By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Tell you what," the staffer said. "Why don't you go stack those on [Publisher] Jim Moroney's desk?"
Such is the bitterness that still fills the hallways on Young Street in the wake of last month's layoffs. The sullen lifer mentality that dominated the newsroom for so long has given way to a barely contained seethe, an omnidirectional anger that disperses blame for the depressed state of the paper. Dozens of newsroom staff, editors and writers alike, say morale has never been so low.
With good reason. The Dallas Morning News has undergone a series of setbacks the past several years that have rocked the faithful and enlivened the cynical. Yes, Belo is still a strong overall media company. It owns, in addition to the Morning News, 19 television stations (including WFAA-Channel 8) and three other newspapers. The company brings in $1.4 billion in revenue, and analysts say that Belo, as a whole, is doing fine. But growth at the paper, the jewel of Belo, has been relatively small in recent years and is projected to be flat next year. At least some of its problems, editorially and financially, can be traced to its parade of follies.
It began in the late '90s with a declaration of war against the Fort Worth Star-Telegram when the DMN launched the now-defunct Arlington Morning News--a war Belo lost handily. It extended to the $37 million investment in the spectacular technological failure known as CueCat. (It's the screw-up that keeps on giving: Complaining staffers referred to CueCat in almost every conversation with the Dallas Observer.) The multimillion-dollar launch of the Texas version of CNN, TXCN, soon followed, a mistake that Belo says it will sell off or close down. These were followed by an expensive expansion into Collin County that has yielded almost no new readers, a push to cover suburbs that is being scaled back and a hurried launch of a blurb-filled free daily paper, Quick, to capture readers who don't read.
Wait, there's more: a debut of a Spanish-language paper, Al Dia, that is performing well below expectations, despite management's insistence that it is "on plan." (They do admit Quick revenue is down.) This was capped off earlier this year by a circulation scandal that has cost the paper nearly $30 million in settlements to advertisers. A scandal in which management places the blame on the drivers who delivered the paper. But, according to management, the scandal had nothing to do with this month's layoffs--250 people Belo-wide, about 150 at the News alone--a ridiculous statement that the paper's editors would never let someone get away with in one of their news stories.
The weight of these wrongheaded moves has all but crushed the spirit of the Morning News. In casual and on-background conversations with dozens of reporters and editors during the past five years, I've seen the staff depression build and wane. Occasionally the paper would produce something to be proud of--its series on how the Catholic Church protects many of its sex-shamed clergy, or its special section examining whether the city of Dallas was "at a tipping point," ready to fail--and the loyalists would shout down the staff naysayers. But the past two weeks have brought an onslaught of condemnations from all corners. A funk has filled the place. Like Democrats or Dallas Cowboys, the entire team seems ready to admit its fear for the institution's future.
"One of the reasons the DMN won its first newspaper war versus the [Dallas Times] Herald was a willingness to spend money on a good product," says a longtime manager, summarizing the feeling of many. "Its reversal on this very point is one of the reasons it will eventually lose its fight for its life. It's far too easy to go online and get most of the kind of coverage that the DMN will now offer. It has gutted what made it a unique reading destination and drastically drained its talent to boot. I've heard so many people say, 'Who would have thought the paper could fall so far, so fast?'"
Even Moroney, the wunderkind publisher who most recently was heard shouting that he was leading a revolution, admits he's depressed. In a companywide meeting held two weeks ago, he told the room as much. "Someone stopped me in the hallway and later e-mailed me and said I looked sad," he told the throng. "And I e-mailed back and said yes, but it's OK to be sad. Everyone has to go through this grieving together." And, if you need someone to be angry at, he said, "be angry at me. I won't get angry back at you."
This is good. Because despite his closing statements of optimism--"We're going to make this better," he said--the blame for the paper's decline is being placed squarely on Moroney. In fact, the staff is most upset because it feels duped by him and his talk of "revolution," which, in their eyes, means half-ass attempts to capture light readers and an increasing dumbing-down of the rest of the paper.