I have read a local newspaper almost every day since I was 8 years old. I began by reading Boston Red Sox box scores to see how well my favorite player, Jim Rice, hit during the previous night's game. In high school, I cut out editorials or political essays that squared with my sensibilities (poor, white-trash, shockingly naïve). During college and for years after, I made sure to read at least one story from every section, every morning. When I finally went to work for a major daily, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I was at first proud to be a part of an institution that I felt helped raise me, make me a better, smarter person. Newspapers, I believed, were a good way to keep up with the world and, in some weird idealistic way, make that world a more thoughtful place.
No longer. Last week, I canceled my subscription to The Dallas Morning News. I don't think I'll miss it.
How is that possible? Isn't a newspaper a vital tool, something that helps inform the public and keep watchdog on our representatives? Something that entertains, informs and enlightens?
Yes, good ones still do. I now subscribe to two of them: The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. They offer complete coverage of national and world events, great arts commentary and wonderfully offbeat sensibilities. Anything else I need, such as breaking news updates or sports commentary or weather forecasts, is offered by radio, the Internet or (as a last resort) local newscasts. Anything else I want is not offered by the News.
This is the point at which managers at that paper who are reading this column harrumph and say, "Oh, he's just being alternative for the sake of being alternative. Complaining about the dailies is what weekly newspapers do. And why isn't the crease in my slacks sharper?"
Not true. Except the crease thing. I really loved the Morning News when I moved here 13 years ago. I'd grown up in Oklahoma, which is to fine journalism what the vineyards of El Paso are to fine wine. I remember sitting in the airport before my apartment-finding mission began, reading sportswriters such as Blackie Sherrod and David Casstevens and being wowed. I'd never seen that many important stories on a front page that didn't have the byline "Associated Press" on them. I was stunned by the paper's sheer heft. I remember seeing a photo of then-radio columnist Ken Parish Perkins and thinking, "Black people write for this paper. How...urbane."
We all grow out of childhood fixations, though. Now I realize that just because a paper is thick, it isn't necessarily good. I ask of my newspaper that its commentators not reek of timidity. I request that my subscription money go to a newspaper concerned more with covering the city than finding new avenues of "synergy" with its corporate brethren. ("What does Channel 8's weatherman Troy Dungan think about the weather today? Find out on the front page of Metro.") For these reasons and more, I finally told my carrier, sorry, last payment, stop throwing the damn thing on my lawn.
I don't think I'm the only one who feels this way, though. I have no way to confirm this, but I wouldn't be surprised if the new big dog at the News, Bob Mong, agrees. Witness this paragraph from a story about the staid daily in this month's Texas Monthly:
"One of Mong's first acts when he became the paper's CEO was to send the staff a note after the Columbia Journalism Review named the Morning News one of the five best newspapers in America and the newspaper's lifestyle section one of the top three in the nation. His response was not to praise them but to remind them of how far they still had to go. 'I told them you can look at a newspaper like a university,' he told Texas Monthly. 'It's the sum of its departments. That's great, but we're not the paper we want to be.'"
Good for him. A newspaper's reputation rarely reflects its current state. The paper's rep as a must-read in its sports and business sections, for example, is now incorrect. Its lifestyle section is good compared to other newspapers', most of which are written on a high school level. If Mong realizes this, perhaps he will take the necessary steps to prevent the paper's slide into irrelevancy. One former reader's suggestions:
· Turn your columnists loose. This is most important for your city columnists, but every one of your reporters whose mug shot regularly runs with his story could use a good, swift kick in the ass. Columnists set the paper apart from news services and TV newscasts. They define the voice of a paper. Many here would say you need to fire the lot of them and start over, but I remember Steve Blow's column on how John Wiley Price said he'd take guns to the streets. That was the last one he wrote before Burl Osborne and friends cut his cojones off. I think this crop of columnists--whether they cover the city, the arts, sports--are, by and large, talented people. Let them prove it. Restore their collective nuts.
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· Rethink beats. Why the hell do all the best writers and reporters end up in Austin? Bill Minutaglio, before he left to write books, and Pete Slover and Sam Attlesey and Wayne Slater--these people should be covering the most important beats of the paper: City Hall, police, the courts. Too often, these are seen as starter jobs where reporters begin, then they graduate to the Austin bureau, where they get to live in a cool city and write stories no one reads. The real stories, the ones that define a city, are found in these three places. See any column by our own Jim Schutze, and you'll know what I mean.
· Hire more good young writers...as editors. This is simple: You will never, ever, never-ever "connect" with young readers by studying focus-group reports. Young, smart people connect with other young, smart people. You can't do it. Please, dear sweet Lord in heaven, please, stop trying.
· Fire more editors. Forget this "We Are Family" stuff. Any business where managers spend their days trying not to get in trouble is a dying business. You have some good editors there. Keep them. Promote them. Give them free rein. Let them fail once in a while. Get rid of the rest. It pays off.
· Ignore trends. This means no more focus groups, but I'm sure those focus-group firms can find another living, such as sucking blood out of humans and forcing them to join their world of the undead. The whole idea, for example, that short snappy stories are the way to go is insane. It's the way to entice people to finish a story, true. It's also the way to ensure that those people will never feel an emotional attachment to your paper, which is where we started, isn't it?