This is the discussion going on several times a month at The Dallas Morning News:
Highly paid, award-winning writer: "Hi, boss person, whazzup?"
Midlevel editor: "Hello, longtime faithful employee. I just needed to alert you to a few changes in your job description."
HPAWW: "Great! Will I be working from home now and turning in award-winning stories every other fortnight? I plan to write an elegant essay on the act of whispering. Very New Yorker."
MLE: "No, see, we've decided to go in a more, oh, say, opposite direction. We're going to try for a more newsy newspaper."
HPAWW: "Sweet. How do I fit in?"
MLE: "See, there's our quandary. Ideally, you would 'fit in' by writing more 'straight news stories,' as the kids are calling them. You know, fires and murder trials and weather stories. Meat-'n'-taters journalism."
HPAWW: [warily] "Uh-huh..."
MLE: "But, for your salary, we can get five unemployed former dotcom'ers to handle such monkeywork."
MLE: "Therefore, what I could do is try to find a compromise with you, something that wouldn't irreparably destroy your ego and spirit--since it is our fault, after all, that you've now come to believe that the only stories that truly matter are long investigative features that run in multipart series. Hell, we gave you huge raises every year just for turning in that sort of thing."
HPAWW: "I know, that's why--"
MLE: "But we've only now realized that nobody reads that crap. Except other editors. And usually not even them."
HPAWW: "What made you realize this?"
MLE: "Uh, gosh, not really sure. Might have been the tens of millions the salespeople think we'll lose this year."
HPAWW. "I see. So we're going to try this compromise thing?"
MLE: "Oh, my heavens, no. If we were going to do that, do you think that former Pulitzer Prize winners would have left or be in the process of job hunting? Do you think the rampant paranoia existent among the many HPAWWs we have here would be so pervasive? You're smarter than that, right? Surely you've been focusing that investigative, perceptive noggin of yours on this company's dealings lately, right?"
HPAWW: "Uh, well, see, I thought that since I've been loyal--"
MLE: "Long and short of it is this: We want shorter news stories from cheaper writers who won't bitch because we're keeping them from doing 'great journalism.'"
HPAWW: "Huh. And that leaves me without a job?"
MLE: "Oh, my heavens, no. We have several openings right now for which you are quite qualified. Which do you prefer: night cops or copy editor for the state desk?"
Then one of two things happens. The highly paid, award-winning writer feels the effects of years' worth of wine and brie afforded him because of his status as a HPAWW as his heart seizes up into a myocardial infarction; or he and/or his colleagues call me and complain mightily about the U.S.S. Belo's sudden change of course.
At which point I eagerly take notes and make standard noises of shared astonishment. I also utter lines meant to convey said sense of shock, something clever like, "You must be joking. Tell me more."
About now you're wondering, "Who are you talking about?" Sorry, I can't tell you that, because all these people have families, need a job, Belo is very petty and vindictive and so on. I can tell you that if you caught me in a weak moment at the right time with just the right amount of alcohol in me, I could give you four names of people who have been told, more or less, what MLE said above. True to my description above, these are four of the award-winningest writers ever to work at the News. "Bottom line, it sounds to me like they're trying to dumb down the paper," says one inside source who nearly went into seizure when I asked if I could use his name.
All of which means that, to use the words of another anonymous News tipster, the big bosses at the paper are "sick fucks" who enjoy screwing over the best and brightest as soon as those reporters get too big for their britches. Right?
Unfortunately, I don't think it's that simple. The suits at Belo may well be sick. I'm confident in saying they are humorless, which is to my mind a more troublesome character flaw. And these award-winning reporters most certainly deserve better treatment than they're getting from their bosses, given that Belo always says it won the newspaper war with the Dallas Times Herald because of its quality, and these people made up its quality.
Yet many of the complaints I hear from the people being given the shaft at the new, redesigned Morning News echo a pervasive, disturbing thought that guides too many writers in this market, in other markets and, frankly, at this paper: that longer stories are better stories. They argue that by constraining these top-tier reporters to the space limitations of everyone else, the paper's quality is being compromised.
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Not sure I agree. As much as it pains me to say this, I understand why the editors at the News are trying to tame the unwieldy writing beasts they created: because most reporters at newspapers confuse great magazine stories with great newspaper stories. Magazine stories theoretically are more writerly, with wit and whimsy and pacing that suggests literature as much as it does reportage. And when newspapers are fat and happy, they can assuage the egos of their best writers by letting them take months to write long stories with anecdotal leads and paragraphs that begin, "It was a time of great uncertainty..."
But when money is tight, businesses go back to their core product, as they should. A newspaper's core business is news and light extras such as crossword puzzles or comics. Not that a wonderfully written story about Dallas' loneliest bachelor or a six-month project about the use of the serial comma in classified documents isn't entertaining to read. It just may be a too-expensive luxury when the ads ain't rollin' in.
Which is why you never want to be the highest paid star of a team that is losing money. Just ask Skip Bayless, the former Morning News and Times Herald sports columnist who recently quit his "dream job" at the Chicago Tribune because, among other things, he was no longer allowed to write columns that jumped to inside pages of the sports section. When he said that was unacceptable, his bosses said, in essence, "tough nuts," and he's now moving to a smaller market in San Jose.
None of which means that I should be writing shorter, of course. Readers love my long-windedness and self-reference. My last feature story felt truncated at 5,000 words. Let the powers that be here try to shorten my column, and they'll see the readership rise up in my defense. This isn't some daily newspaper, after all. This is a weekly newspaper.