Linda Stewart Ball left The Dallas Morning News in 2006, and she couldn’t be professionally happier. “I’m extremely satisfied,” says Ball, forty-seven, a reporter at the paper for fourteen years who accepted a buyout and became a freelance writer. “I love being my own boss.” Reese Dunklin, who received a 2004 Livingston Award for Young Journalists, chose not to take the buyout. At thirty-three, Dunklin wants to remain at the Morning News but concedes he is worried about the paper’s future. “At times you wonder where it’s all headed,” he says, “because you sense this air of desperation.”
Management at The Dallas Morning News used a combination of layoffs in 2004 and buyouts in 2006, plus attrition, to slash some two hundred journalists—30 percent of the staff—from the newsroom. This kind of scenario has played out at metropolitan dailies across the country, from Long Island to California. But what happens afterward? What has been the result for those who left, for those who stayed, and for the Morning News itself as managers make cuts to try to maintain profitability?
What we found is that Ball and Dunklin are not atypical. We surveyed almost half of the two hundred who left the Morning News as well as dozens who stayed, and the findings are surprising. Whether they jumped or were pushed, most of those who left are more satisfied today than before they left. More than half managed to stay in journalism.
Those who remain, meanwhile, say the mood is uncertain at best. Circulation is in freefall. Readers increasingly are dissatisfied. Turnover disrupts stability. Many older staff members were pushed out in the layoffs; now some of the younger ones are leaving on their own. Brittany Edwards, a twenty-four-year-old feature writer who plans to try magazine writing, says many staff members do not believe that management can correct the paper’s problems. “People feel they are into quick fixes,” she says. “They don’t look at the long term.” Chris Borniger, a twenty-eight-year-old copy editor who is heading to law school, says he has lost faith in management. “It seems we are just grasping at straws,” he says. “It is incredibly disheartening.”
Bill DeOre was stunned. He’d been at The Dallas Morning News for thirty-five years, including twenty-five as the sole editorial cartoonist. On October 27, 2004, DeOre’s boss told him management had eliminated his job.
That same day, editors told another sixty-five newsroom employees to pack their bags. Publisher Jim Moroney had warned the staff a month earlier that there would be a reduction in force, but the layoffs shocked them anyway. “Thirty-five years there and then nothing,” says DeOre, fifty-nine. “If they had taken me, stripped me naked, put me on a big white horse, and marched me down Main Street with a big sign that said, ‘Bill DeOre doesn’t work for The Dallas Morning News anymore,’ they’d be doing me a favor. People don’t know I left. They just airbrushed me out.”
Not so long ago, the Morning News had been at the top of its game. Between 1986 and 1994 the paper won six Pulitzer Prizes. A 1999 Columbia Journalism Review survey of more than a hundred editors ranked The Dallas Morning News as the nation’s fifth-best daily. Participants praised the paper for maintaining its commitment to editorial excellence after the Dallas Times Herald, its daily competitor, folded in 1991.
Then came a series of managerial fiascoes. Belo Corp., the parent company of the Morning News, invested $37 million in a company that produced a hand-held device called CueCat. To use it, a newspaper reader had to sit at a computer and scan bar codes on the page to visit Web sites for more information. The product proved to be a disaster, and in 2001 Belo was forced to write off its entire investment. Three local cable news partnerships with Time Warner that began in 2000 cost Belo $10 million a year before Belo withdrew in 2004. That same year, Belo revealed that the Morning News had overstated its circulation by at least 2.5 percent daily and 5.7 percent Sunday. The company agreed to reimburse advertisers $23 million, which Robert W. Decherd, Belo’s chairman and chief executive officer, called “an investment in the company’s future.”