What happens to a newspaper after it dumps a third of its staff? The saga of The Dallas Morning News provides some answers.
Over the past three years, managers at the big newspaper to the east of Fort Worth watched circulation sink along with their own projects. (Ever hear of a Cue Cat? We didn’t think so.) Their answer: Get rid of journalists. Between 2004 and 2006, they eliminated 200 newsroom staffers through a combination of layoffs, buyouts, and attrition. What’s left is a stripped-down version of the newspaper and a shaken staff with an equally reduced faith in management.
“It seems we are just grasping at straws,” said copy editor Chris Borniger, 28, who is leaving the paper for law school. “It is incredibly disheartening.”
A string of academic studies over the past decade have shown that slashing staff can kill a newspaper. “That’s not a business model, it’s a death model,” said Esther Thorson, an associate dean at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. Thorson recently examined four years of financial data from hundreds of newspapers and found that hose who cut staff to maintain profits are doomed to failure.
The DMN’s big bosses say the layoffs and buyouts haven’t hurt the paper’s quality. “Overall, I believe it is a better paper today than it was three or four years ago,” said publisher Jim Moroney. Editor Bob Mong agreed.
We interviewed more than 100 current and former staffers at the Morning News. (Note: We are both former News staffers, as is Gayle Reaves, editor of Fort Worth Weekly.) Not one agreed with Moroney.
“I’ve heard people try to spin it to say that it’s all still there, but that’s clearly not true,” said Brooks Egerton, one of the paper’s most respected reporters.
Not so long ago, the Morning News had positioned itself to join the ranks of the country’s premier newspapers. Between 1986 and 1994 the paper won six Pulitzer Prizes. A 1999 Columbia Journalism Review survey of more than 100 editors ranked the News as the nation’s fifth-best daily.
Today, even those who remain at the paper say the elimination of 200 reporters, editors, photographers, and designers has taken a toll. Cheryl Hall, a business columnist and 35-year Morning News veteran, said she has not seen the paper’s quality improve over the past three years: “We cover less.”
Big-city newspapers across the country are losing circulation. But none lost as many readers as the News did from October 2006 through March 2007, when it posted a 14.3 percent drop compared to a year earlier – more than twice the decline of any other large newspaper. The paper’s readers are increasingly dissatisfied. A survey by Scarborough Research taken before the layoffs in summer 2004 found 79 percent of readers were satisfied with the News. After the layoffs, a survey taken during the first five months of 2006 found the percentage of satisfied readers had dropped to 60 percent. The DMN’s bosses say they don’t know why. “There’s no silver bullet explanation,” said Mong.
While the newsroom remains anxious, most of those who left said they are happier. Rick Holter, now a senior editor at National Public Radio, loved his job as the DMN arts editor but said “more and more it became about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” The remaining staffers continue to produce a solid newspaper. A story by Egerton helped free a man who served 16 years in prison for smoking marijuana; it recently won a National Headliners Award. A series by Paul Meyer and Stella Chavez about the sexual abuse of a young Mexican immigrant won a Livingston Award for Young Journalists in June. In 2005, Reese Dunklin won the same award for stories that exposed sexually abusive priests. Staffers are proud of the quality of their work. But many worry that in desperate times, management may take more desperate measures. As Dunklin put it, “At times you wonder where it’s all headed, because you sense this air of desperation.”
Our look at the News’ situation first appeared, at much greater length, in Columbia Journalism Review. After its publication, Moroney and Mong sent a response memo to the newsroom. It cited no inaccuracies but said the story was “messy” and failed to credit the “great leadership” of the newspaper’s managing and editorial page editors. The memo praised the work of numerous reporters – some of whom had left in 2006. The current staffers we interviewed said they are not concerned about how much credit they receive. Instead, they wonder if management will continue to try to make the paper “better” by getting rid of more newsroom jobs.
Tracy Everbach is a journalism professor at the University of North Texas; Craig Flournoy is a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University. Both are former Dallas Morning News reporters.