Urge to Merge

The AOL Morning News will pander to readers by making gratuitous mention of hot young stars like Britney Spears just so it can run her photo. Which this paper would never do.
John Ragel

Note to self: Federal appeals court decision in D.C. last week now allows for huge media companies like AOL Time Warner or Viacom or Knight Ridder to buy more media companies. Consider column on one of these companies buying Belo. Do research. Consider hiring research assistant.

"Many of the most profitable broadcast stations are already owned by big companies," it says in The New York Times. "But there are still plenty of smaller and midsize broadcasters with valuable properties, including the Belo Corporation; Meredith; and Scripps-Howard. 'This sets the stage for an enormous re-landscaping of the media business, probably over the next three years,' said Larry Gerbrandt, the chief content officer of Kagan Worldwide Media. 'This should ignite the deal market.'"

Note to self: With the name "Gerbrandt," Larry was probably teased mercilessly as a child. "Larry Gooberbrandt," perhaps?...Focus!

"With three broadcast duopolies and a TV-newspaper combo in its hometown of Dallas, Belo seems a logical cross-ownership player in a deregulated world," says Editor & Publisher magazine. "Belo, with $1.7 billion in long-term debt at the end of last year, is highly leveraged. This constrains the company from making a big acquisition...Though the company denies it will sell, it's widely seen as a candidate for acquisition."

Note to self: Thank Wilonsky for doing research for me. Look up words/ phrases "duopolies," "highly leveraged" and "acquisition." Contact sources. Consider hiring phone-call-making intern.

"I really don't think [the company will sell]," one Belo insider says. "They have consultants doing goals to 2010 since they anticipate huge growth in the market by then. Knight Ridder owns the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, so it's not likely. The familial ties are too strong [at Belo]." This source says publisher Jim Moroney just outlined his "five goals by the end of 2002" in a meeting last week. He says they're working on some top-secret "new product" to be debuted by the end of 2002.

Another source, one who understands the term "highly leveraged," has heard the rumors already sweeping through The Dallas Morning News newsroom and thinks there is at least a chance Belo will sell, while acknowledging that "Belo is Dallas, and Dallas is Belo." There are rumors of big media suits in the Belo executive offices, but no one can confirm them.

"Look," says another corporate Belo voice, "who really ever knows? But my sense is that Belo will survive and prosper."

But consider this intricate analysis from a Morning News manager when asked if Belo could be sold: "Sure, why not?"

Note to self: Report story in traditional Dallas Observer column format--70 percent straight reporting, 30 percent opinion. Remember to offer nod to 18-to-35-year-olds with disposable income and fondness for Norwegian furniture. Begin first draft.

A long-awaited ruling from a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., has set the stage for some of the most sweeping changes to hit the media landscape in the past decade. Now that large media conglomerates can own a cable system and a local broadcast station in a market--and can control more than 35 percent of the national TV market--midsize media companies like Dallas-based Belo Corp. can expect suitors to start lining up...can expect suitors to begin queuing up to the...um...

Note to self: Oh my stars, clichés flowing--and who cares? Readers now searching feverishly for restaurant reviews, Centro-matic news. Sources not helping. Too contradictory. No fun. Ignore them! Write pure speculation. Begin second draft.

P.S: Ignore irony that you, owner of a $7,500 Discover Card debt and $298 in savings account, are opining on financially complex multimillion-dollar mergers and acquisitions. Consider career change.

Folks, it's gonna happen. If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, soon. If not soon, later. If not later, after later. You get the idea. Like pearly white teeth on a D magazine cover, it is inevitable.

Because of recent complicated court decisions and market forces too recent and complicated to detail in this space, Belo soon may be sold to AOL Time Warner. That's just a fact. It's obvious. Accept it. Do not question it or ask for proof. It's too boring to prove something so obvious and inevitable.

Because this will happen, let's look at what changes will be in store once you begin receiving your copy of the AOL Morning News:

How it will be: Because corporations pander to the lowest common denominator (read: people in Frisco who think the word "coon" has no racial overtones), they will want to do nothing to upset readers. To achieve the blandness they seek, city columnists will not be allowed to write about controversial topics that could cause unrest.

How it is: Columnists take controversial stances against tailgaters or bravely champion the concept of reading to children.

How it will be: The faceless masters of the AOL Morning News will be bottom-line bean counters who demand 20 percent profit margins and mock those who worry about a decline in quality.

How it is: Belo big dog Robert Decherd and family, people persons all, feel really bad about instituting hiring and wage freezes while compassionately demanding 30 percent profit margins. They feel really bad about a decline in quality.

How it will be: Since AOL Time Warner has a stake in just about every entertainment company in North America, pop-culture and fine-arts critics will not be allowed to disparage corporate product.

How it is: TV critic Ed Bark is free to rip or praise the news product of the Belo-owned local station WFAA Channel 8. And by "is free to" we mean "was once allowed to." Semantics.

How it will be: Focus group- and market research-driven conglomerate AOL Time Warner will change the entire look of the paper to make it snappier and punchier, not trusting readers to finish stories longer than coffee-quality blurbs found on Starbucks cups. Section names will be changed to reflect current pop-culture trends, attractive to the young consumer so desired by marketing experts. Example: Lifestyle and arts section will be changed to "Britney Spears & Friends."

How it is: Recent redesign and word-count limits were sensible responses to changing reading habits. Section about Britney Spears and friends logically called "Texas Living."

How it will be: Despite obvious lessons from 9-11 tragedy and lip service to the contrary, AOL Time Warner bosses sense that people don't want news about foreign affairs and instead concentrate on mindless diversions.

How it is: Important issues like the beginning of the football season receive as much in-depth coverage as eight sections and nearly 100 pages of broadsheet newsprint allow.

Note to self: Self, I crack me up! Making point that nothing would really change under AOL is so sly. And if Belo ends up buying properties instead of being bought, this leaves me "just joking" wiggle room. Always leave a loophole. Consider application for law school.

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