The most telling announcement Dallas Morning News President and Editor Bob Mong made last week was the one he didn't. Mong, in a memo to staff, detailed sweeping changes in management designed to help kick-start a "revolution," a word used repeatedly by Publisher James Moroney. A new No. 2 editor, George Rodrigue, was named to be Mr. Spock to Mong's Captain Kirk. An editor from Newsweek was hired. The longtime No. 2, Stuart Wilk, was "promoted" to help study the future of newspapers. In all, more than a dozen senior-level editors were named or reassigned.
But one top-level editor was not named: a metro editor. The former metro editor, who directs coverage of local news (police, courts, city council, etc.), was moved to the editorial pages. So why not have someone ready to go in that position, especially since the management revolution had been discussed by Mong and Moroney for more than eight months? (Mong expects to have the position filled soon, possibly by week's end.)
According to several newsroom sources, hyperactive Moroney demanded that Mong, loyal and contemplative almost to a fault, hire a metro editor from outside the paper. Moroney says new blood from outside is vital to a corporation, and sources say he overrode Mong, who wanted at least to consider promoting from within. "It shows what's really going on here," says a management source. "That Moroney is the one driving this revolution talk, and he wants change for change's sake. Everything we used to do is bad; everything new is good. You can argue whether or not he's right, but you can't stop him. That's clear."
Mong says the idea that he's not the captain of the editorial ship is absurd. "It's fair to say that Jim [Moroney] felt that the metro editor should come from outside," Mong says. "But these are not Jim's moves, not Jim's hires. It's not true. If they think that, they have no idea how this place works."
Mong does acknowledge that he wants these changes to have a mix of continuity along with new voices from outside. Moroney, who recently promised reporters a "tsunami of change," says simply, "You don't make significant change without changing people." But, he says, contrary to popular newsroom opinion, he and Mong are on the same page, partners in crime, drinking the same Kool-Aid. "People think it must be Jim doing this because I'm always running around with my hair on fire," Moroney says. "And, yeah, I'm more of a cheerleader; Bob is more cerebral. But we're both change agents. Bob is on board with change."
Mong's announcements detail what those changes are. But they don't explain why change is needed at the paper, how they will help stem a readership decline or whether, despite their public displays of solidarity, he and Moroney can get along long enough to see through the full effects of the changes they're enacting.
The changes made in upper management at the Morning News will not mean much except to the few media gossips in town who populate happy hours and online blogs. Initially, most readers will see little difference in their Belo product. Newsroom naysayers swear, however, that if the "old guard" really has been moved out--some take an "I'll believe it when I see it" approach--their investigative juices will now flow unabated, eventually unleashing a tidal wave of reportorial genius that shall cleanse Dallas and Collin County of all that ails it.
Moroney buys this theory, at least in part. He was the one who announced more than a year ago that the paper was dying because of its arrogance and staid ways. The paper needed, he says, a revolution to save itself, new attitudes that will help spur more investigative stories and more pieces that connect with readers.
Not everyone is convinced the revolution is upon them. "How do you have a revolution when the guy in charge is still in charge?" asks a newsroom veteran. "C'mon. So everything that was wrong with the paper was Stu's fault? He's the fall guy for everything? C'mon."
Mong says this is a legitimate question. He says Wilk's change from No. 2 to well-titled news industry analyst is not a demotion, but something that needs to happen because anyone stuck in the same job nine years needs new challenges. (As though the daily travails of a major metro newspaper could possibly become monotonous.) He says he's just trying to find the right fit for current and new employees.
"This whole thing was classic Mong," says a longtime staffer. He says Mong has seemingly changed the leaders of the News, but in fact he's mostly put true outsiders in positions of little influence and has longtime managers who are loyal to him in the most important roles. "Moroney says he was aiming for the kind of change, in terms of going after tough stories and important stories, that was so dramatic no one could complain," the staffer says. "This ain't it. I really don't know if he realizes how little this will change things."
This is the sort of conjecture that spreads in a newsroom. Mong masterfully kept the status quo. Mong didn't want to do any of this but went along only because Moroney made him. Mong is now corrupted by Moroney, who believes change for change's sake is necessary. That these theories contradict doesn't seem to matter.
It's true that promoting Rodrigue, the man who will run the newsroom day to day, was a move Mong embraced. He hired Rodrigue more than two decades ago. Rodrigue has won two Pulitzer Prizes, which fits with Mong and Moroney's desire to increase the paper's investigative bent and Mong's goal of making sure that top editors have also been top writers. It's an example of where the two are clearly "on the same page," as Moroney says.
But several newsroom sources say the relationship between Mong and Moroney is strained, primarily because of Moroney's charge for change at any price. "I think it's fair to say that Bob feels Jim sometimes oversteps his boundaries as publisher," says a manager at the paper. "But Bob is in a tough spot. He's trying to serve a lot of masters."
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Mong says yes, they are two different people with clearly different styles, and yes, they do get pissed at each other because they are both strong-willed. But he says he and Moroney get along very well on the whole "because Jim wants people who bring their 'A' game every day, and I do, too."
Moroney says they are working in concert and that the changes are to make the paper more aggressive, leaner, snappier. This is necessary, he says, to attract and retain readers as habits and culture change. (A reason he says Quick is so successful. See Buzz.) It's necessary to halt a circulation decline that is hitting the entire industry. (The Morning News this week reported a decline in weekday and Sunday circulation from last year.) It's necessary to stay relevant.
"We'll correct it," Moroney says. "We've made important changes all over the paper. I think we're about to hit the upside. All of the people are just about in place. Now it's just a matter of will and execution."
Mong goes even further, saying the heat just got turned up on those doing the most griping. "I guarantee you this staff is about to be tested," he says. "The folks here who've been talking change, saying they want to see big changes, I want to see if they can live with change. If they can't, they'll be gone. Simple as that."