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.”
Mong says the Morning News remains attractive to job seekers. “This is one of the best, maybe the best, place for a young journalist to work in the country,” he says. Nevertheless, the exodus continues. During two weeks in April, a dozen newsroom employees—including seven in their twenties—announced plans to leave. Among them is Chris Borniger, the copy editor heading to law school. Borniger says many staff members believed Moroney and Mong when they vowed in 2004 to do everything possible to avoid another round of staff cuts. “How can you trust people like that when they say we’re never going to do that again and, eighteen months later, they are doing essentially the same thing?” he says. The mood of younger staff people, he says, is “cynical.”
Belo was less frugal with its chairman and CEO. In 2006, Decherd received more than $2 million in salary and cash incentives and almost $3 million in stock and option awards. The total exceeds $5 million—a 50 percent increase over Decherd’s 2005 compensation and the second year in a row he received such an increase. Asked what message his pay package sends to the newsroom, Decherd said in an e-mail that the Belo board determined his compensation “based on the overall performance of the corporation.” Belo investors suffered a 12 percent drop in total shareholder return in 2006 after a 17 percent drop in 2005.