Bob Mong stood in front of several hundred journalists at the Hyatt Regency this past November to sell them his dream. Mong, editor of The Dallas Morning News, told his staff, "I want to speak to you today about our aspirations...as a newspaper." He told them he's in charge of a great paper, but asked, "Are any of you satisfied with where we are today? Don't you think we can be so much better? I know that we can be."
The speech was heartfelt. Mong had wrestled with it for weeks, certain that his oration would fill reporters with hope, make them ready to tackle the city with investigative zeal. He included in it a simple, telling anecdote that illustrates the difficult path the DMN faces, likening the paper's journalistic progress over the past 20 years to a sprinter who's shaved his 100-yard dash time from 11 seconds to 10 flat. But, he said, to be world-class, we've got to go from 10 to 9.75 seconds--not nearly as far, but twice as hard to achieve.
When he finished, Mong took a drink of water. "Any questions?" he asked the throng. Not one reporter dared to question, praise or challenge.
That wasn't surprising. Morning News reporters, beaten down for years by a Belo Corp. known for its thin skin and intolerant attitude toward dissent, are used to keeping quiet. Later, some took the key phrase of Mong's speech, one that he'd hoped would offer a beacon to help them find their way out of the darkness of Belo's culture, and changed it from "passionate virtuosity" to "pliable pomposity." Few sounded hopeful that the changes Mong suggested--making the paper more aggressive, more concerned with producing hard-hitting, relevant stories--would come to pass.
This is partly a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the very people who complain are the ones who could do something about the paper's long-acknowledged stodginess. But newspaper reporters are, on the whole, whiny, self-absorbed babies.
Now, Bob Mong is their baby sitter. He is the DMN's editor as of July 2001, the high-profile boss who wants his to be the best regional newspaper in the United States. It is Bob Mong who will define what type of newspaper readers will see in 2010.
Actually, should current trends hold, Mong may define the paper readers are not reading. Daily newspapers are losing readers by the thousands as they fail to stay relevant in the fast-paced Internet age of information. The Dallas Morning News is no exception. At a time when North Texas is becoming increasingly diverse, it is staking its future on wealthy, white suburban readers to pay the bills. Mong takes over the paper at a critical time, when such forces threaten to undermine the paper's position as the dominant, authoritative voice of Dallas. Reversing this decline is what consumes him.
During the past few months, Mong has met with reporters and editors in small groups, during brown-bag lunches and via e-mail, practically begging them to voice their concerns. He asked them why they think they can't do their best work here, why so many good-to-great reporters have left in the past several years, why they are so cynical about the paper's plan to revitalize itself in the coming decade. A brave few broke it down for him like this:
They said there is a reason The Dallas Morning News is perceived as it is: a solid, stolid, white-bread and timid newspaper where management winks at the powerbrokers who selfishly run the city as they see fit, a paper that sends its most aggressive reporters after cows that are not sacred. They say there are other roadblocks to doing good work:
That the "Collin County initiative," a plan to fully stock the Plano bureau of the paper with seasoned journalists and produce several more pages of Collin County news five days a week, will further erode the paper's ability to cover Dallas proper--especially the predominantly black and Hispanic areas of Southern Dallas. And that this plan to attract more readers and advertisers in Collin County will deplete an already ravaged Metropolitan news staff and hurt the paper's ability to write meaningful stories about the police department, DART, DISD, City Hall, the criminal courts--the core of the city whose name is on the masthead.
That the paper isn't addressing its real problems head-on: It isn't breaking enough local news because the culture of the newsroom--"Belo knows best"--has forced its ass-kicking reporters to take jobs in other cities, which leaves fewer reporters capable of finding and writing big, important, aggressive stories.
That Mong himself, a man who made his youthful reputation on award-winning investigative stories, hasn't shown that he has the authority--some say cojones--to do the things he knows will take the paper from good to great. They argue that it is those with balance sheets in their minds and Belo in their bloodline--Belo chairman Robert Decherd and News publisher Jim Moroney III--who matter, who make the decisions, who dictate the paper's future.
"I just don't see that people have confidence that Mong's vision will work long-term," says a longtime staffer. "What I do see is that the company has gone from a new newspaper in Arlington, an incredible waste of money on CueCat and the experiment of I-don't-know-how-many zoned editions  for the suburbs. Well, most of them have been spectacular failures. So from a decision-making standpoint, it's hard to have a lot of confidence in the decision-makers around here with this new plan...You know, what is the new plan tomorrow, guys?"
Mong has a simple, confident answer for his doubters. "I understand the criticisms, and I understand the concerns," he says. "But we're going to make this work."
A smart, determined man who will spend the next decade attempting to save his paper, Mong pauses, then raises his hands. "All I can say is keep watching. Time will tell."
To grasp why the 54-year-old captain of the paper long known as The Dallas Morning Snooze is making methodical, radical changes in the way it looks/reads/operates, it helps if you first understand Robert William Mong. He grew up in Southern Ohio in a county-seat town on the Indiana border, 15 miles north of Cincinnati, and everything about him screams--well, whispers, anyway--Midwestern stoicism. He is forthright and respectful. He looks you in the eye when you talk to him. That he agreed to be interviewed for this story, that he invited me to sit in on small meetings with departments to discuss the paper's future and that he allowed his reporters to be interviewed (although nearly all were too timid to put their names behind their criticisms) is shocking to people at this paper and at the DMN.
This is not a small point. Under previous Editor Burl Osborne, reporters and editors knew that even though they depended on people talking to them for stories every day, they weren't allowed to talk to the Dallas Observer. It was a petty, small-minded, bush-league attitude at a paper that considers itself topflight. It made management look silly and its staff feel embarrassed. At a bureaucracy as large as the DMN's, symbolic decisions such as this give the staff hope that management isn't running scared. "That he's talking to you guys is a very good sign," says a reporter. "It really doesn't surprise me, though. If ever there was someone for whom the term 'good guy' applied, it's Bob Mong."
Mong's journalism career was something of an accident. Shortly before he graduated from Haverford College outside Philadelphia, his father was in a serious car accident and would be hospitalized for months. Mong went home to Ohio in 1971 and set about finding work.
"I hadn't written for a paper," he says, "but I loved reading and I liked writing. I liked the idea of the sort of Ben Hecht, Front Page myth of a reporter." Mong took his term papers on Southern authors and tried to get a job. "A lot of the editors and publishers looked at me like I was an absolute maniac," he says, laughing. "No matter what the size of the paper, they told me I needed to go to a smaller paper." They also chastised him for trying to get a job without a suit. When he was turned down for a job in tiny Delphos, Ohio (current population: about 8,000), he finally had to settle for an even smaller weekly newspaper, the Palladium-Item in Richmond, Indiana, near his hometown. From there he went to the Cincinnati Post, then to Madison, Wisconsin, at the Capital Times in 1975. It was there, on the Saturday 7 a.m. to noon shift, that he first met fellow reporter Ed Bark, now the Morning News' television critic.
"At that time, Mong was the paper's primary business reporter," says Stu Levitan, then the paper's Washington correspondent, "with a well-deserved reputation for being the best in town at the kind of research and analysis that broke big and important business stories. On a very good staff, he was one of the stars."
By the time the paper's reporters went on strike in October 1977--in support of a better union contract for the paper's printers, mailers and pressmen--Mong and Bark had become friends.
"We came of age in the '60s and '70s," Bark says, "and everything was anti-management then. So we started up a competing paper [the Madison Press Connection, which folded in 1980]." Mong became the acting news editor during this time. He and the staff would strike outside the Capital Times offices in the morning, report and write and edit all afternoon and evening, then go to the Cardinal or to the Wagon Wheel nearby to drink beer and eat Tombstone pizzas. "Bob loved Tombstone pizzas," Bark says. "I think he ate two or three a night."
In 1979, Mong began talking to the DMN about a job. "I just had a very bad case of mononucleosis from working 18 hours a day, seven days a week," Mong says. "I was just tired, frankly. And my parents were concerned. I was concerned. Just fortunately, a job came open in that time frame. It was an editing job. I told them I'd be a reporter or editor, but that was what was open. It wasn't a grand plan to be an editor. It just happened."
Not long after Mong arrived, Burl Osborne came in as editor and oversaw the paper's growth. He decided that the way to win the newspaper war against the Dallas Times Herald, which the DMN purchased and shut down in 1991 (they say it shut down by itself--hello, lie), was to ramp up sports and business coverage. Osborne asked Mong to be the business editor. One problem. "I told them at the time, I still didn't even own a suit," he says. "So they said, go to James K. Wilson and buy a suit, which is what I did. I wore that one suit for about two years." From there, he became a projects editor, an assistant managing editor, then publisher of a Belo-owned paper in Kentucky, then a corporate suit for Belo, then the paper's editor.
Along the way, he won many fans. "I've told a lot of people, I think he was the MVP of the Dallas newspaper war who nobody knew," says Tim Kelly, a former competitor of Mong's at the Times Herald who is now president and publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Burl, Decherd and [then-sports editor] Dave Smith were big names, but I really thought a lot of what Mong did with the business section helped them tremendously, as well as his later work with the projects team. He wasn't boastful. He was just a committed journalist."
"He's the best editor I've ever worked for," says Scott Parks, a longtime News reporter who now offices both in Plano and downtown. "He is the only editor I worked with who was so organized that he would take daily meetings with you and take copious notes, then check on those things with you the next day. It was motivating. He was so locked in on what you were doing, it made you feel important. And, of course, he's smart as a whip."
Says Levitan, who also worked with Mong at the Press Connection: "It's always been a surprise to me that Bob focused on managerial and executive duties--he was such a great reporter. Maybe he figured he could spawn more little mini-Mongs as a publisher-editor. But it's certainly something I've pondered over the years as I've watched his ever-ascending career arc with pride. Whatever his motivation, I was pretty sure that the communities where he worked benefited from his journalistic integrity, intensity and intelligence. I still assume that to be the case."
For his part, Mong says he doesn't miss reporting because as long as he's in the game as player or manager, he's excited. "I just enjoy journalism. I enjoy figuring out what's not being covered. That's what gets me up every day, the possibility that there will be something new today, the stuff that's going on out there that we don't know about. It's a challenge, but an exciting one."
It is exciting at the Morning News these days, if for no other reason than you can make yourself an easy $100 if you memorize the paper's five business goals. Seriously.
On his way to get me out of the paper's front lobby for our interview, James Moroney III, publisher of The Dallas Morning News, a man whose father and grandfather also published the paper, was stopped by a DMN employee who said she had memorized the goals. She rattled them off:
1. Increased revenue.
2. Increased circulation.
3. Publish a daily Spanish-language newspaper in two years.
4. Put out two new products (e.g., a weekly tabloid aimed at younger readers) that will be distributed within the paper.
5. The Collin County initiative.
He pulled out a hundred bucks and gave it to her. Moroney, who declined my attempts to extract a Benjamin, says he wants everyone, news staffers included, to focus on the business goals of the paper and the ways they can be achieved while maintaining journalistic quality. Sure, it sounds silly. But you'll try new tactics if your newspaper, like most others across the country, is not growing.
"It's no secret to anybody that the newspaper industry, particularly the last decade or so, has had poor circulation performance," Moroney says. "When the circulation starts to stagnate, when it starts to go in the other direction, we've got to look up and say to ourselves, 'Is there something about the product that is causing this to happen?' Because Bob and I firmly believe that it starts with content. I call it the carnival barker effect. When I was a kid, I would go to the State Fair, and they'd say, 'Come see the 400-pound person,' or the three-headed alligator or whatever it was, and, yeah, they got me in there once, but once I didn't get what I was told would be in there, I wouldn't go back again."
The question vexing Moroney and Mong, then, is simple: Why aren't the rich, affluent types in Collin County (Plano, McKinney, Frisco, etc.) buying or subscribing to the paper in greater numbers?
This is important in understanding what the DMN wants to do during the next seven years and why. In 1960, 71 percent of the people in a four-county area--Dallas, Collin, Rockwall and Denton counties--lived in the city of Dallas. Consequently, 70 percent of the DMN's circulation was in Dallas. Flash forward 40 years. In that four-county area, about 41 percent of the population lives in Dallas. So 39 to 40 percent of the paper's circulation is in Dallas. But, Mong and Moroney ask, why are we putting out a Metro section that's 70 percent Dallas news content to the exclusion of all these suburban folks we covet as subscribers?
"The median household income in Collin County is twice the city of Dallas," Moroney says. "The per capita college graduate density of Collin County is almost twice the city of Dallas. And yet we have almost identical penetration in the two markets. So it's sort of like saying we have a much more educated, much more affluent readership where you would expect newspaper readership to be higher, and it's not. Well, I don't think that's their fault. I think we have to look at ourselves and say, 'What have we not been doing to give them a sufficient reason to buy and subscribe to our paper more often?'"
Gone, then, is the cynical notion--a correct one, by the way--that big newspapers shouldn't care about covering cities like Plano because it's a bunch of boring white-flighters who mill about in strip malls that will slowly decay during the next 20 years, as will the souls of those who live there. No, the company is fully committed to proving people like me wrong by saying great journalism can be produced in a cultural black hole, and readers will respond.
"If you improve the content, then circulation starts to grow," Moroney says. He is at ease but always speaking in rapid-fire. "Then I can price my advertising on that circulation growth, then I make more revenue. If I make more revenue, normally I have more profitability. If I'm more profitable, I get investment capital back to invest in the product to make its content even better. And the whole cycle starts again. It all starts with content...And Bob is the person who can make all of this happen."
"Collin County is unique," Mong says. "Other cities have competition in their suburbs. Philadelphia, for example, has 14 daily newspapers in their immediate circulation area. We've basically got the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. We've got this really interesting, fast-growing county, and the only competition for the most part is ourselves."
There are those who agree with this strategy, inside and outside the building. "You've got to skate to where the puck is," says the Herald-Leader's Tim Kelly. "You put the paper out for the readers. You can't lose sight of that."
At what cost, though? Moroney is right that, more and more, people in suburbs identify themselves with that 'burb. A News survey showed that 98 percent of people identified themselves with their suburb, not Dallas, when asked, "Where do you live?" The survey avoided the more relevant question: "Is where you live as boring as a traffic cone?"
"I don't care what they say, people are freaked out about it career-wise," says a reporter. "Sending an experienced reporter to Plano, it's like taking the quarterback and making him the holder. Yeah, it's important to the team, but you're still the freaking holder. It will take a generation of change before people will not see Plano as a demotion."
More important to some is the overall effect of shifting Morning News resources to Collin County. Not only will it be harder to recruit good people, the theory goes, if a reporter stands a good chance of getting shuttled to a 'burb, but the push northward means there will be less coverage of minority areas. The idea of a paper that "afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted" seems quaint in this light.
"I have one question," says another reporter. "We've been picketed because of our coverage of Southern Dallas. Belo has been hypersensitive to that. So what is the perception now in the southern sector, politically and racially, when we say we're shifting everything north to the rich white folks?" An editor concurs. "Despite our awful penetration in the core city, the 2010 plan says, 'Hey, let's move north.' Look for the code language in what they tell you. 'Attractive income and education levels for our core product' really does mean 'white people in the suburbs who will buy our paper.'"
The M&M boys don't see it that way. "I'm confident we have the talent on staff to handle this coverage," Moroney says. "We're putting quality people out here. If the strategy doesn't work, it's my fault. The person who drove this train is me."
"Look," Mong says, "in a time of real growth for our community, we haven't kept up with that. Yeah, we've increased our circulation since 1980"--from 286,000 daily and 350,000 Sundays to 525,000 and 785,000 today, respectively--"but if you look at it since 1995, we've been flat. This is not about turning us into a suburban paper. It's really about figuring out how to keep up with the population. It's that simple."
Ed Bark is the Morning News' television critic, yet he gives perhaps the most reasoned evaluation of the paper at its crossroads. That's because he's smart, he's covered politics and news and entertainment, he's known Mong since they both worked together in Madison, Wisconsin, in the 1970s, and he speaks his mind.
"Clearly, Collin County makes big sense," Bark says. "These readers are more attractive to advertisers. It sounds cold, but it makes sense. But what I wish we were more concerned about is being a paper that people react to. One that takes tough stances, not just to piss people off but to engage the readership. The push north is OK, but will it make us safer? If so, that's not good.
"What I'm looking for," he says, "is a paper that wants to print strong opinions. That's a problem in a paper that uses courtesy titles and that too often celebrates the fact that, 'Hey, no one yelled at us today. We must be doing our jobs'...We need to take more chances and be more colorful."
This is a recurring theme that runs through all discussions with people at the paper. We can no longer afford to be the Morning Snooze.
Mong understands this. In the past year, he says, there have been more stories in the paper that take chances, that strive for a narrative voice, and he is right. Mong is proud of the piece that ran in December, where he had the columnist for an Omaha newspaper write an essay about his daughter, who was raped and shot in Texas but perseveres ("She is not diminished," was the story's headline). It was the sort of naked emotional story the paper seldom spotlights. He has put a greater emphasis on personal finance stories, on first-person tales, on human-interest stories that resonate with readers. The News now has Gerry Fraley writing sports columns, something this li'l ol' weekly newspaper has been requesting for years, because Fraley is, as Mong puts it, "wired for opinion, with the reporting to back it up." Despite some stories that still make your eyes roll--like a front-pager on the DMN's own charity that ran last week--Mong is having an impact. Maybe it's only a pebble in the pond. But the paper is better than it was two years ago.
He still has his detractors, who point to the fake-drugs screw-up as an example of the obstacles Mong faces in trying to revitalize the newspaper. Just as quickly, supporters cite as a reason for hope the impact new editorial page editor Keven Ann Willey has had on the suddenly invigorated opinion pages. (For an example of this, see Buzz, page 19.)
That the Morning News missed the fake-drugs scandal--Channel 8, its Belo brother, broke the story about how Hispanic day laborers were being falsely charged and convicted of cocaine possession--is still a sore point within the newsroom. It's pointed to by people who say that the culture of safety and fear Bark described--Hey, nobody yelled at me today, I did good--keeps it from being great.
It is widely known at the paper now that DMN reporters got the first tip on the fake-drugs story and didn't follow it up. Why this happened depends on whom you ask. (The reporters, Holly Becka and Tim Wyatt, declined comment.)
"We should have had that story," says another longtime reporter. "Christ, it had all the elements you want: power-broker corruption, innocents too poor to defend themselves, cover-ups. But when our guys took it to the editors, they were told, no, you've got day-to-day work to do. Don't waste your time on these wild goose chases. And that comes from thinning out our Metro staff. That comes from managers who don't trust reporters. That comes from a culture here that doesn't reward independence. The Belo way is, 'We are more important than you are. You get your sources because of the company's name on your business card, not the other way around. So never forget that.'
"It's why we miss stories that aren't obvious. It's why we miss stories on bigwigs like Hicks or Perot. Not because someone stops us, but because, if your name isn't Howard Swindle [the paper's longtime investigative reporter], we aren't encouraged to go after complicated, important stories."
Mong, for the only time in our discussions, bristles. "I've never said that. And I don't believe that. I honestly don't know anybody who views reporting talent as chattel, as interchangeable parts. Now if that's the perception, that's just not something that I've really encountered. That issue has not come up in any of the meetings."
Some managers flip the blame, saying that because of the paper's brain drain over the past five years, there are no longer enough top-level reporters bringing in ideas to make a difference. "We have precious few people who can turn that kind of story anymore," says an editor. "Trust me, great ideas aren't getting turned down. They aren't being proposed. The fake-drugs story is revisionist history. Holly and Tim would have had that story first had they been quicker to realize what they had and gone after it. The truth is they didn't."
It's Mong's job to arbitrate, and he refuses to assign blame. "What I've tried to do is use that as a learning experience for people. It's easy in hindsight to say we should have done that story. But I think in that case, we got beat on that story, a story we should have had first. We can make all sorts of excuses about how this happened and this happened, but the fact is we got beat. So what are we going to learn from that? One, that the most successful people in this building are people who know how to negotiate for themselves. So don't be afraid to speak up. If you've got a great idea, go to your editor. If they push you back the first time, go back again if you really believe in it. And as editors, we have to be better impresarios. We can't get so caught up in the day-to-day. You've gotta be paying attention...And we need more white knights like Keven Willey who can come in and show that a difference can be made with the talent we have here."
Ah, Mrs. Willey. She is the person Mong and his supporters can point to and say, "See, you whiny brats? It can be done. One person can make a difference."
A little background. If you've never read the editorial pages of the DMN before, you have no idea just how eye-glazing a newspaper can be. Under Rena Pederson, the former editorial page editor, it was, despite Mong's protests to the contrary, a horrible example of what happens when socialites pose as journalists. It meandered, it never took tough positions, it was predictably conservative (and not in the interesting, let's-all-be-entertained-by-the-nutjob way that op-ed columnist William Murchison is predictably conservative).
When Pederson, now an editorial writer at large, stepped aside, Mong formed a one-man search committee for a replacement. He knew he had to make his mark on this section, one that would reverberate not only within the community but within the paper. He called friends and read other papers on the Internet. The Arizona Republic's Keven Ann Willey is who he found.
What she has done in a few months' time is remarkable. She has breathed life into a cadaver. Editorials, always known for their wishy-washy Charlie Brown qualities ("On the one hand, we never much cared for the Holocaust..."), have become simple, forceful and direct, telling people, yes, we need this bond package. Or, in suggesting that the city clean up the convention and visitors bureau, saying that, "This proud city has much more to offer conventioneers than booze and strippers." I mean, she's dead wrong, but at least it's an opinion, something missing from the opinion pages for 20 years. She's done it with the same staff, and she hasn't let the paper's butt-kissing history deter her.
"I'm being asked to take what I did in Phoenix and do it bigger and better here," Willey says. "It's a challenge, yes, but I'm not reinventing myself. I want to infuse the pages with more energy, making arguments more crisp, stimulate debate, have people talk about the issues we bring up so we can make the community better."
And what about the fact that one reporter tried to bet me 20 bucks that she wouldn't last two years, because she steps on too many bigwig toes? "I've gotten nothing but positive feedback internally on what we're doing," she says.
"I'd be more than happy to take that bet with anybody," Moroney says. "Since she's been here, we've witnessed more clearly written, more cogent editorials than we've had in the past. We've stepped on toes. There is not one editorial we've not supported. The idea that Robert Decherd is running the editorial department--I see him regularly, and he's never said, 'Who is writing that damned editorial?' Robert has a tremendous amount of trust in me and Bob Mong...Let's put it this way: If she's going to be gone, they'll probably throw me and Bob out beforehand. We'll be the ones looking for jobs."
Remember, Mong says his challenge is "an exciting one."
Yeah, exciting. Wheee.
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This is excitement? Seriously?
All the carping, the navel-gazing, the plaintive wailing about why we can't write great stories, all that isn't a tenth of what Mong has to deal with right now. He's got big national media buying away his best reporters. (CBS News, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune and New York Newsday are recent destinations for former Metropolitan reporters.) He's got a Sports section that confuses being the biggest in the country with being the best. The average 8-year-old is more attuned to popular culture than its Texas Living section, which gave the stupid-fun of The Osbournes an "F" grade and the stupid-stupidness of Shanghai Knights a "B." He's got an increasingly young, media-savvy audience that knows it can find more sports columns on ESPN.com, more business insight in The Wall Street Journal, more humor in The Onion, more political analysis on Slate.com, more job ads and classified ads and real estate listings and Columbia disaster information and even timely news in the Morning News right there on its computer. (Which is why there are a million registered users of dallasnews.com, 750,000 of whom never read the hard copy.) And, don't forget, he's got 600-plus reporters and editors to bottle-feed, at a cost of more than $50 million a year. Hooray, it's a party.
"We are still important. We can still make a huge difference," Mong says. "Do we really have enough people who believe that we can get better? A lot better? We're a very good paper. Can we become great? What I'm betting on here is that's what most of them want. Most people come in here wanting to make a difference and be the best at what they do. We could sit back and roll along and put out a pretty good paper. But I don't think that's what anybody wants. It's not what I want.
"So I'm betting. I'm betting that the energy level is there and the aggressiveness is there, the collaboration is there, the willingness to do more is there. That's the big bet."