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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   September 1999  issue

Too Close For Comfort?   

A.H. Belo Corp's purchase a small stake in the National Basketball Association's Dallas Mavericks and its initial story on the development trigger upheaval in the newsroom of the company's flagship, the Dallas Morning News.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

A.H. Belo Corp.'s purchase of a small stake in the National Basketball Association's Dallas Mavericks and its initial story on the development trigger upheaval in the newsroom of the company's flagship, the Dallas Morning News .
Belo bought a 12.38 percent interest in the team, owned by a company led by Ross Perot Jr. , along with a 6.19 percent nonvoting interest in The Arena Group, an organization, consisting of the Mavericks and the Dallas Stars hockey team, that will build and manage a new sports arena. The July deal sparked debate thanks to a frank memo by City Hall reporters Robert Ingrassia , Michael Saul and Nora Lopez posted to the paper's internal e-mail forum and--inevitably--leaked to the weekly Dallas Observer .
The reporters expressed concern about the deal itself, writing that "the purchase will strengthen the perception among some in the community that the Morning News is not an independent editorial voice in Dallas." But their big beef lay with the way the paper covered the buy. The memo called the paper's July 24 story "unbalanced and incomplete," citing its failure to sufficiently consider the conflict of interest questions inherent in future coverage of the Mavericks and the controversial arena, which is partly funded by increased car rental and hotel taxes.
That candid memo prompted another candid, and frequently chastising, memo, this one from Vice President and Executive Editor Gilbert Bailon . While he wrote that he welcomed discussion of the paper's ethics and even set up a staff meeting to pursue the subject, Bailon added that he was "stunned" the internal e-mail system was the venting vehicle of choice. And he certainly wasn't too happy the memo made its way into the pages of the alternative Observer.
The City Hall reporters' memo complained that a quote critical of Belo's deal from Dallas City Council member Donna Blumer was forwarded to the business desk and not used in the Morning News' story. Bailon responded that the story had been put together on tight deadline--he got a call alerting him to the transaction at 5 p.m. the day before the story appeared--and he didn't think the Blumer "bombshell quote" should run alone without other council reaction. Bailon also offered a response to the conflict of interest question. "It's not easy to report on one's company, but it can be done fairly and completely," he wrote. "To conclude reflexively that we can't report objectively on the arena because of a small, non-active investment is premature and unfair."
In an interview with AJR, Bailon says that the paper's coverage of the Mavericks and the arena "in some people's minds [is] going to be an inherent conflict that we can't overcome. I don't think that's the majority of people." He adds that Belo's interest in the organizations isn't very large. "We don't need to be stumbling over ourselves in coverage. Most of the time, I don't think Belo will be front and center."
Morning News staffers are hesitant to talk about the incident. Ingrassia and Lopez declined to comment; Saul did not return AJR phone calls. Business writer Richard Alm, who penned the news story on Belo's deal, says there was some agreement with the memo among the staff but also some criticism, particularly of the decision to take the discussion to the e-mail system instead of directly to top editors.
"Nobody told me what to write in the story, and nobody changed a word after I wrote it," Alm says. The piece, reported and written in an hour and a half, did include a response to ethical concerns from Harold Gaar, Belo's vice president for financial and investor relations. Alm wrote: "Buying into the Mavericks and the arena, Mr. Gaar said, won't affect how Belo's newspapers or broadcast outlets report on the team or the American Airlines Center."
Many staffers thought it was "inappropriate" for the memo to appear in the Observer, says reporter Ellen Sweets, who faults that development with skewing newsroom discussion. "I think it was very unfair to the three reporters because then they and the memo became the debate," instead of the journalistic concerns raised by the transaction itself, Sweets says.
The paper is working on a piece, Bailon says, that will examine media companies, including Belo, that have invested in community interests, particularly sports franchises.
The larger issue of the heavy hand of corporate ownership was raised by the City Hall reporters, who wrote, "many reporters at the paper would argue from first-hand experience that our track record is not good in covering issues in which Belo, the Morning News or top officers have a vested interest or strong personal viewpoint."
Bailon says there is a perception "in some circles" that the paper isn't as independent as it should be in covering certain civic happenings. But, he adds, "I don't think that's unique for large newspapers that participate in the community... The real question we have is will that influence coverage, and I think we've been successful in preventing that from happening in most instances."
One staffer echoes the thoughts of the City Hall reporters, saying, "There have indeed been instances when a strong hand has reached down into the newsroom." Perhaps competition would make a difference, the staffer suggests. "I think that this is one of the unfortunate by-products of being the only game in town... We're the only paper, and we behave like it."