Moroney and Mong are confident they have the Morning News on the right track. For one thing, they say, their newsroom—which still has some four hundred journalists—remains one of the largest in the country. “I defy you to find many other newspapers in the country with a staff that size,” Mong says. He notes that the paper has won several national awards over the past year, including a 2006 photography Pulitzer for Hurricane Katrina coverage. (Two of the photographers involved in that award, Smiley Pool and Barbara Davidson, have since left the paper.) A story by the investigative reporter Brooks Egerton recently won a National Headliners Award. In February, The Associated Press Sports Editors recognized the paper’s sports section with a Triple Crown award for the seventeenth year. And in June, Paul David Meyer, twenty-nine, and Stella Chavez, thirty-four, won the Livingston Award for national reporting, for a series on the abduction and abuse of a young Mexican girl in the U.S. “Overall, I believe it is a better paper today than it was three or four years ago,” says Moroney. Mong agrees.
We interviewed more than a hundred current and former Morning News people for this article. None agree with that assessment. They say the Morning News remains a first-rate daily but that the elimination of two hundred reporters, editors, photographers, and designers hurt its quality. “I don’t think anyone could deny that,” says Egerton, forty-eight, a fifteen-year veteran at the paper and one of its most respected reporters. “I’ve heard people try to spin it to say that it’s all still there, but that’s clearly not true.” Cheryl Hall, fifty-five, a business columnist and thirty-five-year Morning News veteran, says she has not seen quality improve over the past three years: “We cover less.” Dunklin, a member of the paper’s investigative team, says that, “If you are honest, you have to say it has slipped. You cannot lose the quality and number of journalists we had and not see an impact on the product.” Sherry Jacobson, fifty-six, a metro reporter and former columnist who has worked at the Morning News for more than twenty years, has seen the change. “It had been a journalists’ paper for so long,” Jacobson says. “Now it’s so much more bottom-line driven. But so is the rest of the industry.”
The paper certainly carries more wire-service stories than in the past. We analyzed two weeks of front pages in March 2007. One-third of the stories were wire copy. The trend is particularly noticeable when big national and international news breaks. Take the third week in April: a gunman killed thirty-two students and professors at Virginia Tech; Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a Texas native, faced harsh criticism for firing U.S. attorneys; U.S. troops in Iraq died at the highest rate of the war; the Supreme Court issued a landmark abortion ruling. Every story on the front page of the Morning News about those events came from the wires. Indeed, of the stories on page one that week, half were wire copy. While the paper often lacks staff-generated national and international stories, Mong and Moroney say readers care more about local news, and that the Morning News excels at local coverage. Mong cited local cultural coverage as an example, saying that readers “expect us to cover the symphony—that is first and foremost a local story—to cover the museums, cover local architecture, cover local theater.”
But the evidence suggests that the sharply reduced staff, working with a smaller newshole, has a difficult time accomplishing that. For example, the daily arts section, Guide Live, used to run a minimum of eight pages. Now it often contains four pages including TV listings and gossip. Freelancers regularly cover concerts and art exhibits and provide architectural reviews. Other newspapers provide many of the Morning News movie reviews. That is not surprising. Between 2004 and 2006, the arts and features sections lost thirty-nine of eighty-three staff members.