At the Ripping Point

Dallas' only daily finds itself losing a war for readers' eyeballs and the heart of its staff

Worse, they worry that the quality of their journalism is secondary to the financial health of the company, because Moroney constantly ties together the financial and editorial aspects of the DMN's performance. Ties it together in a backassward way. To the staff, he seems to be saying that only a robust, growing, highly profitable DMNcan produce a great newspaper and everyone must work hard to see that this happens. Left unsaid is that the old way of thinking--we're profitable only because we're a great paper--is gone.

But even if you buy that management has its priorities screwed up--and Moroney and Editor Bob Mong say vehemently this is not true, that everything begins and ends with putting out a great paper--you're missing the point. The DMN will never be what it used to be. Everything the paper is today is designed to make it something else, something altogether new and exciting, something to fit into Belo's plan for convergence, the buzz word that has been floating around the place for years. That means that all Belo employees--WFAA-Channel 8, Belo Interactive, Quick, Al Dia, the DMN--are working for one media company that gathers information and disseminates it a hundred different ways. That is the company's vision, and everything that the employees bitch about is integral to that vision. Under this plan, they don't write great stories. They gather information to be processed and fed into the Belo conveyer belt, and all the media properties can use it when it's spit out the other end.

Why would they want to do this? Because Moroney believes it is the only way the paper will survive.

Jim Moroney gives himself a failing grade  
as publisher during the paper's tumultuous  

past year.
Mark Graham
Jim Moroney gives himself a failing grade as publisher during the paper's tumultuous past year.
Editor Bob Mong says the best way for the paper to get on track is "we get back quickly to breaking great stories."
Mark Graham
Editor Bob Mong says the best way for the paper to get on track is "we get back quickly to breaking great stories."

Why does he believe that?

The answer to that question gets to the heart of who is really running the Southwest's largest paper.

Moroney believes this because that's what the consultants tell him.


"I feel like a failing student," Moroney told his employees at the companywide meeting. A meeting that was more sparsely attended than in years past; not a good sign.

Moroney told the staff that he took full responsibility for the poor performance in every area--circulation, readership, customer focus, financial performance, profit from the zoned editions of the paper. "When you review down the line, we were not successful" in 2004, he told the crowd.

It was a less than inspiring speech.

"Look, it's on me," Moroney says from his car phone the following week. He is, as always, polite and forthright, willing to take tough questions and answer them without rancor. It's what makes so many staffers like and respect him when they deal with the publisher face-to-face. It's also why so many of them are upset at him personally as well as professionally.

"If you're the CEO of a company," he continues, "you are responsible for its results. There may be very good reasons things are where they are, why you're struggling. But at the end of the day, I feel responsible for the operating results of The Dallas Morning News."

Taking responsibility is not enough for some. "I like the guy," one manager says. "But let's look at this dispassionately. Name one thing--one thing--he's done right. One thing that has worked. I can't."

"What I wanted to hear at that meeting," says a longtime newsroom employee, "was very simple. I wanted my leader--who I thought was [Editor] Bob Mong, but I guess it's the publisher--to tell me all you have to worry about is putting out a fucking great paper. Just do that. We'll do our job. We'll make enough money so we don't have to fire anyone else. I won't even tell you how, because you don't need to know. Just write great stories. End of meeting.

"Instead I was asked to help think about distribution and utilizing new technologies. And I don't even know what that means."

Moroney laid out his vision for the paper's future thus: He said the paper would have to restructure and re-examine what it has to offer, with more "customization" in mind.

Why?

Because the era of mass customization is what lies ahead for all newspapers.

Huh?

Well, that means that there will be one core product--presumably The Dallas Morning News--but that the paper must customize itself beyond that for people's individual needs and interests.

What?

There will be maybe six or seven or eight or 10 versions of the newspaper, he said.

Why?

Because readers are different now. Presumably because they're readers who don't read. They demand that the paper "shift content" to what they want to know.

Inspired yet?

"What this tells me," says a news reporter, "is that we're giving up on telling stories. We're moving toward TV--headlines and summaries. Like our new back page thing."

The reporter is correct. The "back page thing"--the summaries found on the "At a Glance" page on the back of the Metro section--is one step in the paper's movement toward capturing what management calls "the light reader." They're not the only paper doing this, of course, but again, many people came to the Morning News because of its long-standing commitment to in-depth reporting and storytelling. Not to engage in an experiment in capturing new eyeballs with a summary page.

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