At the Ripping Point

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

No. It's the advertising staff. The sales staff. That's who's buggering this cat.

If you're not clear on this yet, consider a recent example.

Weeks ago, Walt Stallings, the senior deputy managing editor, told the Metro desk that they were reducing the number of zone sections (news from the 'burbs, where those new eyeballs are) they produce each week from 20 to 11. (One per week per zone, except Collin County, which produces 48 or somesuch.) This was announced to the staff.

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."

Before we go on, understand that this is not something that Stallings, a well-respected editor, thought up at Starbucks that morning. This decision was not determined by shipping in an idiot savant to read the sports agate and determine the best course of action for the paper. This was a Big Decision. It involved circulation, marketing, advertising and editorial. There is one person at the DMN who oversees all these departments: Moroney.

The Metro staff, by the way, was quite relieved. It had been begging for zoned-edition cutbacks for months, because it didn't have enough reporters to keep publishing 20 sections. Then, after the layoffs, which took out another half-dozen or so zone reporters, it seemed impossible. So they welcomed this new strategy for that reason, but also because of what it said symbolically: The emphasis needs to be on the grown-up paper, what we like to call the core product, doing great downtown stories about the city's important issues.

On Monday last week, in what was described as "an emergency meeting," Moroney said, uh, actually, that isn't going to happen. He said the cutback would be only to 16 sections produced a week. According to accounts of the meeting, he told those assembled that the advertising department had raised hell after the change was announced because they hadn't been consulted. Even though the sections are losing "in the ballpark of $2 million a year," says one manager, the ad department says they'll lose even more if they're cut back. Then Moroney said he'd never signed off on the plan. The Metro staff felt like they'd taken a swift kick to the 'nads.

The idea that the publisher hadn't already OK'd that decision--and then retreated in the face of the ad department's pressure--is prevalent. "Can't be true [that he didn't sign off on the deal]," says a manager. "Either that, or Mong signed off and now he loses face. Doesn't matter in the long run. Metro is fucked over in a big way. Work schedules changed, now changed back. It's more grist for those in the newsroom who wonder, with some justification, if anyone knows what the hell we're doing."

Of course, there is someone who knows. Some thing, actually. McKinsey & Company.

Maybe that's overstating it. A bunch of consultants from McKinsey aren't sitting in a big conference room on the fifth floor telling people how to run the paper. At least, I can't prove they are.

But if you listen to Moroney talk about being "consumer-driven" and changing the paper's marketing strategy and bringing in consultants who, like himself, were not brought up in a newsroom--the heart of the core product--then the seemingly desperate, willy-nilly attempts by the paper to capture new readers make sense. It's what the people who aren't newspaper people say a newspaper has to do to survive.

It's not just Moroney. Mong, who was raised in newsrooms, says that a strength of the paper is that it is strategic- and goal-oriented, two things he says consultants like McKinsey help bring to the paper. "Whatever consulting they've done has been value-added," he says. "They have not determined how to run the company."

Still, given McKinsey's (debatable) influence, the paper's wrenching changes shouldn't surprise anyone. Ten years ago McKinsey put out a paper called "Navigating the Multimedia Landscape" in which it said, in typical Harvard MBA-nese:

"Businesses that assemble content into products for specific markets and that provide marketing support and access relevant distribution channels...will undergo significant change as new formats compete for consumer and business customers...As these technologies provoke technological, market and competitive discontinuities, they will inevitably alter the set of skills needed to compete successfully."

Translated: As people start getting their news on the Internet and through wireless phones and mobile devices, other products like your ol' newspaper may experience a "discontinuity." So what is a media company publisher to do?

"Senior managers of many companies need to make choices--often 'bet the company' choices--about opportunities for value creation and, even more frequently, about the threat of large-scale value destruction."

That's what Jim Moroney is doing. He's making a "bet the company" choice. A choice that by hell or by high water, he is not going to oversee the financial decline of his newspaper. And he's convinced that the way to do this is to "shift content." Do market research. Get the hausfraus to tell you what they want to read. Get the consultants to tell you how to package, seal and deliver it.

And if all those people tell you they want little blurbs and funny cutlines and pretty color pictures and community news and stuff that isn't so mean and more funny pages and a bigger TV guide and not so many big words all wrapped up in a nice little high-energy eye-pleasing kiss-my-sweet-butt-that's-pretty design, then dammit that's what they're going to get.

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