CJR to DMN: You Kinda Suck

Yesterday morning, I found in my in-box this Columbia Journalism Review story about The Dallas Morning News -- specifically, about the state o' Dallas' Only Daily in the wake of the 2004 and '06 layoffs that reduced the newsroom staff by 30 percent. The piece -- penned by former News-ers turned local journalism profs Craig Flournoy (at Southern Methodist University) and Tracy Everbach (at the University of North Texas) -- is more or less a survey of some 100 departed staffers and "dozens" who stayed, and the pair describe their findings as "surprising." Which is surprising, because those who left say they're happier, and those who stayed said they're a little worried about the joint. And, c'mon, that's not surprising at all.

In short: The staff doesn't believe in upper management (all these years later, the phrase "CueCat" still pops up in a story about Dallas' Only Daily). They're still living under the humiliating specter of the circulation scandal -- itself still a fresh wound, thanks to that ongoing federal lawsuit. They think the paper's average -- "like any other paper," says former assistant national editor Mike Weiss.

And they look at Belo CEO Robert Decherd's 2006 compensation package -- a total of $5 million-plus -- and figure it's all been one giant fuck-you anyway. Oh, and a big-time journalism-tech prof at the University of Florida and author says DallasNews.com is "a bad Web site...a failure of their mission."

The list of complaints among staffers is surprisingly endless, especially given the writers attached their names to their gripes. Reese Dunklin, Cheryl Hall, Sherry Jacobson and Brooks Egerton -- they're to be commended for going on the record with their assessments, for being journalists who didn't duck the moment someone came at them with a tape recorder and a stack of questions.

No doubt Belo bosses will dismiss the story as a produce case full of sour grapes: The piece was written by former staffers who interviewed other former staffers, most of whom were pushed before they were ready to jump. But even the casual reader -- say, the one who wonders why the paper used an Associated Press review of Live Free or Die Hard last week, when it was the sole mid-week opening -- knows the paper "has slipped," as 33-year-old award-winning reporter Dunklin tells Flournoy and Everbach.

At this moment, every former Death Star employee's reading the story with a giant grin -- Independence Day, indeed. And the rest of us are wondering when Robert Decherd, editor Bob Mong and publisher and chief executive officer Jim Moroney are going to stop pretending The Dallas Morning News is "a better paper today than it was three or four years ago," as Moroney says. Because it doesn't appear there's anyone left at the paper, much less outside it, who believes Decherd, Mong or Moroney anymore. --Robert Wilonsky

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