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From AJR,   September 1998  issue

State of The American Newspaper
Giant   

The Texas spirit is alive and kicking in Dallas, where A.H. Belo Corp. is bent on doing well by doing good.


By Roy Reed
Roy Reed has been a foreign and national correspondent for the New York Times, and for 18 years he taught journalism at the University of Arkansas.     

Larry McMurtry's old Texas Rangers would not have much patience with Texas these days. Augustus McCrae would cast a baleful eye around Lonesome Dove, planted now no doubt with a thousand acres of office cubicles, and shake his head over the loss of amplitude. His laconic friend Woodrow Call would say to hell with it and strike out for Montana.

Even the Texas language has changed. Rangers are now a baseball team in a metroplex, and Cowboys are a soap opera searching for the Super Bowl. The verb "to wildcat," as for oil, is now as rare as "no sir" and "no ma'am."

With all the shrinkage in style, it is gratifying to find Texans who still think big. Giants are still at work down here, if you know where to look, in spite of all the urbanizing, modernizing and taming of the Texas spirit.

One of them can be found smack in the middle of downtown Dallas, sitting on the top floor of the Belo Building on Record Street. Robert W. Decherd, the man who has, quite abruptly, turned the A.H. Belo Corp. into one of the nation's most important media enterprises, would be easy to miss if you caught him away from his lair. He wears glasses, quiet neckties and quiet suits, and if he were somewhat younger than his 47 years you would call him gangling. His shoes look Italian, but you don't ask. There's a coat of dignity about him that you don't violate with such an impertinence unless you really have to know.

But he is a giant, all right, even if he does fly like a scared quail at the mention of the word. Only a fellow with the brash confidence of the pioneer Texans could have mounted his unlikely nag, the Dallas Morning News, and run the Dallas Times Herald clean out of town. And now this unlikely conqueror has started moving into distant territories. As a result, rival companies that didn't even know they were rivals as recently as three years ago are casting watchful eyes toward Dallas, wondering what Belo will do next. Those of us who have despaired over the downward drift of American newspapers in recent years are watching Belo for another reason. Here, it appears, is a business institution bent on proving that it can do well by doing good.

After a huge outlay in 1997 for new properties, which drove earnings down slightly, the company still had a net profit of $83 million on total revenue of $1.25 billion. Under Decherd's guidance, Belo has bought five daily papers since 1995. In a separate move, the Dallas Morning News has converted its zoned edition for Arlington, Texas, into a stand-alone daily paper to provide a buffer against the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The News also has bought a profitable weekly at nearby Colleyville, Texas, and is running it as a separate enterprise.

The largest and most prestigious of the acquisitions is the Providence Journal, the New England institution that became a daily newspaper during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The other new Belo papers are the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California; the Messenger-Inquirer in Owensboro, Kentucky; the Gleaner in Henderson, Kentucky; and the Eagle in Bryan-College Station, Texas. Except for the Eagle, all were making money and publishing good papers when Belo bought them. Even the Eagle was making money.

Belo's early promise as a newspaper chain seems to be based on two radical ideas promoted by Decherd, the company's chairman and CEO. If they prove profitable in the long term, they could prompt some second thoughts about newspaper publishing in the United States.

First, Belo leaves the local editors and publishers in their jobs when it buys a paper. Contrary to a trend among chains in recent years, Belo's philosophy is that these managers know more about the community and the newspaper than some hotshot sent from corporate headquarters to show the locals how to run things for a couple of years before moving on to a better job. There have been a few exceptions, but in those cases the papers sought help from Dallas. Managers on the scene are given remarkable freedom. "Run it as if it were your own paper," they are told.

Second, Belo operates on the theory that if mediocre journalism makes money--as it demonstrably does--good journalism will make as much or more, over the long haul. Underlining the emphasis on journalistic values, Belo looks for publishers with newsroom backgrounds. Where that is not practical, it trains its publishers to think like news people.

Decherd's philosophy seems to be working. Early indications are that the newly acquired papers, most of them already well-regarded, will become even better. And the Dallas Morning News, which a generation ago was considered a pariah in newspaper circles and was in a sullen slump in parts of its home state, has become one of the top papers in the United States, by one measurement the ninth largest paper. Time magazine last year included it in a list of 10 papers "worth watching." Once a narrow-minded instrument of right-wing politics, it has become a disseminator of non-ideological information on a broad range of the American scene. The people who run Belo say they intend to operate their new papers on the same principles. Thus far, they have given no reason to doubt them.

Belo is a publicly traded company firmly controlled by a single family. Thanks to a stock ownership arrangement that makes it very difficult for ordinary shareholders to dictate policy, Belo can concentrate on long-term growth instead of short-term profit.

"We're making at least as much money, and I believe we'll make more money in the long term, than if we ran these businesses just for margins," Decherd tells me in one of two lengthy interviews in his quietly appointed office high above downtown Dallas. It is a remote aerie, but Decherd's amiable engagement makes it seem anything but isolated. He sits in shirt sleeves, relaxed, thoughtful, deliberate, but not too serious. "We are convinced," he says, "beginning with our directors, that you can achieve greater financial and business success by having extraordinarily good journalistic products."

Belo's growth has been virtually unnoticed outside of media circles, Wall Street and the cities into which the company has expanded. The average American might not know how to pronounce the company's name (it's BEE-lo), much less identify its business. But that's changing, due in large part to the vision and skill of Robert Decherd. He is doing for the company at the close of this century what a famous ancestor did for it at the turn of the last: He has transformed the Morning News into the most powerful journalistic voice of the Southwest, and made himself into a figure of interest and influence far beyond Texas.

As a boy, Robert Decherd was aware around the family dinner table that his father was part of the city's great newspaper dynasty, that Great-Grandfather George Bannerman Dealey had been the force behind the Dallas Morning News, that the city had named a plaza after him. But the boy felt no particular pressure to become a newspaperman. That might have been because his father, H. Ben Decherd, a talented, able man, was not allowed to run the company. He had the job of board chairman, but he never became chief executive. Never mind that he was an obvious choice. Speculation was that he simply had the wrong last name. Everybody knew that Dealeys ran the Morning News.

It was young Robert's interest in sports--he was co-captain of the football team at St. Mark's private school in Dallas--that led him to write for the school paper. Once on the staff, he discovered there was more to a newspaper than the sports section. He ended up as editor in chief.

Sent off to Harvard to study history, he made the same progression at the Harvard Crimson: sportswriter to news reporter to president of the paper. Decherd was the first Texan to run the Crimson. From Cambridge, he also worked as a stringer for the New York Times. David Gelsanliter, the author of "Fresh Ink," a book about the Morning News, quotes a friend from Decherd's Harvard days as saying that this serious young man was "the only one of us who didn't smoke dope," and remembering him as "20 going on 35."

Decherd got hooked on journalism. He went straight home to Dallas after graduation in 1973 and enrolled in the management training program at the Morning News. He spent much of it in the newsroom, where he felt most at home. His youth raised eyebrows among those who didn't know him well. Here was a kid fresh out of liberal Harvard, a place more congenial to pinko Kennedys than to he-man Texan conservatives like some of his Dallas family. There surely was some internal worry, perhaps even suspicion, about a man who didn't carry the Dealey name becoming poised to take over the business one day. Not only was Decherd smart, he eventually would have the stock and the votes to consolidate his position.

Suspicions notwithstanding, it soon became obvious that here was a mature and capable individual. His elders noticed an especially favorable attribute. He was good with figures, a rare quality in a newsroom.

Decherd was on the editorial page staff for a while, but all along he was developing managerial skills. Joe Dealey, who had succeeded his father, E.M. "Ted" Dealey, as head of the company, was impressed partly by the way Decherd helped thwart a pressmen's strike in 1974. Gelsanliter in "Fresh Ink" describes how the young man, after volunteering for the assignment, worked 18 hours a day scheduling press crews and manning the telephones. It gave Joe Dealey a glimpse of the toughness his kinsman was about to exhibit with more momentous assignments.

In 1976 Decherd and his sister--happily named Dealey--came into control of the largest block of Belo shares when the family trust that owned the company expired. That gave Decherd the clout to win a seat on the board of directors, and he began to assert his influence. At his suggestion the company hired Jeremy L. Halbreich, an acquaintance from the Harvard Crimson. Halbreich joined as a management trainee and 17 years later would become president of the Morning News.

By 1979, only six years after returning from college, Decherd was vice president for administration. At the time, the board was considering taking the company public. Decherd was asked to oversee the transition. Then came his most daunting assignment--figuring out how to deal with growing competition from the Dallas Times Herald, the city's longtime afternoon paper which was gradually converting to all-day.

Times Mirror, a vigorously expanding media company with money, vision and talent, had bought the Times Herald in 1970, and in less than a decade it had almost caught up with the News in Sunday circulation. With newfound vigor and a Times Mirror way with a big story, the paper had shaken the more somnolent Morning News to its core. More troubling yet, Belo reasoned that it was only a matter of time before the News would be battling the Times Herald head-to-head in the morning. Dallas was a large and growing city, but it could not support two daily papers forever. Newspaper fans from out of state were predicting that the Times Herald would be the survivor. More than a few hoped so.

It was 1980. Decherd, having been promoted again to executive vice president of the newspaper, was just 29 years old, an age when many men are just thinking of getting a steady job and settling down. Instead, he was being asked to steer his company's fortunes in a major newspaper war.

If he was intimidated, Decherd didn't show it. Indeed, as he mulled Belo's predicament with the Times Herald, another problem arose that he recognized as an opportunity. Tom Simmons, who had been with the Morning News for 49 years, was retiring as editor of the paper, and it fell to Decherd to find a replacement. In the context of the coming battle, he knew this would be one of the most crucial decisions of his entire career. In the same situation, most publishing executives would hire a search firm or solicit candidates through back-channel networks. Decherd, not yet 30, went on a journey.

For eight months he criss-crossed the United States. He interviewed dozens of people, both candidates for the job of executive editor and others in the business who might give advice. Decherd had specific qualities in mind for his "perfect" editor. He wanted someone hard-nosed, energetic, quick to see stories and to make reporters see them. He avoided practitioners of advocacy journalism, which was still in some vogue at the time.

Mainly, though, he looked for something more than an editor. Several first-rate editors were interviewed, but most held, to some degree, the usual newsroom prejudices against the business side. "One of the purposes of the search," Decherd says now, "was to find not only a person who had the capability of sharpening the focus of our news and editorial efforts, but could grow into the role of publisher... You can't be sure that the person you select is going to grow into that role, but we wanted to find someone who was inspired by the opportunity to work through the editorial track--the news and editorial track--to the top of the organization."

All the contenders Decherd interviewed were newspapermen--all but the one he would hire. Eventually he was led to a short, tough native Kentuckian, a veteran Associated Press employee who hadn't worked at a newspaper since his first reporting job on the Ashland Daily Independent back in the '50s. Decherd knew almost at once that he had found the right partner.

"The difference between Burl Osborne and everyone else I met," Decherd tells me, looking back on that odyssey, "is that it was clear he understood how the entire newspaper operated. He had a very strong news and editorial background. But by sense of personality and his own instincts, plus his experience in the Associated Press, representing the AP to publishers, he had developed a very keen awareness of how the advertising, marketing, distribution and production requirements, or aspects, of a newspaper support the editorial mission. And that's rare among journalists. And among the group of very distinguished men and women I met, he had a stand-alone instinct for it."

Burl Osborne, then 42, was managing editor of the AP. Tough-minded and relentless, he was the first in his family to go to college. After that initial reporting experience, he had spent 20 years with the AP in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, Washington state, Washington, D.C., and New York.

He was smart--and quick-tempered. Osborne was a head shorter than Decherd, which led inevitably to Mutt and Jeff jokes around the company--but never to their faces. Decherd's dignity held such familiarity at bay. With Osborne, what held people back was a suspicion that he'd punch them in the nose.

Decherd made clear that Osborne's first priority was meeting the challenge of the Times Herald. He brought to the task his combative instincts and a shrewd mind for analysis. He knew the Times Herald was gaining. He had to figure out why. As it happened, an extensive reader survey commissioned by Decherd and Halbreich a year or so earlier had uncovered two main weaknesses in the Morning News: business and sports, subjects that around Dallas might better be called obsessions.

Osborne started with his business report. A second round of surveying had concentrated on Dallas CEOs, who had taken hours of their time to tell interviewers just how poorly both papers were covering their field. The Morning News business staff hovered around eight people, including the editor. Items usually ran on a single page inside the sports section. This in a city where banking, investments and real estate had edged out ranching and farming decades ago.

"Dallas is a city that eats, drinks and breathes business," says Cheryl Hall, a Morning News columnist and former business editor. "Everything that is here is a business... The Dallas Cowboys were successful because [the team] was a successful business... It's a big city, but it also has kind of the same intrigue of a small community where people gossip and care what each other is doing."

One of Osborne's first moves, with Decherd's approval, was to increase the newsroom budget by 50 percent, from $6 million to $9 million. Much of that went into hiring reporters and increasing salaries, which had been embarrassingly low. (Hall went to work on the business staff in 1972 for $95 a week. She was making less than $400 a week as assistant business editor when Osborne arrived in 1980.) The increase in pay did more than boost morale. It enabled the paper to hire experienced reporters and editors who otherwise wouldn't have given the News a second look. In the business section, Osborne doubled the size of the staff virtually overnight. He shifted Assistant City Editor Bob Mong to business editor, a signal that something big was afoot since Mong clearly was an up-and-comer. Today he is executive vice president of Belo's publishing division.

Mong set about reorganizing coverage of the city's businesses, their leaders and their workers. He hired new reporters and moved others from the city desk. Southern Methodist University's business school held special classes in business and finance so reporters could operate and write with authority. Authority: that was the aim of the revitalized coverage. The paper started its first separate business section, Business Tuesday, in late 1980. "It took the city by storm," recalls Jeremy Halbreich. "The Times Herald never got around to matching it. And I knew and Burl knew and a few others knew that was a strategic error on their part that they never recovered from."

Hall was promoted to business editor in 1982, the first woman to hold that job. The staff was up to 17 by then. When she moved out to write a column 10 years later, the staff numbered almost 40. Her reporters broke the news of the bankruptcy of Braniff Airways in 1982, for which the paper was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The paper had two business reporters covering the Falklands war. "It was a money war, as so many wars are," Hall explains.

A business reporter, Steve Brown, reported in 1985 that Dallas had millions of square feet of new office space with too few tenants to fill it. When the city's real estate bubble burst the following year, some blamed Brown, the messenger. One reader sent him a hammer and a box of nails and said, "Why don't you just finish the coffin?" (Not everyone saw Brown's reporting as bold and aggressive. Some said he and the Morning News had watched in silence for most of two years, reporting little or none of the overbuilding until it became too obvious to ignore.)

In later years, the Morning News expanded its business coverage abroad. For a while there was a Canadian bureau for business news. Now the paper covers Asia and Mexico assiduously. It has five people covering Mexico, including a bureau in Monterrey that emphasizes business, economics and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Business stories run regularly on page one. Mark Curriden of the business staff wrote 64 stories on tobacco last year, and 29 were on page one. "That's the biggest legal story going on in the state right now," says Charles B. Camp, the current business editor.

Hall says she has worked for two different papers, both at the Morning News--pre-1980 and post-1980. She has no doubt who gets the credit for the improvements. "If the recorder wasn't on," she says in an interview, "I'd say Burl is God."

Osborne makes an unlikely deity, but there is no doubting his extraordinary drive and pride. He was reared in the Baptist church, which was always a little déclassé; a Baptist kid had to work harder to prove himself. Then there was the health history. His father died of lung cancer. Burl's own health was gravely threatened in his twenties. He was diagnosed with nephritis, a kidney disease that would have killed him without dialysis. After two years on the life-saving machine, his mother donated a kidney for a transplant. The surgery was successful, but 16 years later Belo's physicians would size up Osborne as a poor health risk and recommend against hiring him. Decherd overrode them.

Years later Osborne would need another kidney transplant. The donor this time was his brother. Today Osborne, 61, brushes aside questions about his health with a joke: "The last time I was in, they said, 'Well, we have good news and bad news. The good news is, this kidney thing is never going to kill you. And the bad news is, something will.' I'm essentially normal. I'm certainly healther than I have a right to be and probably above-average health for my age."

Osborne would channel his determination into the continued improvement of the News. After beefing up business, he turned to sports. Halbreich remembers it this way: "If we feel we need to totally remake a section, and in this case it's sports, where's the first place you're going to start? We need to find a great editor, okay? I can have all sorts of slick marketing to advertise to the community. I can have great solicitation programs. But unless we're going to get a great editor and sometime soon have a great product to deliver, we're not going to fulfill our mission. And that's when Burl and others identified Dave Smith."

David L. Smith came in 1981 with a national reputation. He could have gone to almost any paper in the country. He had directed the Boston Globe's acclaimed sports section for most of the '70s, and he was at the Washington Star when Decherd and Osborne beckoned. "They said, 'Think about what it would take to make this the best sports section in the country,' " Smith recalls. "And I came back and gave them budget figures, personnel figures, told them how much space we'd need at the start." Decherd and Osborne obliged. There were 21 people on the sports staff in 1981; 10 more were added immediately.

Today the staff numbers 70. With that many reporters and editors, Smith can overwhelm a story. He sent 35 people to cover the Super Bowl the last time the Dallas Cowboys played in it. The 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta rated 21 staffers. The 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, was staffed by nine. Sports Day, as the section is called, has won numerous awards. For 14 consecutive years, the Associated Press Sports Editors--Smith is a founder and past president--has called it one of the nation's top 10 sports sections. Smith himself won the prestigious Red Smith award in 1990.

Osborne had a theory. If the Morning News made a splash with sports coverage, the paper's sports reporters would talk about it in their travels around the country. Word would get back to newsrooms everywhere that the Morning News was a good place to work. For whatever reasons--improved sports coverage is probably one--the paper has attracted good people from prominent papers. Consider these:

Denise Beeber, the news editor, worked at the Dallas Times Herald and the Los Angeles Times before being lured back to Dallas; Charles Camp, the business editor, had worked at the Wall Street Journal; Lois Reed, the assistant managing editor for administration, was hired from the New York Times; Keith Campbell, assistant managing editor for the news and universal desks, came from the St. Petersburg Times; Ricardo Chavira, assistant managing editor for national and international news, was a correspondent for Time magazine; Stuart Wilk, managing editor, had been assistant city editor at the Milwaukee Sentinel before the News hired him as night city editor in 1980; and Gilbert Bailon, vice president and executive editor, came to the News in 1986 after working as a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Los Angeles' Daily News, the San Diego Union and the Kansas City Star.

One of the few top editors who was not hired from a nationally known paper was Ralph Langer. In 1981 he was editing Washington's Everett Herald; Osborne plucked him out and made him his managing editor. He became executive editor in 1983. In 1991, when Decherd fulfilled his intuition by naming Osborne publisher, Langer became the top person in the newsroom and added senior vice president to his title. Today, Langer (rhymes with ranger) is editor and executive vice president.


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