Deciphering the News

Belo's answers raise more questions

Buzz isn't going to gloat at the news that The Dallas Morning News is going to lay off 150 people (250 total will be let go Belowide) this month. We've been fired, we've had friends laid off, we've been at companies that have shut down--ain't none of it no fun. Even though it's often good business to cut costs, the cost cutting usually seriously screws with people's lives, and that's not something you mock.

But a CEO giving complete and total b.s. answers in the wake of announcing these layoffs--now that's right in Buzz's wheelhouse. Giddyup.

A recap: Last Thursday, Belo big dog Robert Decherd made two major announcements. One, that their self-investigation into the circulation overstatement scandal (conducted by an outside Chicago law firm) was complete, and he had the report in hand, and he had even read it, and this report confirmed that they were overstating how many papers they were actually getting in front of readers by about a hundred thousand. Two, that Belo, in a completely unrelated move--let's retype that for those who think there has to be a typo there--in a completely unrelated move, would lay off 250 people by November 1. Decherd then held separate conference calls with investors and the media in which he said the following (Decherd comments in bold, Buzz comments follow):

Advertisers "mean everything to us as a company."

Clearly, readers mean something to them as a company, because they faked having so many of them, but it's good to know which group means "everything."

Dallas presents "market-specific challenges, because it's not growing at the rate we want it to grow."

And, if a city isn't growing at a rate that lets you gouge advertisers and stuff your pockets, what is a publishing company with a primary mission of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable to do? Oh, oh, we know! They...

Institute "a reduction in force."

Well, that sounds almost pleasant. No one likes too much force. But employing a reduction in force, well that might actually energize a person.

"We have turned a corner...and we are energized by the strategy focus I have described."

See! See!

Nine hundred advertiser rebate checks to make good for the circ overstatement have been returned as undeliverable.

Send those to Buzz. We'll make sure they get to where they need to be. (Off topic: National Check Cashers takes 10 percent off the top, right?)

The firm that did the internal circ investigation conducted 140 interviews.

Weird. Because within a few hours after Decherd said this, Buzz talked to three former single-copy delivery contractors, each of whom said they were never interviewed, each of whom told us that the problem was far worse than Belo now admits. One of them, Bryan Coday, who worked there from 1997 to 2001, says his two messages for the investigators were never returned. "Everybody there in management knew what was going on," Coday says. "If they say they didn't, they're lying." He then mentioned several names of managers still working in circulation who he said had direct knowledge of the circ-inflating tactics.

The people responsible for the circ overstatement are no longer there.

Double weird! Because the day after Decherd made this statement, at least four people in the circulation department at the DMN were laid off--an action that, let's remind everyone, has nothing to do with the circ scandal. You know what's triple weird about that? Some of those names matched up with the names Coday mentioned. Quadruple weird is that Belo is currently facing six shareholder lawsuits related to this circ scandal. Quintuple weird is that if you fire someone in circ before you announce the layoffs, you could be admitting, in certain people's eyes, that these people knew what was going on and that perhaps the scandal was common knowledge, as these and other contractors allege. But--and, seriously, this is, like, extremely coincidental--if you fire them as part of a companywide layoff, you can say it had nothing to do with the circulation fudging, that it was just a big company adjusting its balance sheet.

Belo won't make public the circ scandal report.

Hey, hey, hey, settle down. Media companies ask you to be open and honest and forthcoming, but the First Amendment means they don't have to do the same. At least the way Buzz reads it.

OK, seriously, here's the deal. Over the past few days, we talked to a dozen or so of the reporters and editors at Belo who could be laid off. They understand that they work for a corporation, and businesses sometimes have to lay people off. That's not the reason they're so bitter. They're angry because they see the company spending money in Collin County and on Quick and on Al Dia. They're angry because they have no faith in the people who lead their company, especially now that those people found a way to exonerate themselves in the paper's biggest crisis ever.

"You take the big money, you take the responsibility," one longtime staffer says, summing up the complaints Buzz heard. "We can all understand hard times. But no one believes this isn't at least partially tied to the circulation debacle. This is a business mess, not a journalism mess they've gotten us into. But the journalists will pay, and the businessmen will not. That's why we've lost faith in this so-called revolution."

 
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