The layoffs eliminated slightly more than one of every ten journalists at the Morning News. They had an average of thirty years of experience. Sports lost seventeen, the metropolitan desk eight. The newspaper shuttered its Cuba bureau, technology section, and the weekly science section, edited by Tom Siegfried, fifty-six, one of the country’s most respected science writers and editors. Now living in Los Angeles, Siegfried writes for magazines and recently published his third book. Management argues that the quality of the paper improved after the layoffs. But Siegfried worries that The Dallas Morning News, like many newspapers, is committing slow suicide. “By the time I left, the paper had abandoned the desire for excellence that I had seen there in earlier years,” he says. “Journalism was no longer the top priority.”

The Buyouts
Dwayne Bray did not want to leave The Dallas Morning News, and the editors at the Morning News did not want to lose him. It’s easy to understand why. Before turning forty, Bray had been named editor of the Morning News sports section, considered one of the nation’s best. Later, as deputy managing editor over the metropolitan desk, he became the highest-ranking member of a minority group in the newsroom. He oversaw more than a hundred reporters and editors. More than a few said they would go through walls for him. Like many regional newspapers, the mantra of The Dallas Morning News in recent years has been “local, local, local.” Bray supervised local coverage. He was on the fast track.

But when the newspaper offered buyouts in 2006, he took the deal. Bray, forty-two, says he did not leave because he saw newspapers as a dying industry (“I wanted to be part of the solution,” he says). Bray did see ESPN, where he now works, as an opportunity, but there was another factor: he objected to the leadership of the Morning News. “I put so much into motivating and inspiring employees,” he says. “When I get to the point where people are not motivated and inspired, I get frustrated.”

Many others would join Bray in heading for the door. In 2006, when Belo ordered up more newsroom cuts, the question was how to do the job. Moroney did not like buyouts; he believed they often meant a newspaper lost its most valuable journalists. But the impact of the 2004 layoffs—the pain of those forced out and the shattered morale afterward—convinced him to offer buyouts this time around.

Meanwhile, Moroney and Mong were dealing with another critical problem. Beginning in 2003, they had made a series of moves aimed at attracting younger, “casual” readers. Among other changes, they remade the broadsheet features section into a lifestyles tabloid and discontinued several community sections, replacing them with weekly tabs filled with reader-generated content about events such as middle-school projects or youth-group trips. Results were disastrous. From 2003 to 2005, the Morning News’s daily circulation declined 15 percent and its Sunday circulation 20 percent—the biggest drop of any U.S. paper with a circulation of more than 100,000.

In 2006, Moroney and Mong adopted a new strategy: focusing on the newspaper’s “core readers,” people who had subscribed to The Dallas Morning News for at least five years. They included older people, middle-aged news junkies, and people who love reading. They are wealthier and better educated than the general population.

To determine what those core readers wanted, the Morning News hired The Modellers, a Salt Lake City firm whose clients have included Burger King, Disney, Toyota, and the Department of Defense. The Modellers assembled a survey. More than 3,000 core readers completed it. In June, Mong and George Rodrigue, the managing editor, began meeting with the staff to explain the results, spelling out the newspaper’s future in a series of slide presentations.

Core readers, they said, prized the work of the metropolitan desk, the investigative staff, and local education and cultural coverage. Conversely, they said, core readers did not mind if the Morning News relied on wire services to provide national and international coverage of news and culture.

Craig Flournoy & Tracy Everbach are professors of journalism at Southern Methodist University and University of North Texas, respectively. Flournoy reported for The Dallas Morning News from 1979 to 2000; Everbach from 1986 to 1998.