At the Ripping Point

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

In fairness, the paper did manage to wall off its best hard-news and investigative reporters from the layoff wave that landed a few weeks ago. In searching for good news, several reporters I talked to said they were somewhat heartened that none of the paper's "best and brightest" were let go. One staffer even rejoiced to me that the people laid off were dead weight and claimed the only thing making her happy was that at least management knew to get rid of hangers-on.

The layoffs, however, showed an incredible lack of understanding for what readers grow attached to--trust me, Larry Powell's pet column or a Doug Bedell video game review is more thoroughly read than any investigation the paper has ever or will ever produce. And it's true that the biggest stars remain. There are many top-notch reporters at the paper who can produce top-tier journalism. Pete Slover, Lee Hancock, Holly Becka, Brooks Egerton, Reese Dunklin: These people will not let the paper slide into mediocrity without a fight.

But their battle is a losing one. Because the forces they can't control--the forces Moroney continues to marshal--are more powerful than any person who types for a living can battle.

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."

Heading the fight is the Harvard MBA army known as McKinsey & Company.

Scan the Web site of McKinsey & Company, one of the oldest and largest consulting firms in the world, and you find this headline: "Example of Our Work: Newspaper Gets a Rightful Share of the Marketplace."

"One of the oldest and largest general circulation newspapers in the United States needed help reorganizing its advertising sales effort in a recession," the explanation reads. "The McKinsey team stressed the need to make big changes."

It's impossible to know for sure if they're talking about the Morning News, because McKinsey has a no-comment policy to the media. Which is just one reason someone should be wary of paying the firm, which commands millions of dollars for its consultations from clients as diverse as United Airlines, TXU and the city of Dallas (see "Surrender Now!" by Jim Schutze, November 11). If they're so distrustful of the media, why were they hired to help remake a media company?

But hired they were. Internal memos show that Moroney asked McKinsey & Company to evaluate his entire business operations--advertising, marketing, circulation. He says, quite reasonably, that any company going through changes must take both internal and external advice if it's going to realize what needs to be done. It makes sense in just about every business. Except, say many disgruntled staffers, in the unique world of journalism.

According to people who've worked with and for the company, here's the standard McKinsey game plan. They march in a bunch of young Harvard MBAs or similar clones. They interview managers and staff and observe same. They conduct efficiency studies--what they'd say about a reporter waking up at 4 a.m. to finish a story due at 10 a.m. is anyone's guess, but let's just suppose they would call this "inefficient"--and report back to management. Then they take their findings and put them in context with that industry. How is this done? Why, by looking at the latest reports on the state of that industry--done by McKinsey industry researchers, naturally--and determining if the client is following the path these reports suggest. The reports they wrote. In other words, they come in and tell you if you're doing what they've said you should be doing, and if they find you're not, they tell you to get off your big arse and start doing it.

On the biz side, this was fairly innocuous. They revamped the way salespeople get paid, made it easier for folks to suggest changes, yada yada. Fine.

After that, McKinsey's people did something that is also standard operating procedure. They got themselves hired by the client in hugely influential positions. In February 2003, 30-year-old Jason Kays, a management consultant with McKinsey, was named vice president of advertising marketing with the DMN. Moroney said at the time that "Jason's experience with McKinsey makes him an ideal person to lead this organizational change process." The one suggested by McKinsey.

Last month, in the wake of the circulation scandal--the one that somehow evaded the watchful eye of the McKinsey MBAs--Kays, 32, was again promoted. His new title: vice president, circulation. This was announced the same day that Editor Bob Mong was stripped of his title of president in the company. The symbolism couldn't be clearer.

Or maybe it could: Four days later, Moroney named Cynthia Carr, 32, to replace Kays as vice president of advertising marketing. She had been director of business development for a short time before that. From 2000 to 2004, she was a consultant for McKinsey.

Granted, there's nothing inherently sinister about working for McKinsey. It's where Chelsea Clinton works. It's where consultant Jeffrey Skilling was employed before he became Enron CEO, before he was indicted for fraud and insider trading. But I digress. The point is that if you think these consultants and their cousins, the people who run focus groups, aren't also determining the direction of the paper's editorial product, you're not paying attention. Remember when Moroney talks about circulation and building readership and better financial performance making the paper stronger? Where do you think that comes from? The sports section? Texas Living? Page 1 stories on how mean Dallas is to the homeless? Steve Blow columns on how we should, post-election, hold hands and sing "Kumbaya"? The former editor and president who is now just an editor?

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