delegated to the ombud, in other words. "What you need is a place that communicates with itself. You just can't be arrogant. You just can't."

 
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