Fun and Justice
A reunion seemed like a great idea. Get together 10 years after the slaying to drink heartily, remember the good times, bad times, all that was the Dallas Times Herald. Some of its former employees, who tossed the idea around for months, could meet at the great journalist's bar Joe Miller's, except that it's shut down, too. If they really wanted to have a reunion, they could invade the bar frequented by their former enemies, the staff at the victorious Dallas Morning News, except that there is no such bar because most of the Snoozies are too old, boring and respectable to regularly inhabit such an establishment, which is one reason that newspaper is still alive, dry and no dang fun.
Perhaps it's appropriate, then, that the get-together on December 9--which marked the 10-year anniversary of the day the 112-year-old Dallas Times Herald was shut down by The Dallas Morning News--never happened. "Planning and execution were never the Herald's strong suits," says a former reporter, laughing. True. And were the Morning News to organize such a gathering (and, given that the anniversary passed without mention in the Dallas Paper of Record, it's safe to say it wouldn't), hotel ballrooms would be rented out months in advance, and invitations would be sent stating appropriate attire. Best then, in the spirit of all that was the Times Herald, that any toasts by former employees to the memory of a two-newspaper town were done in solitude with, I like to imagine, a highball glass of cheap liquor.
Because the legacy of the Times Herald was just that: a working-class paper that burned your throat and warmed your gut (and, if you took in too much too fast, you just may puke). It was not a "sophisticated" paper, as the Morning News likes to see itself, even though the Herald had some great writers working there. (The best known, of course, was Molly Ivins, but scores of writers from that paper went on and proved themselves as A-list talent, including our own Jim Schutze and Robert Wilonsky.) It wanted to be a paper that spoke plainly, in the best sense of the word. When it was a truly fantastic paper, from about 1975 to 1985, and even when it was wildly uneven, in its final years, the Herald was a paper with voices that hummed.
"What distinguished the Herald were its local columnists and its great writers writing with perspective, and their desire to explore what was going on in the city," says Roy Bode, the last editor of the Times Herald. "It had writers writing with a sense of outrage, which you didn't--and still don't--find in the Morning News."
Still, does it really matter that the Times Herald is gone? Sure, Newsweek named it one of the "best five newspapers in the South," but that was 26 years ago. It's not as though folks need more news now. With local newscasts, cable television and the Internet, people are saturated with news. And to say that The Dallas Morning News is a bad paper would be ridiculous. Many smart, hard-working people put together a very thick paper every day with many stories about many things happening about town and overseas. The Morning News is packed full of so very many charts and figures and words and images that it must fully meet the needs of you, the news consumer, right?
"I think The Dallas Morning News is still one of the best papers in the country," Bode says. "There's no doubt, though, it would be better with the Herald still around."
That's really the question, isn't it: Would the News be a stronger paper today if the Herald were still published? There are good arguments for each side of this debate. To sift through the contrasting opinions, you need to know the long history and short life of the Dallas Times Herald.
"The Times Herald was a Ferrari for a few years, until we blew the engine out of it."
--Will Jarrett, former DTH managing editor and executive editor
Until the mid-'70s, the Dallas Times Herald was a typical Texas newspaper, meaning it was about as cunning and aggressive as a gerbil. In Dallas especially, newspapering was a gentleman's game. The big decisions about which stories a newspaper would cover were made in backrooms by soft white rich men in suits--politicos and corporate honchos and the like.
About 1975, the Times Mirror Corp., owner of the Herald, began to make substantive changes to editorially challenge the somnolent Morning News. During the next several years, they brought in young, talented, kick-'em-in-the-nuts-and-smile writers and editors who enjoyed angering arrogant public officials and warring with their crosstown rivals. The editor came from The Washington Post, the No. 2 man came from The Philadelphia Inquirer, and they hired folks from Detroit and Miami and New York. It quickly became the kind of paper that shook people. The kind of paper that accepts Mayor Robert Folsom into its executive offices, listens as said mayor demands that a city audit report not be written about, then laughs as that day's paper was shoved under the mayor's face, where he sees the banner headline proving it ran that very morning and hears the editor say, "Guess you don't read the morning paper, Mr. Mayor." It was a paper with balls.
"It was pure journalism," says Will Jarrett, managing editor from 1975-'81 and executive editor in 1984 and '85. "If you saw a story, you did it, and you didn't worry about the paper's overlords worrying it would hurt their chances to be on the chamber of commerce or something." The paper brought to light a crooked tax scheme at City Hall, reported on every minority killed by a law enforcement officer in the state, cast the first doubts on the exaggerated tales of Henry Lee Lucas. Later, Schutze and a feisty new columnist named Laura Miller joined well-known voices such as Ivins in calling people out who had previously skirted scrutiny. "Pretty soon," Jarrett says, "people realized you'd have to answer to the Times Herald."
It started to change when Times Mirror, then a $3 billion company, stopped sinking money into its property the way Belo, then a $300 million company, was sinking money into the News. As suburban sprawl took over and the oil boom went bust, circulation and employee retention became a Times Herald nightmare. By the late '80s, when the paper was sold again, it had become a shell of its former self, doing front-page stories on Dale Hansen's new diet. Once on par with the Morning News, it was being beaten in circulation 2-to-1.
"I continue to believe the best--and worst--thing that happened to the paper was the ownership of Times Mirror," Bode says. "They brought talented people here and helped the paper stand out. On the other hand, they operated it as a cash cow. There was a procession of upper management, folks who viewed the Herald as a stop on their way up the corporate ladder. They didn't give a damn about Dallas, and they ran when the competition got real."
The prevailing theory at the time was that the Morning News would suffer in quality because of the Herald's demise. During the past decade, though, some DMN reporters and editors have argued to me and to others that, although the city lost an important voice, the Morning News is in fact better than it was 10 years ago. The increase in ad revenue has allowed Belo to become financially stronger, and the hometown company--when not investing in high-tech surefire widgets--has put money back into the paper. More bureaus exist today than did 10 years ago. More reporters are employed. And, they say, there is another subtle benefit.
"We have more time to get stories right," a high-level editor told me over drinks a few years ago after becoming agitated when I threw out the ol' you-were-better-back-in-the-day argument. "I was reporting during the newspaper war, and it was not always the friend of good journalism. Because you were scared to death that the other paper would get something, anything, that you didn't, you went with one-source stories or allowed yourself to be manipulated. Editors were terrified that they were going to get yelled at, so the thought was that you just get something in the paper, and if it's wrong, we can correct it the next day. Better to be wrong than to have nothing when the Times Herald had it splashed across the front page. Now, we have time to be responsible, to make sure something is not only accurate but fair."
A solid argument, if you're working at, say, a weekly alternative newspaper, or even a monthly magazine. To me, though, there's nothing wrong with daily newspapering being a bit messier, a little more rough-'n'-tumble. It's that way in other cities. Not here.
Besides, fear is a great motivator.
"Now, [new editor] Bob Mong is making an impact, sure. He's very good. But there's no doubt things today are going unreported that would be if there were two aggressive newsrooms going after each other," Bode says. "Besides, I think life was probably more fun for folks at the surviving paper then, too. The competition was fun, and it was competition in the name of good journalism."
"The Herald, at its best, stood for fun and justice."
Helen Bryant remembers well how much it hurt when the Herald closed. She remembers weeks later having to visit the paper's credit union by walking through the ghostly, darkened newsroom, with files and notepads and cold coffee cups everywhere. She remembers being interviewed before she started her subsequent 10-year stint at the Morning News, when she was told yes, we want to hire you, but you'll have to lose all that "attitude," because it's not the Morning News way.
"I also remember that they hired me even though I accidentally sent them a clip in which I referred to The Dallas Morning News as a runner-up in the contest for state vegetable of Texas," the retired Bryant says, laughing. "It's a very good paper, an excellent paper, but it was just a very different paper than the Times Herald. To this day, people in Dallas tell me they miss the Times Herald; they miss that different perspective."
"Look," Jarrett says, "I don't want to come across like I'm telling the Morning News how to do their business, because in many ways it is much better than it was 10 years ago. But where I would question their commitment is not in the day-to-day reporting of events, but on the major events that really affect the city. The Trinity River project, the development of the American Airlines arena. These are issues of great importance, and they don't look at them critically. They just don't.
"They say they've matured. Yes, they have in some areas. But Belo has such a media concentration in this town that when upper management decides to give its support to something, there isn't much coverage given to the opposition, except with you guys."
Ah, yes, us guys. The other theory, espoused in this very paper several times during the past decade, is that the Dallas Observer stepped in to fill the void. New management allowed more money and resources to be devoted to covering issues The Dallas Morning News wouldn't tackle. First with Laura Miller and now with Jim Schutze, we have columnists dedicated to reporting on these big issues of which Jarrett speaks. All of which is true.
But to think that a weekly newspaper can effect change like a major-market daily is incorrect. It simply can't. Not that we don't try, and do a damn fine job of trying. But an alternative weekly, in this market, does not have the ability to focus a usually complacent citizenry on injustice and corruption like a daily newspaper can. That is where the Herald is missed.
And remembering Ivins' quote above, its sense of fun is lacking, too. It is amusing that the Morning News now tells its feature writers to use more snap, crackle and pop (a.k.a. "attitude") when telling stories. They are generally unable to, because the ethos of the place forbids it. It is not, will never be, a fun newspaper. By all accounts, the Times Herald was. When it was good, it was hard-working and hard-drinking, the kind of fun had by those high on the thrill of kicking ass and taking names. When it was bad, it was still fun, because you could say anything, write anything, try anything, and who was gonna stop you? It was the sort of place where reporters threw editors into a pool and still had their jobs on Monday. It was a time when a newspaper offered something to laugh at besides Dilbert, and if for no other reason than that, I miss the damn thing.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.