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.”
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.”