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.
Management saw the meetings as informational. The staff had a different view. “People called it the color-coded terrorist alert,” recalls Alan Goldstein, then an assistant business editor. For example, Mong and Rodrigue met with the arts and features staff on July 7. When the meeting ended, many who attended said they felt angry and demoralized. “Management was making it plain how little it valued cultural coverage, and how the depressing rounds of cutbacks would only continue,” says Jerome Weeks, fifty-three, who had been the newspaper’s book critic since 1996. Several interpreted the presentation as a push out the door. “It would just be a matter of time before they got rid of people like me,” says Ed Bark, fifty-nine, who had been the newspaper’s television critic for twenty-six years. “Management would have you believe all the buyouts were voluntary, but in reality that is simply not true.”
On August 10, Moroney and Mong announced details of the buyouts. They described them as voluntary. Mong wrote in a memo to the staff, “This world of continuous change is not for everyone, and for those of you who feel this way, the voluntary buyout may be a very attractive choice.” For some, that memo crossed a line. A number of editors and reporters said they felt insulted that management portrayed the buyout as an option for those who could not adapt.
The buyout offer, in fact, sparked a stampede: 112 reporters, editors, photographers, and artists, almost one-third more than management’s initial estimate, took the offer. They were a far different group from those who had been laid off. They were younger. They included a significantly higher percentage of women, including the second-highest-ranking woman in the newsroom as well as the highest-ranking woman in sports. They included more minority group members, including the paper’s only full-time Asian American columnist. The newspaper’s only three-time Pulitzer Prize winner hit the road. So did the projects editor. Many said the Morning News had lost its commitment to journalism. Among them was Steve Davis, forty-one, a sports reporter who began his journalism career at the paper in 1990. “I no longer truly believed in our product,” Davis says, “and was feeling increasingly dishonest about continuing to take a paycheck given my reservations.”