Before I put in context for you the just-announced "scale-back" of the Arlington Morning News--the bastard child of The Dallas Morning News will now be published only five days a week instead of the previous seven and will be just a section within the DMN itself--I want to make clear that it's no fun dancing on a grave. (Unless you're drunk...but that was in junior high. I digress.)
A quick story. Just after I graduated from college in 1990, a young reporter from the Morning News took me to lunch at my request and spent a few hours giving me invaluable career advice. That reporter was Lawrence Young, who is now executive editor of the Arlington Morning News. On a personal level, then, the news that the AMN was acknowledging defeat in Arlington did not fill me with joy.
Yet it's impossible not to say "meow" to the suits at the Belo Corp. death star, because they're the ones who picked the battle when they announced with great fanfare the creation of the Arlington Morning News. Having licked clean the carcass of the Dallas Times Herald, the insatiable egos at Belo decided that nothing was beyond their power. They looked westward, saw a burgeoning Tarrant County--the population of which is supposed to surpass Dallas County by 2020--licked their lips, and decided to declare war on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Their entry point into Tarrant County was the 300,000-strong butt-ugly city of Arlington, where boosterism is a hobby and fine art is the water slide at Hurricane Harbor. They purchased high-profile office space; their logo is obvious from Interstate 30. They sunk a ton of money into the enterprise. In effect, they walked right into enemy territory, grabbed their packages with one hand, and flipped off the Star-T with the other. "We will take away your readers," they crowed in unison.
Now, they whimper away, even going so far as to move their bureau out of the city limits and into Arlington's Dallas County neighbor to the east, Grand Prairie. They cut staff. Oh, hell, let's just say it: Semantics aside, they shut the damn thing down.
Why? Because the AMN is getting its ass kicked. The Arlington Star-Telegram (launched as a retaliatory strike against the AMN) simply outsells its rival: According to Editor and Publisher Online, which broke this story, the Arlington Morning News' circulation is 29,000 on weekdays, 39,000 on Sundays. That's just more than half of the ArlStar-T's numbers: 50,000 on weekdays, 70,000 on Sundays.
"It definitely shows that the course we stayed has worked," says Gary Hardee, associate publisher and former editor of the Arlington Star-Telegram. The Star-Telegram committed tremendously to the idea of a three-pronged newspaper, with power centers in Arlington, downtown Fort Worth, and northeast Tarrant County, even though it divided its own staff daily and caused bitter turf battles among editors and writers. (Full disclosure: When I was an editor there, few people bitched about it more than I did.) Many downtown Fort Worth folks saw the money and personnel being sunk into Arlington and wondered if it were necessary. In the end, we--and the Morning News--were proven wrong.
Belo policy is to ignore this paper, and Arlington Morning News Publisher Gary Jacobson didn't return a phone call seeking comment. The final word on this, then, is Hardee's.
"It's awfully hard to convert a reader," he says. "Most readers in Arlington lean west. They identify with Tarrant County. Most of them in Grand Prairie, where I live, lean east. I don't know how many times Belo has come into Tarrant County, tried to convince readers to switch papers, and failed. But I do know this: We won't come into Dallas County and try to do what they've done. It doesn't work."
A Belo employee I respect greatly called me up last week and took me to task for what she thought was my unfair, consistent bashing of Channel 8. Her point: Yes, Channel 8 was going down a wrong path, but we've righted ourselves, she said, and the station's biggest competitor, Channel 5, is doing unethical, sleazy stuff to catch us in the ratings.
Well, the ratings came out last week, and Channel 8 is still ahead of Channel 5 in the all-important 10 p.m. slot. So it's not like my ridicule is having any effect. But, Filler aims to be fair, and I agreed that perhaps my feelings on other stations are not always clear. I defend myself by saying that Channel 8 has been top dog for so long now that it is the station that deserves the most scrutiny, but let me, for the record, give my summation of the quality of area newscasts.
Channel 8: Not what it was, losing too many good people, but still the best in town.
Channel 5: Horrible. Sensationalizes everything. Its investigations amount to nothing. Would find a way to overhype the Second Coming.
Channel 4: Better than most people realize, although it doesn't have the resources to compete consistently with 8 and 11.
Channel 11: Tracy Rowlett hasn't had a huge impact in the ratings, but it's impossible to deny that the station is Channel 8's one true competitor in terms of quality.
Results are in from the DMN's "2001 News Management Retreat," and the result is that the News plans to "kick butt" this year.
Seriously. That's a quote. I don't make this stuff up, folks.
Well, that was just one of the "top priorities" that management came up with during its brainstorming sessions. It was at the top of the list, though, noted in this fashion: "Break News (Kick Butt)."
Whoa, kids. What happened to that family newspaper atmosphere? My virgin ears are sizzlin'.
Of course, nothing is funnier than when management types at staid corporations try to "get down with it" by incorporating "totally hep" language into their goals in an effort to relate to the common workers, a.k.a. the "jive turkeys."
But saying that they're going to "kick butt" reminds me of the Will & Grace episode wherein Grace's cohorts laugh at her considering the idea of a threesome. She's offended that they don't see her as sexually adventurous. "I have even been called 'kinky,'" she tells them.
"Honey," Will tells her between giggles, "people who are kinky never use the word, 'kinky.'"
Hint for next time, folks. People who "kick butt" don't kick butt. They whip ass, they fuck people up, they combine previously unmatched words into exciting new ones, as in the declaration, "I am going to ream your tainthole till your ears bleed." (That, by the way, is taken from a New Times Management Goals '01 memo.)
A few other highlights from the priority list, with comment following in parentheses:
· Improve coverage convergence (Aw, heck, we were gonna do that.)
· Suburban/regional coverage implementation (Good idea. See lead story, this column.)
· Reconnect with readers and their needs (Why does that sound dirty?)
· Focus more on high performers (Screw the mediocre!)
· Make sure employees rank first (Celebrate the mediocre!)
Finally, this note from the retreat: "We need to think more like TV or a magazine."
(Insert your own joke here.)