Dallas' Only Daily has suffered a trio of major-league defections.
The first is the departure of business editor Karen Blumenthal for the Dallas bureau of the Wall Street Journal.
Blumenthal, 35, became News business editor about two years ago, after a long stint as a reporter at the Journal. Along with executive business editor Gary Jacobson (hired at the same time, from USA Today), she attempted the de-ossification of the News' intensely traditional business coverage.
The pair enjoyed modest success. During the first year of their tenure, they executed a wholesale reshuffling of business beats--a tricky political task; many reporters had patrolled the same turf for years--added short, USA Today-type stories to brighten up (albeit frivolously) the business page, and boosted the number of enterprise stories. They also halted the arrogant, longstanding practice of rewriting wire-service stories to put a News reporter's byline on them.
But the News business section has always been a gray bastion of traditional coverage, focusing on corporate earnings reports, rosy local business profiles, government business statistics, and handouts. It's largely a result of the News' historical deference to the Dallas business community--perfectly represented on the A.H. Belo board of directors--which has no interest in the sort of aggressive, enterprising coverage of corporate screwups, personality conflicts, egotism, and greed that has made business reporting elsewhere gripping stuff.
The Jacobson-Blumenthal section remained so wary of a Thermidoran reaction that it papered even a minor change in the stock tables with apologetic editors' notes and explanations. Real estate reporter Steve Brown, the business writer with the coziest relationship with his industry, remained in place after the Great Beat Shakeup. And the enterprise stories, in recent months, have been fewer and further between.
Blumenthal, who has two young children, told BeloWatch her departure "was more of a lifestyle decision than a career move. The demands of the News job consumed the hours my children were awake."
But she tacitly acknowledged some frustrations. "It's a complicated process to bring about change," she said. "We always said it was a work in progress. I think we made some progress." She diplomatically declined to elaborate, saying, "I'm not interested in blowing up bridges."
On October 17, Blumenthal moved back to the Journal, where she now works as deputy bureau chief, splitting her time between writing and editing. The 10-man Dallas bureau covers eight states for the Journal.
"The Journal made me a really nice offer," says Blumenthal. "It's a very special place. It fit with my desire to seek some balance in my life between work and home."
Blumenthal's departure from the News has also freed her from the gag rule the paper imposes on its staff. "As a journalist, I feel we have a responsibility to talk to the press." But if you defied the gag order and did so at the News, she said, "it didn't do you any good."
Blumenthal, one of the highest-ranking women at the News, is being replaced by Mindy Fetterman, who previously worked with Jacobson on the "Money" section at USA Today.
For readers, a more visible absence from the business page is Tom Steinert-Threlkeld, the paper's prolific technology writer.
Steinert-Threlkeld, a Harvard-educated reporter who worked at the News for six years, has left to become "interactive services editor" for a new Ziff-Davis trade publication called Interactive Week.
He declined to discuss his reasons for leaving the News with BeloWatch, citing the column's past treatment of him and his work. But sources at the paper said Steinert-Threlkeld wanted to focus his attentions more intensely on specific technology issues, rather than continuing to cover a more general beat for a lay audience.
The third defection is Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington reporter Anne Reifenberg, also lured to the Wall Street Journal.
Reifenberg, who has not yet begun her new job, could not be reached for comment.
But News Washington bureau chief Carl Leubsdorf confirmed details of her departure.
Reifenberg coveted assignment to the News' Berlin bureau, vacated a few months earlier by George Rodrique, who is now in the Washington bureau.
But while she was awaiting an offer, the Journal offered her the position as its international oil writer, based in Houston.
The News responded in early October by telling Reifenberg she could have the Berlin job. But it was too late.
"She got the [Journal] offer, and we made the decision and offered her Berlin," Leubsdorf told BeloWatch. "She decided to accept the Journal offer."
Reifenberg, who worked in the News Washington bureau for seven years, had most recently covered energy and health-care issues. She shared in the paper's sixth Pulitzer Prize, for international reporting, by contributing to the paper's series on "Violence Against Women."
But is it high in polyunsaturates?
From the October 22, "Corrections, Clarifications" column of the Morning News:
"On page 36A of Friday's Metropolitan section, a story about emus, rheas, and ostriches transposed the relatives sizes of rheas and emus. Adult emus can be as large as 150 pounds. Rheas are about 50 pounds lighter. Also, the story should have said that both emu and rhea fat can be rendered to produce a commercially useful oil."
It is with increasing frequency, BeloWatch believes, that Dallas' paper of record simply ignores newsworthy facts--or entire stories--that aren't to its management's liking.
The shameful failure to print a single word about the News' own lengthy labor conflict--the battle that led to the ouster of the Dallas Typographical Union, the paper's last remaining union--is one example.
The News' coverage of the annual Dallas Press Club Katie Awards offers another.
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Kendall Anderson's October 23 12-inch story, listing the top winners in the journalism contest, was quite routine--except for its wholesale omission of the pesky Dallas Observer.
Predictably (and appropriately, in a paper of record), the News--which took the most Katies, 18--got top mention. Belo-owned WFAA-Channel 8, also a big winner (12 Katies), the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (7), and the recipient of a special community service got mentioned next.
The only other media outlet Anderson cited? The Houston Post--even though the Observer won more Katies than the Post, both overall (seven) and in the division that allows it to compete head-to-head against the major dailies (three, compared to the Post's two).
Anderson, a News intern, tells BeloWatch: "I made no attempt to ignore the Observer," but mentioned the Post because she was told the Houston paper had done better than in past years.