Print newspapers are dying all over, replaced by multi-faceted, interactive, digital-fueled versions. Is this a good or bad trend?
“You got that story sent over yet, Doc?” Lawrence’s formidable presence dominated my shoulder, as he gazed at the archaic computer screen in a confused fashion. When Lawrence requested something — which could seem like a demand — everyone in the building knew it.
Another attempt failed to electronically send the first story of the fledgling Arlington Morning News from a nondescript office building near Six Flags Over Texas and the Texas Rangers’ Ballpark in Arlington to The Dallas Morning News about 15 miles away. It was the day after April Fool’s Day, 1996. I wondered whether someone was continuing to play tricks.
“Shit! When was this machine built — 1880?” I asked. Complaining about your plight using sarcasm and profanity was a journalist’s right — or rite. It not only helped ease the stress of the relentless deadline pressure that hung over the dense newsroom like fog on the Golden Gate Bridge, but it deflected blame outwardly, to somewhere else other than the obvious guilty party.
Lawrence let out his distinctive, nervous, baritone laugh. Just about everything AMN Managing Editor Lawrence E. Young did was larger than life. He possessed one of those high-energy, boisterous personalities that filled the room. Like most everything in Texas, such personalities in this state seemed somehow bigger and more numerous than other places. “God-damned bozos downtown, sending us this shit! How are we supposed to put out a newspaper with this fucking crap?”
By that time, a crowd had gathered behind me. “Do we have our first story sent over yet?” Publisher and Editor Gary Jacobson bellowed, chomping on his trademark cigar.
“Almost,” I replied, trying to act like I knew what I was doing.
City editor Tracy Staton and assistant city editor Christopher Ave attempted to make helpful suggestions. Veteran reporters and assistant editors Chris Payne and Darrin Schlegel thumbed through a manual, searching for clues. “This thing is not in English,” Chris noted.
“I hear you,” I said. “I tried to read it. It’s in another language.”
A message came over from our head copy chief, Marc Gilbert, who was stationed in the News’ downtown Dallas offices to oversee the production process. Back then, it took three or four copy editors to do what one copy editor with a decent iMac can now do. It was towards the end of what some called the good ol’ days and others called the archaic times, when newspapering was a little more fun, yet inefficient. Newspapering’s real heydays were more in the Watergate era of the early 1970s, when reporters kept liquor bottles in their desks and openly fought with enemy government officials and button-down executives. There was no Google, no Twitter, no Facebook, to make reporting easier, but what journalists lacked in technology, they made up for in perseverance and ingenuity. Papers then were viewed by many in newsrooms as more of a sacred mission than a money-making venture, though a good number of media executives still made out like bandits.
That was slightly before I broke into the business by freelancing a story for the Texas Singles News in 1978 about skydiving while I was the sports editor of the Richland College student paper. I was paid all of $25 for the piece. I was in Heaven. From there, it was all downhill along a slow, rocky descent into Hell.
After re-reading parts of the manual and attempting a few times to send the AMN’s first story, something clicked. “I think it went through,” I stated. “At least I hope it did.”
Soon, Marc confirmed it. Some cheered and slapped my back.
“We have liftoff!” Lawrence announced. “The Arlington Morning News is on our way.” To what, who knew?
A newspaper war is born
For decades, the competition between the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Dallas papers pretty much abided by an unwritten agreement to not significantly cross into each other’s base. The Morning News was more preoccupied with its battle against the former Dallas Times Herald, a war it won in 1991 when the latter paper closed after a heated, sometimes nasty conflict. Some say the DMN, which bought much of the Herald’s assets, directly killed the Herald; others say Herald execs agreed to shut down in a backroom deal. After that, the DMN increased its print dominance of Dallas County and the fast-growing, affluent northern burbs in Collin County.
A.H. Belo Corp., the parent of the News, traced its roots to the Galveston Daily News, formed when Texas was still a republic in 1842. Alfred Horatio Belo, a former Confederate colonel, became publisher and majority owner of the Daily News in 1865. After the old Dallas Herald shunned Belo’s acquisition overtures, he sent George B. Dealey to Dallas to start a sister paper in 1885, namely The Dallas Morning News. Like it did more than a century later, the DMN soon swallowed the Herald and had only to compete with outside papers such as some from St. Louis.
Dealey rose to president of the company in 1920 and renamed it A.H. Belo Corp. six years later. The business purchased what became WFAA-TV, the largest television station in the region, in 1950 and continued to grow its holdings. Acquisitions in the 1960s included News-Texan Inc., later called Dallas-Fort Worth Suburban Newspapers, publisher of what became the Arlington News and other community papers.
After closing the Times Herald, Belo aggressively pursued television stations, newspapers, and other media properties, and saw annual revenues increase from $628 million in 1994 to $1.4 billion in 1998. The Morning News’ daily circulation increased substantially through the decades, from 86,000 in 1928 to 150,000 in 1950; 239,000 in 1970; and 527,000 in 1994.
The Star-Telegram, then owned by the Walt Disney Co., kept its home turf in Tarrant County, while venturing out to Denton and other nearby counties. Formed in 1906, the Fort Worth Star became that county’s chief paper in 1909 when Amon G. Carter led efforts to purchase competitor Fort Worth Telegram. For many years, the Star-Telegram touted itself as having the largest circulation of any paper in the South, venturing as far as New Mexico. In 1952, the paper had morning and evening circulation of 243,000, more than 50,000 beyond both the DMN and Houston Chronicle.
The Star-Telegram, like Belo’s group, expanded into other media, creating radio station WBAP in 1922 and the first TV station in the state, WBAP-TV, now an NBC affiliate, in 1948. Execs also ventured online into an ASCII service in 1982, earlier than most competitors. The Carter family sold the Star-Telegram for a reported $80 million to Capital Cities Communications in 1973, and Disney bought Cap Cities in 1996 for $19 billion, before selling the Star-Telegram and other papers to publishing chain Knight Ridder in 1997.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the DMN and Star-Telegram kept a few token reporters in the other’s home territory. The DMN even formed a short-lived zoned section in Fort Worth in the 1980s. Then in the mid-1990s, Belo execs, seeking a wider regional net, decided to make a bigger play for Arlington. That city of some 300,000 residents between Dallas and Fort Worth — the home of Six Flags, the Rangers, a major General Motors assembly plant, and seemingly a subdivision and shopping mall on every corner — had the kind of upscale demographics advertising execs craved, often not found in cities of its size. The population grew at an annual rate of 5.2 percent, almost double the national rate.
While some observers thought that Belo’s play for Arlington was motivated mostly by ego, execs disavowed such notions, claiming they were performing a public service. “People in the Mid-Cities area between Dallas and Fort Worth, particularly in Arlington, tell us that they want an identity for their own,” The New York Times quoted Burl Osborne, publisher and editor of the Morning News, in an April 1996 story.
Belo execs were not satisfied with the DMN’s small bureau in Arlington or the twice-a-week Arlington News, where I was news editor. That paper was once a daily, but revenue declines resulted in downsizing. With a small staff and little resources, we had not cut much into the Star-Telegram’s home turf.
In January 1996, Gary, then the DMN business editor, first heard about the new venture in a meeting with Osborne, who told him to keep the project under wraps. It didn’t take long for Gary to accept the challenge, and June DeRousse, a ten-year DMN advertising manager, agreed to be the paper’s advertising director. In an AMN video celebrating its first year, Gary recalled that he spent two hours trying to recruit the first DMN staffer he approached only to be turned down. He knew he couldn’t afford to spend that much time on each potential candidate. “I gave my best pitch in five minutes, and if I didn’t see a spark, then that was it,” he said.
Some deemed the challenge as too difficult, or beneath them. The Dallas Observer reported about a month before our launch that some staffers “hired to work for America’s eighth-largest daily have expressed reluctance to accept a transfer to a new 20,000-circulation suburban operation.” The story described execs as “hastily trying to assemble a reporting staff for the new paper.”
Gary soon had some success, coaxing Lawrence from his position as DMN assistant national editor and Tracy from being editor of Texas Business magazine. Eric Garcia, who had also worked for the Times Herald, was recruited from the DMN Metro operation. More came from the Star-Telegram, Houston Business Journal, and various papers. Most former Arlington News staffers were hired and given raises.
Even with a much larger staff than the old Arlington News had, we found filling up 16 pages five days a week to be challenging. Top Belo execs seemed pleased with our first few issues, which contained stories on the city hiring a consultant to work on large-scale improvements to a creek that officials wanted to try to turn into a San Antonio-style River Walk, minority hiring policies at the growing University of Texas at Arlington, and the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act, a law named for a slain Arlington 9-year-old girl that resulted in a popular nationwide system to catch sex offenders. Osborne wrote a letter addressed to our staff, saying, “The first week of publication has demonstrated the validity of the notion that Arlington wants its own nameplate…. I am very proud and you also should be very proud.”
DMN editor Ralph Langer voiced similar sentiments: “The AMN is instantly a credible newspaper with a competitive opportunity to establish itself as Arlington’s favorite local newspaper.… All of you should be praised for the planning and obstacles overcome…. Take a bow.”
Others did not think we should take a bow. The Times described our product that first month as “a scrawny foe, with a scant 16 pages of color and local news and more self-promotional ads some days than the paid kind.” The Observer poked fun at our front-page weather report and apparently thought we did not cover enough hard news, noting there was a “chance of scattered drivel” today and “mostly fluffy, chance of pandering” the following day. In a story under the headline, “A.H. Belo here to rescue Arlington,” the Observer jokingly claimed we only published Wednesday through Sunday because “Arlingtonians may not be accustomed to prolonged bouts of reading.”
That weekly also took shots at the FWST’s expanded coverage in Arlington. A story joked that the paper would invite Arlington civic and business leaders to submit stories covering themselves, form a “Frequent Reader Program,” offer free hot-air balloon rides to long-time subscribers, and pay every reader’s parking tickets throughout April.
After just three months, our operation expanded to seven days. Most of us saw overtime increase significantly, with 12- to 14-hour days the norm. We’d get up, fight traffic, get to work by 9 a.m. or so, stay until 10 p.m. or later, go home, then wake up to do it all over again. It was exhausting — but exhilarating — for many of us. The need for editors was so great with the expansion that I soon moved up from copy editor to assistant city editor and Sunday editor.
Our launch made the radar of more national media outlets than the Times, including American Journalism Review and Editor & Publisher. The Times wrote that the “gambit in Arlington is one that publishers around the country are watching carefully.” The article noted that papers had invaded each others circulation areas before, but quoted an analyst who said it was unusual, even “perilous,” to form a freestanding daily in a competing area. AJR called it “a different kind of fight,” where “one city’s newspaper moves in on a nearby city’s newspaper market.”
By the time the AMN formed, only one of the six Texas cities larger than Arlington featured two daily newspapers. And in El Paso, the Herald-Post was in the process of dying and would close in 1997. The Houston Post went under in 1995; San Antonio lost the Light in 1993. Austin last had two independently-owned dailies in 1924 — unless you counted the student-run Daily Texan — though the American and the Evening Statesman published separately under the same owner until 1973. The Fort Worth Press perished in 1975.
Some analysts doubted that Belo would win the Arlington battle, noting that FWST parent Disney had much greater resources. But the Observer believed that the Star-Telegram was vulnerable with Disney in the process of unloading the paper and described Star-Telegram top management as “weak.” The “erratic news judgment and personnel decisions” of executive editor Debbie Price, who would soon leave for the Baltimore Sun, “have driven off many talented journalists and hurt morale,” the Observer charged.
The Star-Telegram had significantly ramped up its Arlington operation, spending about $7 million to expand staff from some 60 people to about 120, according to news reports. The paper changed its zoned Arlington edition that formed in 1992 to the Arlington Star-Telegram a few months after we launched. Execs gave Arlington staffers Army helmets and dog tags. Posters of the Elmore Leonard-inspired movie Get Shorty — a dig at the 5-foot-6 Osborne — dotted the newsroom. They slashed newsstand prices and asked advertisers to sign statements saying there was no need for another paper. Some advertisers publicly complained they raised rates if they also advertised in the AMN. Disney CEO Michael Eisner reportedly told Star-Telegram execs, “Do whatever it is you gotta do,” according to a July 1996 Texas Monthly article.
Many new AST staffers came from other parts of the paper, while some were recruited from outside. “This is a very serious battle,” AST Editor Gary Hardee, who had been a senior editor at the Times Herald when that paper closed, told D Magazine. “When you add Arlington to northeastern Tarrant County, you come up with 54 percent of the Star-Telegram’s resource base.”
Osborne declined to tell Texas Monthly and others — including our staff — how much Belo paid for the Arlington launch, but estimates were less than half what the Star-Telegram spent on its expansion. We didn’t get dog tags but did receive some AMN shirts and mugs. Belo paid for a fancy launch party at a suite at The Ballpark in Arlington. The budget included sending reporters to Puerto Rico for features on Rangers stars Juan González and Pudge Rodríguez and to New York to cover the team’s first playoff games. For former Arlington News staffers, it was a stark contrast to when our operation was all-but forgotten in a decrepit, environmentally-questionable building that once housed a printing press in northeast Arlington’s warehouse district.
By that June, the AST had about 42,500 daily subscribers, more than double our circulation. But Osborne told Texas Monthly that he was pleased: “We’re much further along than our projections. It’s a matter of years, more than one year but less than 50.”
Star-Telegram execs insisted the AMN was not its own paper but a supplement, even though we met standards such as separate registration with the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Meanwhile, they claimed the AST was more than a zoned edition.
“This is not just a fight for Arlington, it’s a fight for the future of the Star-Telegram, and we will never give up. Never,” AST publisher Michael “Mac” Tully told the Times. But by 1999, as the battle continued amid indications showing that the AST was still comfortably ahead, he would walk away to become publisher of a Florida paper.
At the 1996 launch of the AST during the city’s annual Fourth of July parade, Tully, dressed in a George Washington costume and sweating profusely, approached Gary and some others. He flaunted the paper’s lavish float, trying to compare the AST’s presence to ours, in which we just had people handing out copies of the AMN. “We choose to put the money into the editorial product,” Gary told Tully, who had no comeback.
Former Grand Prairie News editor Herb Booth, among those who had joined the AMN, heard the exchange. Coffee passed through his nose as he stifled a laugh. “Gary’s response was so perfect, so utterly effortless,” he noted.
Profanity as art
“Why did we not have that fucking story?” Lawrence was in good form during one of several daily editors meetings. The AST had a story about the Arlington school district we didn’t have. And he was livid. “How can we let the fucking Star-Telegram beat us? We’re fucking better than them! We fucking own this city! We fucking own this story! We can’t let this fucking happen!”
Sometimes in the midst of one of his almost daily f-bomb performances, I wanted to stand up and start a slow appreciative clap. But I never dared. I was afraid Lawrence might take it the wrong way and throw me through a wall. Some people let loose with profanity, and it seems out-of-place. Being relatively quiet and mostly business-like at work, I was among those. For others, you looked at them like there was something wrong if they didn’t issue a few f-bombs every couple sentences.
When Lawrence was on a roll, some took it too personally. To me, he took venting to another level; it was a thing of beauty, a work of art. If you looked at it objectively and weren’t the direct target, you had to shake your head and marvel.
But in reality, most just tried not to make eye contact and kind of nodded along. “Yes, we will do better,” we would repeat. “We will make it happen.”
I had met Lawrence almost a decade earlier. He was a hungry political reporter for the Morning News. I was editor of the small weekly Addison-North Dallas Register. We both covered the same community meeting, and I was impressed that he didn’t act like I was beneath him because of where we worked. We met up more after that, including during a landmark political lawsuit trial in 1989. We both spent long hours talking Dallas politics with Roy Williams, the local dean of civil rights advocacy and one of the plaintiffs in the suit.
Lawrence was always friendly and encouraging, invoking an enthusiasm that made you know he lived and breathed the newspaper business. His passion was infectious and rekindled some of that fire I first grasped covering a speech by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh in my 1979 college days. My then-wife, Michelle, and I sometimes dined with Lawrence and his wife, Margie. Though I attempted to stay away from political labels, believing that most people’s beliefs were more complex and nebulous, I was usually considered a liberal Democrat, especially by Texas standards where even a moderate Democrat was branded a pinko-loving commie. Lawrence was a moderate Republican, one who was more open than most. A board member of the National Association of Minority Media Executives and Newspaper Association of America diversity board, he loved talking politics. Sometimes, I observed diners at other tables glancing at him as his booming voice relayed a seemingly endless array of facts and opinions in an authoritative manner. He also loved sports, especially basketball, and jazz music, so we usually found common ground.
Lawrence had time for anyone who walked into his office, sometimes too much time. Valerie Fields, who came from the Star-Telegram and started as religion editor, wrote that there were many meetings with Lawrence when he said this “won’t take but a minute” and ended up being an hour. He “pushed me to make just one more phone call,” sometimes at midnight, “to get my stories just right,” she noted.
Gary rarely made an appearance in our editors’ staff meetings, not wanting to step on Lawrence’s toes. He kept busy working with former Arlington News editor Russ Rian, Herb, and Leonidas Patterson on the editorial page, with Todd Wills, Mark Konradi, and others in sports, with June in advertising, and with Osborne and downtown execs. He often left copies of our stories with encouraging notes and constructive criticism in our mailboxes, back in those pre-email days. Pennie Boyett, former lifestyles editor at the Grand Prairie News who took a similar position at the AMN, said the notes were sparse enough to mean something when receiving them, and she saved each one.
“It’s a tough racket,” was his trademark phrase that a couple sports columnists worked into their prose. “When in doubt, grin,” was another Gary technique. Some called that grin a little scary and could not tell if it was really a smirk, but it was effective.
In one of my first days on the job, Gary handed me a letter from a resident complaining about columns I had written for the Arlington News and requesting that Gary not hire “an extremely negative and depressing kid.” I was well past the “kid” stage at 37 years old. “He’s not a fan,” Gary deadpanned. That was the only thing he said and the last I heard about it.
“Gary is the ultimate professional,” Lawrence once told me. “I wouldn’t have come over to Arlington without Gary here.”
Michael Landauer, who joined the AMN in 1997 as a copy editor and editorial writer, wrote that in his first conversation with Gary, he asked about some guest columns he had submitted and whether there was anything he needed to change to get him to run them. Gary replied, “Well, who are you? Why should the readers give a shit about what you say?” Michael wrote. “His straight talk has made me and everyone who has worked with him a better journalist.”
That straight talk included almost as much profanity as Lawrence issued — Todd said in his first interview with Gary he counted something like 522 f-bombs, which may have been a slight exaggeration. “He gave us story ideas and work ideas,” wrote Todd. “He ripped us when we needed it. He applauded us when we needed it.” Gary also visited Todd in the hospital when he broke his leg.
Doug Pils, who not only worked in sports during his AMN stint but was business editor and night city editor for a time, recalled a closed-door meeting also involving Todd, Mark, and Cameron Maun about not meeting deadlines. Gary smiled and laughed at first, then he suddenly slammed his hand to the desk and issued “that glare….We went back and did our best to make deadline. Of course, we busted on almost every game night, but Gary understood our plight.”
Within a few months, the AMN had not just become a real daily newspaper but moved its headquarters to a new office on Interstate 30 that was even closer to The Ballpark, Six Flags, and site of the future “Jerry World” Dallas Cowboys Stadium. It was so close you could walk to the Rangers headquarters, which I sometimes did just to take a break from the madness inside. The AMN was the largest tenant of that four-story structure, taking up most of the top floor. We put our nameplate on the outside of the building so the thousands of commuters stuck in traffic on the highway could see where to target us.
As we attempted to figure out how to best erode the Star-Telegram’s Arlington foothold, top editors and reporters journeyed from Dallas to dispense advice and encouragement. Gilbert Bailon, executive editor at the DMN who broke barriers for Hispanics in the industry and later became editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was among the visiting regulars. So was award-winning investigative reporter Brooks Eggerton.
Points of contention
The first year of any new venture was usually its most important, as about one-third of businesses go under in their first two years, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. While some such as Tracy left before our one-year anniversary, most stayed and built some chemistry.
At previous newspaper jobs, I worked such long hours I didn’t want to hang out with most colleagues. But it was different at the AMN. For some reason, perhaps related to being a participant in a publicly-declared “war,” many of us bonded. For a Saturday party celebrating a house in Arlington that Michelle and me purchased in late 1996, there must have been 50 attendees. Half of those were AMNers. It was awesome. We engaged in other activities away from the office, playing basketball and softball in various leagues and tournaments, attending karaoke nights at clubs.
Like any “family,” we had our share of disagreements, some worse than others. One of the more dramatic incidents I was involved in came in early 1997. Back in those days, reporters and editors had beepers attached to their belts, rather than cell phones in their pockets. Mine went off late one Sunday night, after I had returned home.
I called the number, and Elise Anthony, a bright, young copy editor who would soon be promoted to the DMN, answered. “We’re not going to run the Dalworthington Gardens story,” she said.
I was taken aback. The story by Larry Hartstein, who would soon join the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and remain there for 14 years, was on a third suspect named in the killing of a local couple in their 60s. Herb, who was night editor on Sundays, and I had combed through the article, made a few changes, and thought it was fine. “What? Who made that decision?”
“I called Lawrence, and he told me to take it off.”
“Why wasn’t I called first? I’m the Sunday editor.”
“Well, I’m sorry…. I just thought it was something Lawrence should review.”
The next morning, I wrote a memo to Lawrence and Elise, whose main contention seemed to be over naming the third suspect. I pointed out that a DMN story had named him previously.
“I thought the process was that whoever edits the story on the city desk is called if there is a question on the copy desk,” I wrote. “I was not called first in this case, only afterwards by Elise, who told me the decision to pull the story was already made. I do not mind so much that the story was pulled as I do that Herb and me did not have any input into making that decision.”
When I came in for my night shift on Tuesday, Lawrence asked me to meet with him. “Elise was right to call me,” he said. “Just because The Dallas Morning News names a suspect, we shouldn’t name that suspect unless he is actually charged with a crime. We have our own standards. We’re the Arlington Morning News, not The Dallas Morning News.”
“That’s fine,” I replied. “But Herb and I are the city editors that day, and we should have been included in the process.”
Lawrence shook his head. “In most cases, I agree. But not in this case. There are times when the copy desk needs to contact me directly. Elise felt the city desk wasn’t going to do anything, so she called me.” He was calm, not even cussing. I saw I wasn’t going to win this debate and let it go.
That night was hellacious, even for our standards. City Hall reporter Kim Horner, who had started in October and would become an assistant editor before joining the DMN directly for more than a dozen years, had her car in the shop. Somehow, I was the only person available to pick her up from a City Hall meeting so she could return to the office. Darrin, who did both business reporting and city editing, had to finish writing a story. Two other reporters were at late meetings.
About ten minutes before our 10:30 p.m. copy deadline, we still had six stories out. Two of those were being edited by Lawrence, who stormed out of his office. “How come we have six fucking stories still out?” he yelled, as the newsroom became deathly quiet. “What the fuck is going on here?” He motioned to Felicia Pinkney, a news and copy editor who would go on to work at the DMN and FWST. “Give me a printout of all stories out later than 10:30.”
A few minutes later, Lawrence returned and approached me to ask what the problem was.
“We had three late meetings,” I replied, not bothering to mention that two of the stories out were ones by April Washington and Rani Monson that he was editing. “We’re doing the best we can.”
“It’s not good enough!” Lawrence yelled. “We need to have a long fucking meeting about meeting deadlines and copy flow!”
Later after all stories were put to bed, Darrin and I surveyed the damage. “That was a bullshit scene, huh?” he noted.
“Yeah, it was bullshit,” I agreed.
“The last story out was April’s at 10:59. That story and Rani’s should have been in long before that.”
The next day, Martha Flores, the new deputy city editor, and Christopher told me they met with Lawrence. “We should have delayed one of the late stories until today,” said Christopher, who had become a co-deputy city editor. “When we have three late meetings like that, we need to tell Lawrence beforehand.”
“Did Lawrence say that two of the stories out late were ones he edited?” I asked.
“No,” said Christopher, a sharp colleague and a fellow Lake Highlands High alum. He would leave in 1998 for a Florida paper, marry Melanie Busch, who covered transportation, and go on to be national and political editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I know there are definitely other issues at play here. But we still need to communicate better with Lawrence about this.”
At the afternoon meeting, Lawrence issued a profanity-laced spiel that was more animated than usual. “We blew our fucking deadline by 39 minutes!” he exclaimed at one point. “That was the worst fucking performance on deadline I’ve seen since we’ve been here!”
No one else said anything. So I had to say something. In most meetings, I remained fairly quiet, not wanting to add to their length. But there were times when I should have spoken up, such as when we decided to make the lead front-page story on Jack-in-the-Box releasing some “stealth fries.” We justifiably got raked over in the Fort Worth Weekly over that.
“I should have pushed Cliff and the others more to get their stories in earlier,” I offered. “But I also think when we have three late meetings, we need to get all non-meeting stories in well before deadline.”
“We have to get all stories in early, whether they are late meetings or not,” Lawrence said.
“Yes, but I think especially non-meeting stories,” I responded.
Darrin then voiced a similar position. Lawrence moved on to other topics, such as a photographer who blew up at a reporter in front of people.
That evening, we pushed all stories over 15 minutes before deadline. In the next day’s afternoon meeting, Lawrence praised us for meeting deadline. But that night, we had three more late meetings. Rather than addressing Darrin, Lawrence approached Elise to ask her to message Darrin on our computer system to get in the story he was editing. Later, he returned to ask Elise if an Associated Press story on Ebonics was running. Elise said she didn’t know and looked my way.
I turned to face Lawrence. “Why don’t you ask me? Yeah, it’s running.”
Lawrence ignored me, saying to Elise, “Can you make sure you put a reference on April’s Ebonics story to the AP one?” I glared at Lawrence, who walked off.
We would soon make up. I couldn’t stay angry at Lawrence for long. I knew he had a difficult job and was tasked with an almost impossible mission against an established opponent willing to spend significantly more than us in its backyard.
Off deadline, Darrin and I vented in a hallway. “If Lawrence wants to make Elise night editor, she can have it,” said Darrin, who would soon leave to become the San Antonio Express-News’ business editor. He later became the Star-Telegram’s deputy sports editor, Dallas Business Journal’s managing editor, a Houston Chronicle reporter, and a law firm media relations rep.
“I’d like to ride it out,” I said. I wanted to see how this war ended. Back in my Boy Scout days, we had toured a DMN printing press. The fast pace, noise, and smell of ink fascinated me. I had a neighborhood paper route throwing the Times Herald for a couple years in my teens. At Richland College, I caught the bug writing for the school paper. Working for the DMN/AMN wasn’t my ultimate dream, but it was one goal.
In the back of my mind, I suspected this war would culminate like author and former Dallas Cowboys receiver Pete Gent said, when he told a rookie to not bother reading the NFL team’s playbook during a 1960s practice.
“Everybody gets killed in the end,” Gent said.
The internal and deadline pressures were not the only forces at work. Officials not used to closer scrutiny voiced objections fairly often to upper management. During one week in the fall of 1996, Arlington’s mayor, police chief, superintendent of schools, and chamber president all called him to complain about our coverage. “That’s when I knew we had arrived as a newspaper,” Gary said.
Lynn Hale, superintendent of the Arlington school district from 1993 until 1998, made such complaints on a fairly regular basis. In an August 1997 letter to Martha, Hale charged that reporter Tra Clough, who covered schools, deliberately “wrote negative implications about my character.” Tra’s “crime” was to mistakenly cite the wrong month that Hale announced she would leave the Arlington district, which Hale thought left an impression that she “was trying to benefit my future employment.”
Tra, who had written stories that Hale didn’t like on a controversial policy that banned students caught with alcohol from sports and other extracurricular activities and on teens using liquid ecstasy, agreed to send Hale a letter apologizing for including the wrong month. But Hale wrote that she would return it “unopened” and charged that the AMN had “deliberately attempted to discredit” her. The situation would not be resolved to her satisfaction before Hale left.
Then Mayor Richard Greene complained that at times our role model seemed to be the National Enquirer, charging that certain reporters wrote stories on flimsy accusations that had “no basis.” Arlington Chamber of Commerce president David Sampson recalled having to field some angry calls from business execs after they read a story by Darrin and Chris about GM supplier Lear Seating Corp. seeking to build a local facility. But they also offered compliments, with Greene saying our staff overall was “very capable.”
Gary said in the video marking the paper’s one-year anniversary that he still considered the AMN “the adventure of a lifetime for me.” He liked the attitude of staffers who take an idea “and run with it.” At the DMN and some other places he worked, he said he was more used to people spending “half an hour telling you why it can’t be done.”
He and Osborne told an Advertising Age reporter they were pleased with the paper’s reception and progress a year into its birth. DeRousse told a reporter for the Newspaper Association of America’s Presstime that advertising growth exceeded expectations.
By August 1997, I no longer had to concern myself with complaints and other matters as an editor since I transferred to the business department to be a reporter. I still dealt with some back-tracking officials, including one spokesperson who claimed we had never spoken about a proposed merger, when we had. The job didn’t take me to Puerto Rico or New York but to Austin, where I covered some economic development commission meetings involving Sampson.
The AMN had its share of revolving doors, which is fairly typical for most daily newspapers. Some copy editors, photographers, editors, and reporters were promoted to the DMN in a relatively short time. Reese Dunklin interned at the AMN before joining the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, DMN, and Associated Press. A key loss to Lawrence was April’s departure to the Rocky Mountain News in early 1999. In a memo to the AMN staff, Lawrence wrote that “no one embraced the newspaper’s values and vision more than Mrs. Washington.”
While we quickly filled openings with talented people, by late 1999, I noticed signs that we were ramping down and not doing as well as hoped. Some vacated positions were combined. Hiring and travel slowed. More unpaid interns joined.
An Editor & Publisher article noted that the AST still held a significant daily circulation edge over us at some 51,000 to 27,000, though Gary said readership was about equal in certain sought-after zip codes. He was quoted in that story saying, “We’ve done better every year, and we’re ahead of plan in many areas.” Bob Mong, who would become DMN editor in 2001, was quoted saying Belo execs were still going to “be patient.” Meanwhile, the Star-Telegram had enticed sports columnist Randy Galloway away from the DMN and ran his column in the AST.
Many staffers took on multiple duties. Eric covered almost every beat, from city hall to crime. When he made the move to night city editor in 1999, he still covered some court cases and wrote numerous crime stories. City editors Judy Howard and Robin Yearwood worked almost every day. Russ transferred from editorials to business editor to city editor. Pennie, Valerie, and general assignment reporter Patrick Wascovich filled in as city editors at times.
Taking on the workload that two reporters formerly held in politics and transportation, my expectations were high. Though I won awards such as the AMN “Reporter of the Year” for 1999 and contributed to numerous DMN stories, it never seemed to be enough. I knew what kind of pressure editors were under, but still, there were only so many hours in a day. As my son was born in early 2000, I asked to be transferred back to business.
Belo buying binge, then retreat
Belo execs were not content with starting a newspaper war on their western front. About a year after launching the AMN, the company paid $1.5 billion for The Providence Journal Co., comprised of nine TV stations and Rhode Island’s largest daily newspaper. It was the largest transaction in company history. Also in 1997, Belo acquired The Press-Enterprise, a daily newspaper outside Los Angeles, as well as TV stations in San Antonio and St. Louis.
When Belo’s net earnings dropped by 5 percent to $83 million in 1997 and then descended another 22 percent to $65 million in 1998, shareholder pressure intensified. When income rose to $178 million in 1999, Belo continued buying properties, such as the Denton Record-Chronicle and an Austin TV station. The company also debuted the Texas Cable News channel in 1999 and even invested in the Dallas Mavericks NBA team and a new sports arena.
In 2000, buoyed by a $151 million profit, some say Belo went too far with its $37 million investment in Digital Convergence Corp., which made something called a CueCat. The hand-held device was designed to allow readers to scan a bar code on a newspaper and get more information online. Perhaps Belo execs and CueCat designers failed to take into account that not many people then wanted to read a newspaper while sitting at their computers. They should have known something was funny when the CueCat’s inventor, J. Jovan Philyaw, wanted to be called J. Hutton Pulitzer.
In 2001, Belo had to write off the CueCat investment, among the reasons why it showed a $2.7 million loss that year, the company’s first yearly loss in more than a decade. In 2006, PC World ranked the CueCat 20th on a list of the “25 Worst Tech Products of All Time.” Some partly blamed Radio Shack’s $30 million investment in the CueCat for the retailer’s 2015 bankruptcy filing.
Meanwhile, the AMN’s circulation had not grown as much as Belo execs hoped. Almost five years after our launch, we had increased daily circulation by only about 9,000. While that was a slightly higher growth rate than the AST, the other paper still held almost a two-to-one readership edge.
In early 2001, Belo announced we would cut back to five days a week and become a DMN zoned edition. In a memo, Mong wrote that the DMN’s “daily and Sunday penetration [in Arlington] are at an all-time high,” but only “a couple of thousand” readers had subscribed just to the AMN while DMN subscribers automatically received the AMN. Eliminating AMN-only home delivery and single sales “will allow our circulation department to concentrate on what has been the main event all along — the combination paper,” he said. Cutting back to five days “makes a lot more economic sense.”
Mong praised advertising sales and editorial content. “With the advent of the AMN, Arlington went from being one of the worst covered cities of its size in America, to one of the best covered,” he said. He pledged that the AMN will continue to be “just as ambitious, newsy and community-oriented” and play “an even bigger role” in the DMN’s growth.
Most didn’t read that as good news. Belo had included the Arlington Morning News in its annual report from 1997 to 1999, but in 2000 wrote only that “the company has other operations in Arlington” and stopped mentioning Arlington entirely beginning in 2001. We retreated from our highly-visible office building off a major freeway to the environmentally-challenged warehouse where the old Arlington News had holed up. All that was left to do was to raise the white flag.
Publicly, Gary insisted we were not backing away from the area. “We’re still going to cover the hell out of Arlington and Grand Prairie and Mansfield,” he told Editor & Publisher.
But the main problem we faced was that most readers in Arlington “lean west” towards Fort Worth, not east towards Dallas, said Hardee. “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,” Hardee told the Dallas Observer. “But I do know this: We won’t come into Dallas County and try to do what they’ve done. It doesn’t work.”
As we published the zoned edition, most staffers were in job-searching mode. Eric moved over to the DMN in March to be assistant Metro editor, a position he would retain more than seven years. Police reporter Ben Tinsley switched to covering police and courts for the Star-Telegram that same month.
By August, Lawrence had found a new job, returning to California, where he had served in the Air Force and earned an undergraduate journalism degree. His going-away party celebrating his position as managing editor of the Press-Enterprise wasn’t in a Ballpark suite like in our heyday, but at a local hotel ballroom.
Gary left that same month for an editor position back at the DMN. In early 2001, features writer Kathy Goolsby, a veteran of the Grand Prairie News who would write for the DMN until 2009, asked him while riding to a Rotary Club meeting what he’d like to do after the AMN. He replied he’d like to start another newspaper, that he enjoyed that excitement and challenge. No AMN founding staff members she had spoken with “ever seemed anxious to return to those [early] days — no one, that is, except Gary,” Kathy wrote. “But he wistfully admitted that today’s economy means newspapers are cutting down rather than expanding into new endeavors, so he didn’t foresee such a job opening up for him.”
Great job, here’s your pink slip
A month before September 11 hit, the DMN’s business section decided to take over the suburban business coverage. I started reporting to the DMN assistant business editor, traveling to downtown Dallas headquarters for regular staff meetings.
The tragedy was felt in many ways, including on the bottom line at newspapers like ours. In a letter to employees ten days afterwards, Belo CEO Robert Decherd praised our coverage but noted that advertising had already slowed before Sept. 11 and was expected to really decline in the next few months. He called for departments to “curb hiring, expenses and equipment purchases for the foreseeable future.”
On Oct. 10, Decherd penned a more ominous letter in which he said advertising revenues had “retreated to 1999 levels.” He announced eliminating 160 jobs “later this month” and a one-year wage freeze. Though the company showed a relatively small loss in 2001, profits would return in 2002 close to the 2000 level. Decherd himself would pull in $1.6 million in total compensation in 2001, about one-third less than in 2000. But in 2002, his bonus of $1.3 million more than doubled his bonus in 2000, and total compensation ballooned past his 2000 level.
In late October, I received an email from DMN Business Editor Ed Dufner, who wanted me to meet with him. I knew that wasn’t good news. I took my time on the drive to Dallas, not in any hurry to make this meeting. Walking through the DMN newsroom towards Dufner’s office, I could feel the heat of colleagues’ eyes upon me as if I was a death row inmate. From the corner of the newsroom, beneath the eerie glow of incandescent lighting, I could almost hear a guard yell, “Dead man walking!”
I don’t remember much of what Dufner said, except it seemed like he was reciting a script he had memorized, which was pretty much the case. Deputy Business Editor Dennis Fulton was also there I guess in case I went ballistic, but he didn’t say much. Some HR employee handed me a packet. They asked if I had any questions.
I asked if the termination had anything to do with my performance. Dufner replied that it had to do with “several factors” but declined to say much more, except to stick to the script that its main cause was a “workforce reduction.” I didn’t want to prolong this exchange. I just wanted out of there. I was especially mad at how Dufner made me drive the 30-mile round trip between Arlington and Dallas, rather than him venture out there to break the news.
The drive back to Arlington did allow me to clear my head somewhat. Some in that bureau were in tears, but I didn’t feel that type of emotion. I actually sported a weird grin to the point that Kathy, in tears herself over the layoffs though she was among survivors, asked how I could be smiling.
I didn’t have a good answer. “Aw, it’s not worth crying about,” I finally said. I actually felt more relief than anything else on that day. In some odd way, I appreciated Uncle Belo. He did pay me more than any other paper I had worked for, some of which didn’t even reimburse for mileage for driving my own car to meetings and events. Still, there was a dark side to Uncle Belo, one whose victims usually didn’t identify and prepare for until it was too late.
Later in my daydreams, I stormed into the Belo board room and told off some execs. But those were mere dreams, scenes that mostly only play out in the movies. My last action before leaving the Arlington bureau was to rip down an award plaque I won for some air pollution stories that had been placed on the wall. It appropriately left a hole among the other plaques still remaining.
Reporter Bob Schober, who survived the layoff but soon took a position with a Colorado paper, wrote an email to Belo exec James Moroney III, who had sent a message to employees that he was “confident this was the right decision on behalf of The Dallas Morning News.” Bob noted that the company cut “highly-skilled reporters, who were unfortunate enough to occupy positions that were determined to be expendable. That decision undoubtedly leaves other less-skilled, less-motivated and less-tenured employees in jobs. How choosing slot over competence will improve the company, morale and especially journalistic excellence escapes me.”
Besides such moral support, layoff victims received financial support of about $1,000 each from an employee fund drive. That campaign was headed by DMN columnist and author Steve Blow, who retired in 2015, and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and author Howard Swindle, who tragically died of cancer in 2004 at age 58.
Before I could just move on, I consulted a lawyer and filed a complaint with the Texas Commission on Human Rights, mostly alleging discrimination based on my age. I charged that I was essentially fired since I had almost ten years of service with Belo and was older than many who continued to work there, including a reporter who replaced me. I knew I was grasping at straws, attempting to come up with anything to make a case. I also knew that my chances of winning such case in Texas’s right-to-work environment were slim to none. But winning wasn’t my goal. Making some managers examine more closely what they were doing and holding some bigwigs accountable were among my goals.
I kept some Belo lawyers and human resources and editorial managers busy for almost two years, detailing responses to their points and objections. Besides the state office, I got the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to review my case. In late 2003, the state commission and EEOC finally gave up and closed their reviews because investigators were “unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations of the statutes.” But the offices allowed that they could not certify that Belo was “in compliance with the statutes.” I considered that a moral victory and wasn’t aware of anyone else among the 2001 layoff class who fought Belo to the extent I did.
In 2006, some 18 former DMN employees who were terminated in 2004 filed an age discrimination lawsuit against Belo in a federal court. Like me, they were told their positions were being eliminated, then they were replaced by younger people. The plaintiffs, who included former columnist Larry Powell, editorial cartoonist Bill DeOre, and feature writer Linda Jones, kept the case alive for five years before a judge dismissed it.
By mid-2002, Lawrence had led the Riverside paper for almost a year with the same passion, work ethic, and enthusiasm that he did the AMN. He could tell when an employee felt down and needed a pep talk, or chat. He told some that he wanted to one day own and publish his own paper.
On a sunny Saturday in late July, Lawrence drove down Central Avenue in Riverside about 6 p.m. when he could tell something was wrong. He felt chest pains, parked his Jeep, and turned on the flashers. He called his father, Charles Young, on his cell phone.
“Dad….I’m not feeling well. I need help,” he said. Then the line went dead.
A motorist spied the flashers and stopped to tap on the door. When Lawrence failed to respond, the passerby called 911. Emergency workers tried to revive him and took him to a hospital. Lawrence was pronounced dead at age 47 of an apparent heart attack.
“He never let me down in 47 years,” Charles told the Press-Enterprise. “I used to brag so much my friends would get mad at me.”
Lawrence faced other pressures besides the usual ones at work. He and Margie had divorced in May, according to his obituary. And he and April were expecting a son named after Lawrence, who would be born in August in Dallas.
At his memorial, musicians played Miles Davis jazz tunes, and an actor read a 1919 speech by civil rights advocate and singer Paul Robeson. Speakers included Mong and Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. Part of me wanted to attend the memorial service, and part didn’t want to see anyone from Belo. The latter part won out. I wasn’t in the mood for a reunion.
Some six months later in early 2003, the AMN officially died, quietly publishing its last zoned edition. By that time, my anger towards Belo had subsided enough that I accepted some assignments from the state section. My marriage unraveled, and in the split, I agreed to move close to Michelle’s hometown in Pennsylvania. We put our custom house on the market, which sold in early 2004. The buyer, unbeknownst to us, was a reporter who had joined the DMN from the Star-Telegram about a year before Belo terminated me.
Return to Arlington
In 2015, I found myself back in Arlington. I had just been laid off from another journalism job with a chain of Maryland newspapers affiliated with The Washington Post, one I held for more than 11 years. It was eerily similar to the 2001 layoff, with the larger party Post deciding that the suburban operation needed to be put out of its misery.
In that layoff, I wasn’t nearly as mad as I had been in 2001. Sure, Post execs lied to us — which I viewed as a normal societal practice that seemingly increased in the Internet age — telling us they could not find a buyer for The Gazette newspapers that covered Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. A few hours later, a Washington Post reporter had a story quoting one potential buyer saying his offer was ignored.
It had been another good run, though less intense than the AMN experience. My features on the Kennedy assassination and businesses’ responses to the Great Recession were judged by the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association to be better than any the Post, Baltimore Sun, and larger operations produced. Some stories ran in the Post. But the atmosphere just wasn’t quite the same. For one thing, profanity-laced tirades were discouraged. One staffer who issued one later sent out an apologetic email to the entire newsroom. Never in my wildest imagination could I see Lawrence or Gary making anyone apologize for cussing in the newsroom.
The AMN was a defined war between two large media competitors; the Gazette was also involved in a war, but a less-defined, sometimes-invisible battle to survive in a Titanic-like media environment that continued to downgrade newspapers. My colleagues were hard-working and pleasant. The job allowed me to have most nights and weekends off so I could spend time with my kids, which I appreciated. But I definitely felt the bottom-line influence as layoffs and unfilled positions increased towards the end of my stint there.
By 2015, mass layoffs at newspapers became so common that few raised their eyebrows or bowed their heads when they heard that another paper was shedding its workforce. Newsroom positions across the country declined by almost 4,000 in 2014, dropping to about 33,000, according to a survey by the American Society of News Editors. That was the lowest level since the ASNE started doing a survey in 1978. In 2006, just before the Great Recession hit, U.S. newsroom employment was at 55,000, close to the 1990 peak of roughly 57,000.
Partly due to being tired of seeing headlines about journalism job losses, the ASNE stopped reporting in 2015 on total newsroom positions, focusing on minority hiring numbers. Others kept reporting on them. The Trump Administration’s Department of Labor claimed that total newspaper publishing jobs declined by more than 50 percent between 2001 and 2016, while jobs in Internet publishing and web search portals almost tripled between 2007 and 2016. Trump’s war on the press and bias against most any media outlet not named Fox News or Breitbart make such reports questionable, though there is little question that newspaper jobs continue to decline. The Internet, with its social media, endless blogs and interesting platforms like Medium, may offer a decent alternative. We may have lost many good journalists, but we might know more about what goes on since it gets online so fast through direct sources.
One of many problems is figuring out what reports are more truthful than others. People who don’t like certain news automatically dismiss such reports as fake, which is usually a smokescreen. A general clue is that the ones pols like Trump say are fake are more genuine than most, while the ones they say are true are usually mostly lies. That barometer may work somewhat, but it doesn’t really provide a sustaining model for long-term solutions on how we hold those in power accountable and learn news that we should know in an efficient manner in this New Media Age.
Part of the way I dealt with my latest layoff was to drive across the country with the kids. We played hoops on the Venice Beach outdoor courts made famous by Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes in the 1992 movie, White Men Can’t Jump. We rode “Jurassic Park: The Ride” at Universal Studios, observed a live studio taping of Dan Patrick’s Sports Jeopardy, climbed to within 40 feet of the Hollywood sign, sat on a bench used in Forrest Gump, explored Batman’s cave, and drove down the street that Michael Scott made famous in The Office. We visited friends in Phoenix and refueled in the desert air.
Driving down Interstate 30 as we approached Arlington, I couldn’t help but glance at the building where I had spent so many long days and nights near what was now Globe Life Park in Arlington. The AMN sign had been long gone, and I didn’t notice a replacement. A staffing firm and behavioral health agency were among the occupants. There were no signs of life there as I passed by at about 8 p.m. on this Sunday; a prominent sign proclaiming “Available” was its most striking feature. In our day, Lawrence, me, and many others would still be there, even on a Sunday night. For all I knew, Lawrence’s ghost haunted that place, barking orders laced with f-bombs to shocked janitors and security guards.
Winding down a 680-mile drive from Las Cruces, N.M., I had to stop to stretch and walk around somewhere. The Rangers were in Seattle, and their Ballpark appeared deathly quiet, a sleeping behemoth monster against the Texas sky. Jerry World looked equally tomb-like as twilight approached. Six Flags and some nearby restaurants and bars were the only signs of life in that area.
“I have to get a Pink Thing,” I announced to Preston and McKenna. I didn’t know if Six Flags still sold those cherry-flavored, ice cream concoctions the theme park first unveiled around 1965. I loved those things in my youth.
Preston didn’t want to leave the car, as he was dealing with hives. McKenna laughed and followed me out the door. We showed our passes obtained at Maryland’s Six Flags America that were good at any of the firm’s parks, a great deal. We passed the Aquaman Splashdown, Pandemonium roller-coaster, and Runaway Mine Train. We didn’t want to get wet or stand in a long line. The Gunslinger, some swings that launched riders into the air, was perfect. There was not much of a line, and we were soon perched on a swing. It didn’t propel us to the lofty heights of the Texas SkyScreamer, but we flew high enough.
I asked McKenna if she wanted to ride it again, but she shook her head. “Preston is going to get mad. We better go.” She was right. On the walk back to Six Flags’ entrance, I looked unsuccessfully for a Pink Thing among the ice cream carts and stands. As we were about to exit, I spied one last ice cream cart. Sure enough, it sold Pink Things, and they were only $2.
McKenna devoured hers right away. I kept mine, trying to savor it, to keep it from melting for as long as possible. Reaching the car, I asked Preston if he wanted to try the Pink Thing. He did, of course. It was gone in a flash.
As we waited in a parking lot vehicle line, I glanced again at our old AMN building, which I spied in the distance. For a 1987 Texas Monthly piece, A.C. Greene wrote of his Dallas Times Herald days by starting with a question: “Why is it you never remember the good things about certain jobs, only the bad ― and yet the sweetest times, the days of your life you think you’d rather live over, are those seasons when salaries were lowest, the bosses were cruelest, your fellow workers were the most problematic?”
Greene’s quote spoke to the heart of what journalism meant for many involved, why many more once considered the profession worthwhile and fun in a somewhat masochistic sense. There were times I hated working at the AMN. I certainly hated the way Belo management chewed me up and discarded me. But despite the layoff, the insanely long hours and pressure of a newspaper war, the screaming, the drama, I might not trade that experience for an authentic 1909 Wagner card. Well, perhaps I would if it was a highly-graded Wagner card. I’m not a complete idiot.
Salaries, at least compared with places I worked previously, were good for the most part. AMN bosses weren’t really cruel, just competitive and motivating in their own ways. Certain fellow workers were dramatic and problematic. But most were smart and interesting and people who I didn’t mind seeing off the clock. I had lived one dream there for a few fleeting moments. Such dreams often become nightmares, though those, too, eventually pass. Neither the finer moments nor the nightmares last. The trick is not to let your fear of the latter swallow your visions of the former whole.
Some said all we were doing was carrying the water of the Belo bigwigs in their fancy boardrooms who staked out the next acquisition territory like it was their Manifest Destiny right. Such critics had a point. When those bigwigs were done with us, they spit out pawns like me with barely a second thought. Gent was joking with his quip to the rookie about the Cowboys’ playbook, but like most jokes, it contained some truth. Some Cowboys died earlier than they should have because they read and bought into that playbook, as we are seeing with the many CTE reports. And at least portions of many of us got killed in the midst of the Great Arlington Newspaper War of 1996–2003.
Yet, when we were in those trenches, there were times when it felt like we were in the middle of something bigger than ourselves. We were trying to rekindle the glory days of newspapering, fighting to save that art from going the way of the dinosaurs and the Edsel. Across the country, there were other newspaper wars occurring around the same time as ours, including in California and Florida. Such wars continue to this day in cities like D.C. and New York City and Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The battle between The New York Times and The Washington Post to out-scoop each other on Trump Administration stories is one that some observers say we haven’t seen in years and may not witness again. You can’t but help think it’s temporary, that once Trump scurries away, the environment will become more sterile.
Our war came before the Internet changed media and life as we know it, before Craigslist, Twitter, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and the Wall Street hedge fund-driven recession devalued and killed many a newspaper, reducing the number of U.S. daily papers to less than 1,300 these days from about 1,600 in 1990. Ours was in a city small enough to have community leaders and readers who still cared, with the players, territory, and stakes large enough to gain the attention of national media. With corporate media mergers escalating, it’s easy to foresee a few companies owning every major newspaper in the country one day soon. Perhaps they will continue to stage newspaper wars in attempts to boost readership, but will they be real ones?
In 2008, the Morning News and Star-Telegram started throwing each other’s papers in their back-yard counties. The following year, the former heated rivals began sharing some coverage and photographs. In 2014, Belo started printing the Star-Telegram at its Plano plant, a development ironically chronicled by Gary. Driven largely by the recession, bitter enemies had softened their stances, resulting in a kind of peacetime merger after a war that neither media company had really won.
These days, the DMN and FWST are shells of their former selves. Belo’s total revenues in 2017 were $249 million, down from some $1.4 billion in 2000. The number of Belo employees had shriveled to 1,090 in late 2017, about 7,000 fewer than in 2000. Most of that decline came through property sales, such as the Providence Journal.
However, layoffs and attrition at the DMN were significant enough to shrink its workforce to about 1,000 in 2017 from some 2,300 in 2004. The newsroom count declined to 235 from some 700 in 2000. Layoffs continued to occur in subsequent years. Daily circulation at the News shriveled from some 520,000 in 2000 to 214,000 in 2017, with digital subscribers included in the latter figure. The paper’s managers focused more and more on digital and video.
The decline was similar at the Star-Telegram and most other large dailies. Some layoffs in 2008 included Hardee, who moved on to became a research manager at the University of Texas at Dallas. McClatchy Co., a chain that bought Knight Ridder in 2006 with holdings that included the Star-Telegram, Miami Herald, and Kansas City Star, shrank from almost 17,000 employees in late 2006 to about 4,000 in late 2017.
The demise of the DMN and other papers can be directly attributable to newspapers being owned by publicly-traded companies, wrote Ed Bark, the News’ longtime TV critic who was among those who took a buyout in 2006. He quoted Lorraine Branham, former director of The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism, saying that newspapers being beholden more to shareholders than readers was “the worst thing that could have ever happened to journalism.”
Bark also pointed out how trying unsuccessfully to focus on young readers and “soccer moms” hurt the readership base of older adults. Letting people read the paper online free was another ill-advised strategy, and it likely would have been better to devise a system where print subscribers could access the website while non-subscribers had to pay, he wrote.
In later years, DMN editors also began to worry too much about offending people, with the exception being sports under former editor Dave Smith, who retired in 2004, Bark said. For most at the paper, “raising hell wasn’t an option,” and it was “safer to be folksy,” he wrote.
Paul Gillin, founder of the blog, Newspaper Death Watch, believes newspapers will never recover. Google is a “game-changer,” he writes on his blog. He sees many newspaper companies surviving as smaller properties with less emphasis on print products, and a “new model of journalism” based on aggregation and reader-generated content emerging.
Some view that as positive, with citizens having quicker access to information and fewer trees being used in the electronic process. Yet, electronic devices use electricity and emit chemicals, not to mention their impact during the manufacturing process. It’s like replacing paper towels in public restrooms with electronic hand dryers. You may save some trees, but you also use more electricity and materials in making the dryers. You can recycle electricity, but how many people really do that?
To me, it’s a sad story. Rather than take glee in Belo’s fall from power, I felt emptiness. Not so much for execs like CEO James Moroney III, who still made $2.05 million in 2017. And not really for those still working at the DMN; they didn’t need pity — after all, they still had jobs at one of the largest newspapers in the country, even though they were more overworked than ever and having to concern themselves with concepts such as webpage clicks and Twitter followers.
I was mostly sad at the end of the Great Newspapering Era, an era that essentially died around the same time as the AMN. I guess, in the end, I just wanted to know if what we tried to do in that I-30 office building really mattered in the grand scheme of things. And as I sat there, waiting in the parking lot of Six Flags for my turn to exit almost 15 years after Texas’ last significant newspaper war died, I wanted to believe it did. But that notion was likely built on as much solid foundation as a Trump public statement.
Traveling towards downtown Dallas, it would have been appropriate if the Stones’ “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” played on the radio as I drove into the sunset. If I would have been an NBA or MLB player, that would have been my walk-up music. I turned off the radio as the kids fell asleep. I tried to think of nothing.
As we passed the Dallas skyline, I noticed Reunion Tower and other structures. I didn’t look for the all-too familiar letters of The Dallas Morning News sign close to that tower. Near that sign was a saying, supposedly uttered by longtime News titan Dealey, etched in large letters in stone: “Build the news upon the rock of truth and righteousness. Conduct it always upon the lines of fairness and integrity. Acknowledge the right of the people to get from the newspaper both sides of every important question.”
I didn’t exit to view those words again. I kept moving forward on North Central Expressway, the downtown lights growing dimmer in my rear-view mirror.