Is GuideLive Dying? Mong Responds.

Dallas Morning News editor Bob Mong Jr. says there has been no "definitive" decision made concerning impending layoffs buyouts at Dallas' Only Daily.

Over the last two days, I've heard from a number of sources, none of whom are mentioned in this post, that Belo Corp. management has decided to ditch most, if not all, of The Dallas Morning News' movie and television critics. Word of this stunning move toward scaling back the paper's GuideLive arts staff comes weeks after it was announced that The News was offering what it called "voluntary severance" in order to eliminate some 50 to 60 editorial positions at the paper, not two years after Belo cut 250 jobs at Dallas' Only Daily. Terms of the buyout haven't even been announced yet, News Editor Bob Mong Jr. tells Unfair Park this morning, and the paper is merely waiting to see how many employees take the severance before the paper starts making cuts by the end of the summer.

(UPDATE: Mong called back this afternoon to reiterate that he doesn't like the term "layoff" and says people will be let go only if the paper doesn't hit its target number, which he will not disclose. I have changed, when and where applicable, the word, at Mong's request--though staffers throughout The News newsroom are referring to them as "firings." But when asked if, oh, 60 people took the buyout and not one of them came from GuideLive and whether that would necessitate additional buyouts or possible layoffs in order to staff the section as Belo management now sees fit, Mong says, "We'd have to face that when we faced it. We would try to reduce the staff by a certain number and by voluntary attrition, we hope, rather than go beyond." )

News of the layoffs buyouts began circulating June 23, following a staff meeting at which employees were told of the impending cutbacks--and three days after Belo chairman Robert Decherd said during a mid-year review in New York City that "we are in the midst of transforming Belo's businesses to compete effectively in what is becoming an increasingly Internet-centric marketplace [by] launching new products, re-engineering our cost structure and reallocating human, financial and capital resources to match the company's forward strategy, while constantly looking to take costs out of our business overall."

Mong, who promptly answered his own phone and spoke with Unfair Park at length, says "there is no way we're in a position to even talk about" specific layoffs buyouts at the paper, especially those in the arts department. It's unlikely all the critics would be fired, but certainly some will be let go.

"We're looking at a lot of things," he says. "We've announced voluntary buyouts and don't know who's going to take it. The offer hasn't even been sent out yet. We are looking at serving the people who really care about this newspaper in the best possible way, and I think we've been very open with our staff and had lots of meetings with them and will continue to so. But nothing's been decided. We're not even close. We have to see who takes the buyout and how it goes from there."

Mong confirms that on July 7, he and George Rodrigue, the paper's vice president and managing editor, did meet with the arts staff to discuss the future of the GuideLive section, but says management "did not get into that kind of detail" with the staff concerning the layoffs buyouts. Unfair Park understands a large part of that meeting dealt with how to make the section more local in coverage--which suggests that those writers who handle movies and TV shows could go, because the paper could simply pick up reviews from wire services. And, indeed, last Friday, the very day Mong and Rodrigue met with the GuideLive staff, The News ran three reviews picked up from The New York Times--for art-house releases The Blood of My Brother, Cavite and Wassup Rockers.

"I think any major newspaper has to look at the whole notion of aggregation versus content creation and how you balance that, what's the smartest way to do that," Mong says. "You're not doing your job if you don't. We're a long way from having anything definitive. We're talking about how to balance that out--where it needs to be local and does it need to be local. Those are questions that have to be asked."

At the same time, Mong insists that GuideLive "has been a huge success" and that "readers love it," suggesting any cuts in the department will not be taken lightly. He said staffers did ask during last Friday's meeting about their fates, and he told them, "I don't know." So it does not surprise Mong that word is spreading quickly that many good writers--and, to be fair, several friends of mine--might soon be out of work.

"There is a lot of loose talk and anxiety, and there are a lot of tough decisions to make," he says. "And I completely understand that anxiety." But at the end of the day, Bob Mong will get to keep his job. --Robert Wilonsky