All the Fluff That Fits
Perhaps you heard a few weeks ago that more than 100 journalists accepted buyout offers from The Dallas Morning News. Maybe you said, gee, that’s too bad, but I don’t think it’s going to affect me.
Well, you’d be wrong. It’s been only a couple of weeks since about one-fifth of the DMN news staff left, and the effects on the newspaper’s content are obvious. Readers clearly aren’t getting all the news that’s fit to print in Dallas’ only daily newspaper.
With only two reporters left in the Washington, D.C., bureau, readers no longer receive Texas-centered coverage of the White House or the Supreme Court (the Capitol reporter remains). Two of three federal government branches now are covered by wire services or other newspapers.
With most of the features section wiped out, readers receive watered-down stories about personal shoppers, scrapbooking, and pillow buying to accompany syndicated columnists like Dear Abby.
Since the majority of the familiar movie, theater, art and television critics took the buyout offers, most reviews now are wire stories that also run in dozens of other newspapers and on the internet. Readers don’t need to subscribe to the paper to get these reviews, so why even run them?
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, sold recently to McClatchy Newspapers, is keeping its fine critics who write in strong voices that no doubt attract followers. Peruse a few of Malcolm Mayhew’s clever and sarcastic reviews, and a reader knows where he’s coming from. After scanning some of Christopher Kelly’s film criticism, readers know whether they’re going to love or hate the same movies as he.
But who in Texas knows whether to agree with some reviewer from the Boston Globe?
When the powers-that-be at the DMN announced the buyouts, they said part of their strategy was to scale down the staff and focus more on local news and the web.
“We must produce this important paper and its web content with a staff size that fits economic reality,” wrote News editor Bob Mong in a column explaining the changes to readers. “Our competitive advantage rests in doing what even the newest of new media are struggling to figure out – creating local news and information that readers and viewers can’t find anywhere else.”
While local arts critics aren’t part of the new local focus, local fluff is. Witness the “Good Kid” of the day, which profiles high school students and reveals what they would like to change about their schools (usually the food) and which celebrities they want to meet.
Lists of briefs about quilt contest winners and service awards are fine for community newspapers, but for the past 20 years the Morning News has been considered one of the best 10 papers in the nation, winning eight Pulitzer Prizes since 1986. Bake sales and Boy Scout meeting coverage doesn’t put a newspaper in the same caliber as investigating violence against women around the world (a DMN Pulitzer Prize-winning project) or police brutality.
“A more local focus does not mean less sophistication or ambitiousness,” Mong wrote in his column. “We will do what it takes to get to the bottom of important local stories or issues – online and in the paper.”
We’ll see. The Sunday, Sept. 24, front page led with a continuing investigation into misuse of money in the Dallas Independent School District, certainly an important issue to the community but not a new revelation. It also featured a New York Times-authored story on reports the Iraq war has caused Islamic radicalism to grow, an Austin-based Kinky Friedman feature, and a centerpiece on animal shelters that offered readers very little new information (but had some cute kitty and puppy photos). It wasn’t the front page of a top-10 newspaper, but it certainly had a local focus as promised.
The News isn’t the only major daily paper in crisis, in part because the internet, 24-hour cable stations, and other sources saturate the public with news. Their profits are dropping, and they’re having to reinvent themselves yet again. The way the DMN has chosen to respond will undoubtedly deprive readers by offering them less of the important information they need and more vacuous filler and tawdry gossip.
As part of its web initiative, the News posted on its Bold Types blog a Sherry Jacobson column about the Dallas police chief dating a Channel 11 reporter.
I don’t see another Pulitzer coming for this one.
Tracy Everbach is a journalism professor at the University of North Texas and a former Dallas Morning News staff writer. She can be reached at TracyEverbach@hotmail.com.