Poor Circulation

Fear, loathing and more at the DMN

Buzz doesn't care for most sob stories. Buzz himself is about two busted deadlines away from caring a whole lot where that there homeless shelter gets built, so when someone calls to tell us about their problems, they often end up talking to the cat that sleeps next to our desk.

Bob Johnson's story is different. Yes, part of the reason is because Johnson's tale involves the circ scandal at The Dallas Morning News, something the paper has been woefully negligent in reporting itself. Yes, part of the reason is because Johnson didn't call us; we called him--he wasn't seeking publicity, and we like that in people. Partly because we agree with him when he says that the DMN is trying to make it look as though it's the independent contractors' faults for the circulation overstatements that has the paper caught in a $26 million pickle. And mostly because he tells it better than Buzz could, so we get to take up a lot of space with quotes, which saves Buzz from having to think too much.

Johnson was an independent contractor who delivered the paper for nearly 18 years, from 1982 through June 2000, handling the Carrollton area. He says fudging the numbers is time-honored tradition at the paper, going back to the mid-'80s.

"There was a difference, though," Johnson says. "Back then, the contractors would beef up their numbers to win a cruise for a week or something but then bring the numbers back when the contest was over...That went on for at least 15, 16 years."

He once testified on the DMN's behalf in the mid-1980s when the Dallas Times Herald sued the paper for overstating circulation gains. He admits now that he lied.

"To this day, I feel pretty bad about what I did," he says. "I mean, you're under oath. And yet, you're thinking, 'I've gotta protect my job, my livelihood here...I could have said so much. We were dumping hundreds of papers. I wanted to keep my job. It was a sad, sad situation."

He says DMNmanagers knew about it and were complicit in it, as it helped the bottom line. But beginning with a new automated "draw" system in 1999, he says, the paper decided to screw the contractors by making them pay for the circ gains those managers were being ordered to produce.

The contractors would come in and find out what their new territory was and how many papers they would have to draw, or pay for to throw them. They had to sign a contract verifying that the numbers were good. Johnson kept meticulous database notes on software he developed so that his were always accurate.

"So when they started an automated draw system in '99, and the split came, the numbers were wrong," he says. The paper would give each contractor too many papers every day. Morning after morning, Johnson would watch as contractors would walk into DMN managers' offices saying the numbers are wrong.

"They never did fix it," he says. "I was off 300 papers [a day]. That might not sound like a lot, but when you're paying for those papers every day, it is." He says--and other contractors who've contacted Buzz confirm--that they were losing anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 a month from their paychecks.

"I told them this isn't even close," Johnson says. "They said yes, it is. So I showed them my paperwork and compared subscribers...I was told, 'You know what, you have two options: Sign it, or don't. If you want to work for us, you sign it.'...They knew I needed the job. I needed it. So I signed it."

It took only a year, he says, to lead him to "absolute financial ruin. I'd never been that low in my life. I really liked what I was doing. I didn't want to change."

Not that Johnson didn't try to make others aware. Before he left, he met with a vice president of circulation, Jeff Beckley. He told him what was happening. "His response was 'Wow, this is hard to believe. Gotta run!' I knew then that it was pointless."

Beckley, Buzz has learned, was brought in to the paper in 1999 from the Audit Bureau of Circulation--the company that is to this day responsible for verifying circ claims by newspapers. Beckley eventually went on to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He quit the same week the Morning News announced its own investigation into past circulation practices. The publisher of the AJC did not return a call seeking comment.

After he left, Johnson's wife made one last effort to alert the paper to circulation wrongdoing. She e-mailed a member of the Belo board and told him about the circulation scandal. They traded e-mails as he asked for more details. In 2001, the ABC conducted a major surprise audit of the paper, Johnson says his friends told him. "I told my wife, 'Looks like someone listened.'

"Which is why I was so surprised that it was still apparently going on," he says. "I've seen so many people whose lives have been hurt by the Morning News, and I'd hoped they'd changed." He says that now that the investigators who are conducting the internal investigation for the Morning News have contacted him, perhaps they will.

 
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