The Green Ones

Bob Mong, far left, takes over the title last held by Burl Osborne, far right.
Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer

The conference room at the Hyatt Regency was hot. The meet-your-new-bosses assembly had been called so hastily that the air conditioning hadn't been turned on when the staffers of The Dallas Morning News filed in. Not that it mattered. The reporters and editors at the Morning News, where hope springs occasional, were too excited by the day's announcement to mind a sweaty pit or two.

Hours earlier, it had been announced that Burl Osborne, 64 this month and hated forever, would step down as president of the Belo publishing division and publisher of the News. Taking his place as publisher was James M. Moroney III, 44, who becomes publisher and CEO of the News on June 18; that same day, Robert W. Mong Jr., 52, will become president and editor.

Mong spoke first. He gave a nondescript pep talk. Mong didn't need to woo the clan. He's known. He's not Mr. Mong; he's Bob, right fielder on the DMN softball team. He joined the paper in 1979 as an assistant editor, moving his way up the ranks (business editor, projects editor, managing editor). Many of the slump-shouldered troops already believe that he alone of all top Morning News generals could actually make the paper consistently worth reading.

"Mong is a real person who cares about the city, the newspaper and other people," says one usually cynical reporter. "He is smart and well-read. And he has shown a willingness to listen to those below him. If anyone can convince this company to eschew mediocrity, it's Mong."

For the most part, Mong deferred to Moroney, the biz-side boy wonder who most recently headed up the interactive division of Belo. He said all the right things, promised to leave the lifetime journo, Mong, in charge of the newspaper operation. During the Q&A session, the M&M boys joked that no one would ask a really ballsy question. So they gathered some coin--$50 or so--to award to the toughest query. The winner: a young lady who yelled out, "Will there be layoffs?" The boys guffawed--didn't say yes, didn't say no--and threw her the money. They yukked it up. Two dudes, large and in charge, puttin' everyone at ease.

And why shouldn't there be happiness? The king was dead, long live the kings. Osborne has been honored glowingly in the News since the announcement that he's becoming publisher emeritus (Latin for "out to pasture"). He does deserve a lot of credit for focusing an average paper during a heated newspaper war, stewarding the News through six Pulitzer Prizes and seeing some damn fine writers and reporters pass through his halls. Even the state Legislature honored him last week. But make no mistake: People hate the sumbitch, because he's a petty man who believed demeaning others and furthering his own interests were the keys to good management.

Then why am I saying perhaps everything ain't so shiny-happy? True, it's partly just because I work for the Dallas Observer. I shake my finger and say, "Not so fast, I must pee on your parade." It's what we do here.

Beyond that, there is a simpler reason: I bothered to read the press release. The one that said the same thing I wrote in February ("Odds and Ends," February 22). I had written that Burl could retire as "early as this summer" (bingo, baby; where's that bonus?). I wrote that the man with the TV background, Jack Sander, executive vice president of media operations for Belo, would in effect take over for Osborne.

"Moroney will report to Jack Sander," the release said. "Sander and Moroney are both members of Belo's six-person Management Committee." There was also a great deal of talk about "convergence" of Belo media properties.

Deciphering now: Sander answers only to Belo chairman Robert Decherd. Both men believe above all things that a rising stock price is the most important achievement to which they can aspire. They believe that the way to achieve this is through "convergence," or corporate groupthink. This goal has for a long time gotten in the way of the News' ability to do good work on a regular basis. It also gets in the way of Sander-run WFAA-Channel 8's ability to hire anyone other than moonlighting models. Moroney's task is to protect Mong from these forces of evil.

Given the reign of Burl, this doesn't seem likely. It's not that I have no faith in Mong. I don't know him, and despite my leaving a work and cell phone number with his secretary, he didn't call me back. (He had to "step in to a meeting," one that is apparently still in session.) I do have great faith in the ability of Osborne's remaining underlings and overlings to rule by fear and the suppression of independent ideas. Trust me. I have many entertaining stories about how craven Osborne and his toadies can be. Buy some more ads, and I'll have room to tell 'em all.

Even those who do believe that Mong will be a Downy-fresh voice on the command deck of the Belo Death Star caution of what could happen instead. For example, here is the second part of that cynical reporter's earlier quote. Recall that he said if anyone was whup-ass, it would be Mong. But then he added: "That's not to say the corporate structure won't stymie him as it has others in the recent past."

Or, to quote another staffer: "I think Bob's an honorable guy, but he faces pressures that force him to make some compromises I'm sure he'd rather not make."

There is precedent, in fact, for him carrying out inane corporate edicts. Take the Ed Bark affair. A few years ago, Osborne threw one of his semimonthly red-faced hissy fits and decided that television critic Bark could no longer write critically about Belo-owned Channel 8 or any other local television news outfit. (Bark could still do news stories like the one last week that said that although Channel 8 was still No. 1 in the ratings, it was losing viewers at a faster rate than its competitors.) Which is why most of the reporters at the Hyatt thought that radio reporter Al Brumley had the $50 won when he stood up and said something like, "I think we've got one of the best and most objective television critics in the country in Ed Bark. Any chance we'll let him write about local news stations again?"

Moroney said he didn't see why he couldn't. Then came Mong's reply.

Understand, Mong and Bark go way back. They worked together in the '70s in Madison, Wisconsin, at The Capital Times. Later, the two helped form an alternative weekly called The Madison Press Connection when they went on strike from the daily to support craft unions.

Mong's reply at the meeting: Well, perhaps we should re-evaluate that policy. Which, given that he must know it's an asinine rule, doesn't sound like the words of a boss who believes he's truly in charge.

Still, it was just one meeting, one response. And it did draw a round of cheers from the sweaty horde. Given the number of people who say Mong will fight the good fight, he deserves a chance and perhaps a wish of good luck. He'll need it.

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