Gretel Kovach, thirty-one, joined the paper in 2003 and served as an embedded reporter in Iraq. The circulation scandal, the layoffs, and the bureau closings convinced her to take the buyout. “Even in just three years, The Dallas Morning News had changed so drastically that it was almost unrecognizable,” says Kovach, who still freelances for the paper.
We surveyed fifty-one journalists who accepted the buyout offer. Just three of them said they were dissatisfied with their new jobs. Those forced out in 2004 and those who chose to leave in 2006 seem to generally agree on one point: Life after The Dallas Morning News can be very good.
Pete Slover, forty-seven, spent seventeen years with the paper as a beat and investigative reporter. A lawyer, he is now special counsel to the state comptroller. Karen Thomas, forty-seven, was a thirteen-year veteran who specialized in narrative writing. She now freelances and teaches college journalism. Beatriz Terrazas, forty-four, a Nieman fellow who began as a photographer and became a features writer, co-owns a production company with her husband. All enjoy what they are doing.
Then there’s Michael Precker, fifty-two. For years, he wrote features. Before that, he was the paper’s Middle East bureau chief. Now Precker is a day manager at The Lodge, an upscale Dallas gentlemen’s club, making sure no one harasses the pole dancers. “If you’re going to leap out a window,” he says, “you might as well have a mattress.”
Rick Holter, forty-five, is content for different reasons. He was the arts editor for nine years. Today he is supervising senior editor for National Public Radio’s Day to Day news magazine, based in Los Angeles, where he appreciates NPR’s emphasis on journalism and storytelling. “I loved my job at The Dallas Morning News,” Holter says, “but more and more it became about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”
The Dallas Morning News’s elimination of two hundred jobs affected more than those who left. It also fundamentally changed the paper’s content. Reese Dunklin joined the staff in 1999. Like many of his peers, he was attracted by the newspaper’s outsized ambition. Then management slashed the news staff, eliminated most foreign bureaus, and essentially abandoned national coverage. Dunklin and other young reporters are still adjusting. “You feel like a child in the middle of a divorce—life as you knew it is gone,” he says. Among other things:
- The paper had published a stand-alone weekly religion section since 1994. In March, the Religion Communicators Council named it the best U.S. religion section for the tenth time. But management had eliminated it in January.
- The nationally recognized Discoveries section folded in 2004 when the paper laid off three of its five staffers, including its editor, Siegfried.
- The Morning News once had bureaus in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Cuba, and South America. Today, Mexico is the only international bureau. The paper also shuttered its Houston and Oklahoma City bureaus.
- The Washington bureau once had a staff of eleven. Today, it has two reporters, a columnist, and a vacant reporter’s job. They are supposed to cover national issues involving Texas, the nation’s second most populous state, with an economy nearly as big as Canada’s. Carl Leubsdorf, sixty-nine, has been bureau chief for twenty-seven years. Does he have the staff necessary to cover capital stories with a Texas angle? “That decision was not up to me,” says Leubsdorf.
- The paper has no architecture critic, television critic, or book critic. David Dillon, fifty-nine, the paper’s architecture critic for twenty-three years, took the buyout. So did Bark, one of the nation’s most respected television critics. The paper has not had a full-time editorial cartoonist since laying off DeOre in 2004.
“Look at the talent that has walked out of that place and hasn’t been replaced,” says the former assistant national editor Mike Weiss, a twenty-six-year Morning News veteran, now an editor at Bloomberg News in New York. “I think the sad thing is that Dallas is becoming very much like any other paper. Nothing distinguishes The Dallas Morning News.”