At the Ripping Point

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


The problem with a bet-the-company choice is that you may lose the bet.

Maybe it's a gamble worth taking. Moroney certainly thinks so. He told the staff, "We won't be the same paper." When someone criticized the "At a Glance" sideways monstrosity and the paper's out-of-control quest for light readers, he countered that it was the right thing to do. "This was researched heavily," he said. Of course it was.

This gets to the core problem with the core product.

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."

Nearly two years ago, Bob Mong was ready to lead the DMN to new journalistic heights. He was invigorated and aggressive. He confidently declared that he had a challenge for the staff. It wasn't something that he'd "researched heavily." It was a challenge based on a lifetime in newspapers. He wanted to know the answer to the following:

"Do we really have enough people who believe that we can get better? A lot better? We're a very good paper. Can we become great? What I'm betting on here is that's what most of them want. Most people come in here wanting to make a difference and be the best at what they do...So I'm betting. I'm betting that the energy level is there and the aggressiveness is there, the collaboration is there, the willingness to do more is there. That's the big bet."

Turns out, that wasn't the bet. As a reporter told me last week when I recalled this quote, this is now the challenge:

"Can we be a kick-ass newspaper if we're trimming staff, scaring good people from coming here, making the good people who are here send out résumés, and generally demoralizing the staff? That's what we're gambling with here. We're bluffing at a pot with all the talent we have. And if we're more worried about putting out Quick and picking up readers in Plano than covering City Hall, we lose that bet. We're called on that bet. Whatever. I don't play poker. But you get my point. George [Rodrigue, Mong's No. 2] and Bob say that's not the case, and maybe it's not for them. But I think it is for the publisher and [CEO Robert] Decherd."

Moroney says that analysis is silly.

"It's ridiculous to say that we can't be a great paper because we've only got 500-something people in our newsroom," Moroney says. "How were we great 20 years ago or 30 years ago? Look, our number-one challenge is to get the morale of the employees where it needs to be...And the second is to restart the circulation growth of the newspaper." Again, whether one feeds two or two feeds one is the question for the staff. A vital one.

Moroney also points out that even though Belo's many different content providers reuse information in many different ways, each of these entities has its own staff. It's not as though a DMN reporter is being asked to be an anchor and write HTML. He or she still must produce great journalism, he says, and there are enough people in place at other organizations to take his or her content and repackage it as needed.

While the many staffers I talked to acknowledge this, they say he doesn't understand the mental drain that takes place when you feel your managers see your work that way. Management's lack of focus stifles creativity and dampens morale, they say.

Moroney, the staff says, in his fevered efforts to find something, anything to fix the paper, is indeed making a big bet while holding few cards. For one simple reason: Convergence doesn't work in a newsroom. Not without turning a newspaper into something that isn't a newspaper.

This isn't just the staff's opinion. The Online Publishers Association earlier this year published a telling article by New York Times technology contributor Mark Glaser that looked in depth at the real and overblown effects of convergence for media companies, the grand idea that says you can do more immediate journalism dispersed through TV, print, the Internet and cell phones with fewer people, so long as you combine your media forces.

"Instead," Glaser writes, "the early convergence experiments combining print, broadcast and online operations are finding that they need more people to do more work." He goes on to debunk several myths now held dear at Belo, including that convergence will save you money or jobs and that you can increase circulation without adding more staff. (It does help you, he says, in terms of PR and "branding," hardly a reason to bet the company.)

Why won't these principles of convergence work in a newsroom when they work at a cereal company or a tire manufacturer?

Any journalist can tell you. You just have to ask them instead of the suits.

Because newspaper reporters and editors are stupid people who got into this business for silly, romantic notions. They wanted to help people. They wanted to tell great stories. They wanted to call themselves " a writer." They wanted to use their ego for good instead of evil.

True, along the way, they usually forget that. They spawn and they acquire a mortgage and they start to become bitter about the fact they know people who are dumber than they are making sweet money as a lawyer or a real estate agent or, heaven forbid, a consultant. They start to ask why they're still trudging to work, buttonholing city officials who hate them, asking mean questions, struggling to make enough sense out of a shooting or a drug bust to write 18 inches of copy that tries desperately to put it in perspective.

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