Will Dallas Morning News layoffs imperil key beats?

It’s an all-too-familiar story, versions of which played out this week at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and Gannett-owned newsrooms: revenue declines, and so staffers are laid off. The cuts announced January 7 at The Dallas Morning News—43 people in all, nearly half of them from the newsroom—told another tale, one of a major metropolitan newspaper eliminating writers dedicated to major beats.

The layoffs hit reporters covering immigration, transportation, the environment, and more. The paper let go of a staff writer who covers the Dallas County courts just days after a new district attorney began his work. With no clear statement from the paper about shoring up the affected beats, its audience—readers, community leaders, and other journalists—voiced concerns for topics critical to Dallas and Texas that may no longer receive the attention they deserve.

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Staff cuts included Jeff Mosier, a 23-year veteran of the paper who most recently covered energy and the environment. That loss is “a real tragedy,” Tom Pelton, a spokesman for the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, which keeps an office in Austin, says.

“Texas is the epicenter of the American energy revolution,” Pelton writes in an email. “To not have anyone examining the environmental impact for the Dallas metropolitan area is to remove a conscience that a healthy democratic system requires to function.” Bobby Magill, president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, calls the potential decrease in environmental coverage in the state “extraordinarily unfortunate.”

Days after the layoffs, Morning News publisher Grant Moise announced plans to redistribute the paper’s coverage in print. Those changes—which include the reconfiguration of its business section, the consolidation of editorial and opinion pieces, and efforts to “concentrate [arts] coverage in three sections a week”—went into effect January 14.

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“Today, readers of The Dallas Morning News will notice substantial changes to the print edition of the newspaper,” read an editorial published that day. “But amidst the newly remade print edition of this newspaper, we want to note what is not changing: Our values and our focus on serving the community that we live in, that reads us and that is engaged in improving the lives of those around us.” The same editorial announced three new “areas of engagement” for its coverage: human trafficking, education coverage that intersects with poverty issues, and civic participation.

But the editorial does not explain how the paper will allocate resources for its new areas of engagement, or whether the newsroom would be reorganized to cover those beats directly affected by the layoffs. Reached by CJR, Editor Mike Wilson declined to speak to those questions. Since the layoffs, the paper has posted job openings for two reporters—one covering city hall and the other covering aviation for the business section—and a sports producer for its digital platforms.

Still, some readers felt their needs were no longer being served. Perhaps most affected by cuts is the paper’s arts team, which lost its culture critic, its books editor, its theater critic, and its music critic.

“There’s so many holes to fill now,” says Will Evans, founder of the nonprofit Deep Vellum Publishing and owner of Deep Vellum Books, a store in Dallas’ Deep Ellum area. Cuts to the arts section are “a worst-case scenario for what we do,” says Evans, who adds that changes to the Morning News “don’t really stand for the things I find most important in my community.”

Longtime immigration reporter Dianne Solis was also among those laid off. The decision surprised Daniela Gerson, the creator of the newsletter Migratory Notes and an assistant professor of journalism at California State University, Northridge. “Texas is at the center of immigration, which is one of, if not the biggest, stories of our time,” Gerson says.

Solis has a reputation as “an amazing mentor,” says Gerson, and wrote big, hard-hitting stories along with smaller ones crucial to the communities she covered. “To get rid of someone like that at a time like this is a travesty,” Gerson says.

Obed Manuel, who joined The Dallas Morning News last year as part of the Report for America initiative, covers matters affecting second-generation Hispanic immigrants in North Texas. On the day of the staff reduction, he wrote on Facebook about an unspecified mentor.

“The lesson I learned in journalism today,” wrote Manuel, “is that you can work hard and grow up to work alongside your hero only to have to help her carry boxes to her car after she’s been laid off.”

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Emily Goldstein is a doctoral student at the University of Texas and a former copy editor for The Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Observer. She tweets at @editwithemily.