February 13, 2003

The Morning Snooze Wakes Up

A lengthy story in the weekly Dallas Observer about changes underway at the Dallas Morning News touches on two critical issues for newspapers - leadership and the definition of news.

Setting aside an historically antagonistic relationship with the Observer, which for years published a snarky column called Belo Watch, the Morning News opened its doors to writer Eric Celeste, granting him extensive access to Editor Bob Mong and Publisher James Moroney. Once inside, Celeste found managers who acknowledge the newspaper's weaknesses and are trying to correct them, but have yet to convince a skeptical newsroom that change is for the better.

The piece opens with Mong speaking to a gathering of his staff and urging them to aspire to "passionate virtuosity," but, according to Celeste, his intended inspiration fell not only on deaf ears but faint hearts.

"The speech was heartfelt. Mong had wrestled with it for weeks, certain that his oration would fill reporters with hope, make them ready to tackle the city with investigative zeal. He included in it a simple, telling anecdote that illustrates the difficult path the DMN faces, likening the paper's journalistic progress over the past 20 years to a sprinter who's shaved his 100-yard dash time from 11 seconds to 10 flat. But, he said, to be world-class, we've got to go from 10 to 9.75 seconds--not nearly as far, but twice as hard to achieve.
"When he finished, Mong took a drink of water. 'Any questions?' he asked the throng. Not one reporter dared to question, praise or challenge."

Incredible. Even accepting the rationalization that years of management abuse had cowed the Morning News reporters into a state of permanent timidity, the muted response demonstrates what L.A. Times media critic Dave Shaw calls the "void in our profession" of powerful newsroom characters, an absence engendered by the "rise of respectability and the decline of raffishness." It is impossible to imagine someone like Bella Stumbo sitting silently on her hands after her editor had challenged her to be a better reporter and then asked, "Any questions?"

My point is this: Newspaper managers are not only in a position where, in order to survive, they must innovate and inspire - a tough enough task in a business where success has come through repetition and hierarchy - but they also must sell those changes and hopes to newsrooms where inertia and defensiveness [read Passive/Defensive Personality] are common traits.

Other sections of the Observer's story highlight the deepness of this gap between the actions of leadership and the reactions of rank and file.

For example, Morning News Publisher Moroney refreshingly links circulation and profit to the quality of content:

"When the circulation starts to stagnate, when it starts to go in the other direction, we've got to look up and say to ourselves, 'Is there something about the product that is causing this to happen?' Because Bob and I firmly believe that it starts with content. If you improve the content, then circulation starts to grow. Then I can price my advertising on that circulation growth, then I make more revenue. If I make more revenue, normally I have more profitability. If I'm more profitable, I get investment capital back to invest in the product to make its content even better. And the whole cycle starts again. It all starts with content."

To reinforce this connection, Moroney ups his own eccentricity quotient a bit by handing out a $100 bill to any staff member who can recite the paper's five business objectives: Increased revenue; Increased circulation; Publish a daily Spanish-language newspaper in two years; Put out two new products (e.g., a weekly tabloid aimed at younger readers) that will be distributed within the paper; The Collin County initiative.

It is this last goal - to increase readership in the rapidly-growing, affluent suburbs north of downtown Dallas - that seems to rankle reporters most.

" 'I don't care what they say, people are freaked out about it career-wise,' says a reporter. 'Sending an experienced reporter to Plano, it's like taking the quarterback and making him the holder. Yeah, it's important to the team, but you're still the freaking holder. It will take a generation of change before people will not see Plano as a demotion.' "

It's sad that this unnamed reporter's words so accurately reflect an endemic newsroom sentiment. Many, if not most, reporters see suburban coverage as an anathema. How wrong they are. Good storytellers tend to find good stories wherever they go. [Read this feature story from Yakima, Wash.]

Take New York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff as an example. After playing a pivotal role in the Times' Pulitzer-prizewinning series on race in America, the paper sent LeDuff to Los Angeles, where his colorful writing about "ordinary" things such as rain [third item] and a rat problem in Beverly Hills brought him scorn from the local media.

That reporter's whine about Plano made me think of a scene from the movie "Adaptation" in which a screenwriter, horribly blocked and unable to finish his script, complains to a voluble writing coach about the lack of drama in the "real world."

The writing guru responds with this rant:

"The real world? The real fucking world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day! There's genocide and war and corruption! Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to life to save someone else! Every fucking day someone somewhere makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it, for Christ's sake! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else portrays his best friend for a woman! If you can't find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don't know much about life!"

Take out screenwriter. Substitute reporter. Delete "real world." Insert Plano. Start writing.

 Dallas Observer Snooze Alarm -- What will The Dallas Morning News look like when you wake up in 2010? If Editor Bob Mong has his way, it'll be the best damn paper the 'burbs will buy.

Posted by Tim Porter at February 13, 2003 01:18 PM

Bravo. And Amen.

Posted by: Lex on February 14, 2003 08:27 AM

Wow. This one hit home.
I can't tell you how many meetings I've sat in where the publisher dumped all over the newsroom or announced significant changes and a room full of professional question-askers couldn't muster a one.
It's not that we couldn't -- that's abundantly clear if you hang around the coffee machine afterward. It's just that it's a lose-lose proposition. In this day of insurance-company like newsroom culture, the only way to get ahead is be political and suck it up.
We are a beaten-down lot and it is hurting newspapers. If we can't even speak up in our own newsrooms, I can only imagine what kind of weighty, messy issues were dodging out on our beats.

Posted by: Meg on February 17, 2003 03:11 PM

I found your observations remarkable both for its content and elegance of expression.

While there is an acceptance by many that perhaps water really does flow in the veins of the newspaper journalist, I have come across a few rebels...

For shrewd, sharp and engaging conversation on the real world, it is hard to go past Webdiary...

Posted by: jozef imrich on February 18, 2003 12:42 AM
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