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From AJR,   September 1998  issue

Continuation of Giant   


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.     

After business and sports, Osborne's team set out to beat the Times Herald on local news. "Local" meant everything from city hall to Austin to southern Oklahoma. Dallas exploded beyond its official boundaries years ago. The metropolitan area that it now shares with Fort Worth covers a part of northern Texas that is almost 100 miles long and 100 miles wide. The freeways blur with commute and commerce 24 hours a day. You no longer have to go downtown to see skyscrapers; they pop up right across the suburban landscape. Beyond geography is the Texas way of looking at things. Thus, a resident of Dallas--like a resident of Houston, San Antonio or Austin--reasons that his city is Texas.

Osborne adopted that view. Under his prodding, the Morning News gave new scrutiny to government and public policy as far as the shadow of Dallas could be seen in his mind's eye--to the Rio Grande, the Panhandle, El Paso .. even across the Mexican border.

Well-written features were played on page one. Immigration became a running story, and there seemed to be new sensitivity to the interests of Spanish-speaking residents. African Americans received more attention. One thing missing from Osborne's front pages was crime--the daily shootings, knifings and robberies that some papers still emphasize. He told Gelsanliter, "We see our newspaper as a member of the family--coming into the house before breakfast, before you've had your first cup of coffee, when you may still be a little grumpy. Tone of voice is important then. There is seldom a need to shout."

Osborne and Decherd's people saw themselves as fighting for their paper's life. The corporate attitude at the competitor seemed less focused and perhaps, until it was too late, less concerned. In time, the Morning News strategy worked. The Times Herald lost its momentum, then began to lose ground. By 1986, the circulation of the Morning News stood at 390,000; the Times Herald had fallen to 245,000. Times Mirror gave up and sold the paper to Dean Singleton for $110 million in cash and notes. (Times Mirror also agreed to finish a $45 million plant expansion.)

Decherd thought Singleton paid too much and brought too little capital to compete. Singleton also suffered from bad timing. He bought the Times Herald shortly after Dallas had gone into recession because of a drop in oil and real estate prices. He cut 100 jobs, closed four bureaus and shut down the Sunday magazine. Meantime, he further extended himself by buying the Denver Post and the Houston Post.

Singleton bailed out in 1988. He sold the Times Herald to John Buzzetta, a former employee of Singleton's MediaNews Group. By this time the Morning News--agile, strong, rich and locally controlled--was outpacing its rival by two to one, not only in circulation but in ad lineage. It was publishing more full-run classified advertising than any other American paper. The Times Herald, meanwhile, continued to cut costs. Then in 1989, Belo outmaneuvered the new owner and got exclusive rights to the Universal Press Syndicate's service, depriving the Times Herald of such popular features as Doonesbury. That was the last big blow for Buzzetta. He closed the paper in 1991 and sold the assets to Belo for $55 million. The News picked up more than half the other paper's readers.

The recession that helped to finish the Times Herald visited the Morning News as well. But Decherd and his people held fast. In spite of a serious dip in earnings, the company continued construction of an expensive printing plant at nearby Plano, an investment that would pay off handsomely in efficiency and improved looks of the paper. Decherd and Osborne were tempted to cut the news staff; they refused. They were tempted to cut the newshole to save on production costs; they refused.

"We took a hit," admits Osborne. "However, when that recession ended, we had a state-of-the-art printing plant. We had our staff intact. We had our newshole. We came out of it like gangbusters. So, we felt pain and we cut costs, but we tried not to cut where it would hurt the quality of the relationship with readers or the quality of [the editorial product]. And, you know, we don't feel heroic about that because it wasn't fun. But the fact is that we had choices to make, and we made them, and as a result I think we're stronger today than we would have been if we had done it otherwise."

Had anyone done an autopsy on the Times Herald, one other cause of death would be noted. Halbreich, president of the News, talks about it. "We [at the Morning News] were all local, and this was before Belo was even public. And so when we decided we were going to invest two, three million dollars in the product in these various initiatives over the next calendar year, we just did it. Obviously, Robert and others were involved in that decision-making process, but we just did it. When [the Times Herald] decided they wanted to do something or needed to do something, they obviously had to go to L.A., beg, borrow and steal, and by the time they got back, we were three months down the line. So we had some great, great advantages there."

Will Jarrett, a former editor of the Times Herald, confirms this. He told Gelsanliter, "If we wanted to try something new, we'd have to go back to the mother ship in Los Angeles for approval. It sometimes took weeks for us to get a response. Whenever the News saw an opportunity, they could turn on a dime."

There was another problem with chain ownership. "If Times Mirror sent some bright person to the Dallas Times Herald," Halbreich says, "either in a newsroom position or in a business position, they rarely came here with the sense that this was where they were going to make their career. They came here with the notion that if I can sort of earn my spurs in a short period of time, then I'll be promoted maybe to Newsday or back to Los Angeles. When those of us at the Morning News came to work for the Morning News, we came with the commitment that this was where we were going to have our career."

The deal to buy the rival's assets had to be approved by the Justice Department. To help persuade antitrust officials, the then-president of Belo, Jim Sheehan, promised that the News would offer a more diverse range of opinion. It has made good on that. The editorial page is a bastion of centrism, just a whisper to the right but nothing like the days of bellowing belligerence when it was the bullhorned voice of the most conservative elements of Texas. The latter got a glimpse of the change some years ago when the News turned against apartheid in South Africa. The editorial page raised eyebrows further when it began talking about the environment. It shocked the conservative hard core when it came out for a state income tax and hiring gay police officers and even said good things about gun control. Then it started calling for diversity in local government--meaning, give Latinos and African Americans more of a voice. Today, it enrages many conservatives by standing up for abortion rights, although in a qualified, limited way. It makes up for that somewhat by criticizing President Clinton for what it perceives to be his shortfalls of character. Yet even here, the tone is less vituperative than the commentary of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Before Decherd and the tightening of standards, right-wing opinion occasionally leached into the news columns. A notorious example was a series the News published in the early '60s purporting to expose the Young Men's Christian Association of Austin as a hotbed of hippies and leftists. The series was titled "YM(?)A". That prompted an editorial in the student paper at the University of Texas headlined "Dallas Morning (?)".

On the 20th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, the '60s political climate of Dallas was described by Stanley Marcus, chairman emeritus of Neiman Marcus, in his weekly column for the News: "There was a spirit of hate in Dallas then--in the strong Republican districts in North Dallas where people believed they had the only true and revealed truth and could not conceive of any pluralism in society. They were abetted by this newspaper. The Dallas News was the one instrument that could have refuted that point of view, but it didn't. It just aided and abetted it."

Under Decherd and Osborne, the paper won three Pulitzer Prizes during the last five years of its competition with the Times Herald. One was for photography. Two were for reporting: an investigative piece on subsidized housing and an in-depth look at an airplane crash. Three more Pulitzers would come during the three successive years after the Times Herald closed, two for investigative reporting and another for photography.

In late 1994, the paper assigned two top investigative reporters, Howard Swindle and Dan Malone, to one of the most ambitious projects it had undertaken in years. As assistant managing editor for projects, Swindle had supervised three Pulitzer-winning stories. Malone had been involved in some of the paper's best investigative stories, including the Pulitzer-winning effort on police abuse of authority.

The pair started a reporting project that the paper later described as the first in-depth national survey of death row inmates. The research staff and the writers, assisted by several outside authorities on legal matters, drew up a survey of 75 questions. It was mailed to death row inmates in 35 states. It was answered by 603 condemned people. More than 100 others sent letters and other documents. The reporters interviewed more than three dozen inmates. The resulting series appeared in 1997, more than two years after research had begun, in four installments. It was a revealing, intimate and chilling portrait of the most violent Americans and the system that deals with them.

Local and regional reporting continue to be strong, especially in the seven counties of the metro area. The News has become the paper of record in dozens of surrounding towns. It regularly breaks stories of wrongdoing by officials. Health, science and social problems get lavish attention, not just at home but wherever in the United States the story leads. The paper was consistently ahead of the pack in reporting the legal troubles of the tobacco industry in Texas. It has bureaus in the capital city of Austin and four other Texas cities.

The paper keeps a bureau in Oklahoma City, which is a little more than 200 miles from Dallas. In 1995, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building there was bombed, the Morning News practically treated it as a local story. From the day of the bombing through the trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the paper's expenses for coverage were more than $200,000, says Executive Editor Bailon. Adds Editor Langer, "We had five or six people on the road for weeks and weeks at a time." One of the stories, an exclusive report that McVeigh had confessed to a private investigator, was controversial. Some thought it would prejudice McVeigh's trial. Langer says editors believed the story was of national importance and that "we were obligated to publish it."

A large percentage of all news stories are staff-written, even those from abroad. The paper has bureaus in Washington and Los Angeles. It has five fully staffed foreign bureaus and a full-time stringer in Cairo. The editors are especially proud of the paper's coverage of Mexico and NAFTA. Ricardo Chavira, the assistant managing editor for foreign and national reporting, considers the News' Mexico coverage the best in any American paper.

Staff correspondents have produced authoritative stories on economics and politics from Asia and Latin America in recent months. Many are played on page one, especially if they go beyond breaking news and explain why Dallas readers should pay attention. And there's been a new emphasis on good storytelling during the last five or six years.

Page one typically has five to seven stories, half usually local and the others from Washington or elsewhere. The newshole inside the first section is divided more or less equally among national, international and state news. The Austin bureau reports on state government with rigor and frequently with style. In a story outlining the questionable past of two brothers in the private prison business, Christy Hoppe wrote, "Both have done business with so many state leaders that their Rolodex looks like a ballot sheet."

People in the newsroom point also to Doug Swanson, Steve Blow and David Flick as especially good writers. Flick's features appear often on page one. Swanson often writes backgrounders on serious topics. Blow is probably the best local columnist on the paper except for the veteran sports columnist Blackie Sherrod, who moved to the News from the Times Herald in 1985 and has a national reputation for insight and acerbic wit. One or two of the other columnists seem plodding.

Political analysis is scarce, but Managing Editor Wilk contends that's not a bad thing. "You can get at it through good reporting," he says. Langer and his editors are alert for signs of editorializing. The adjective "posh" in front of "Highland Park house" will draw a warning note to the reporter. "We want colorful writing," Langer says, "but what we don't want is writing that tells people what we think about them... The best writers have the least problems."

The paper's writing is generally clear and straightforward, if not always sparkling. It is still called the Morning Snooze in some circles, but that is wider of the mark than it might once have been. Paula LaRocque, the writing coach and an assistant managing editor, works full time training reporters and wrestling with writing problems, a Sisyphean task. She rolls her eyes when asked about a couple of strained leads on Super Bowl stories. Two days later, in a feature on fashions, I count 28 words in an introductory clause before I get to the rest of the lead.

Perhaps the main criticism of today's Morning News, which one hears from people inside and outside the newspaper, is an echo of its past: that it is too respectful of the city's business establishment. One person tells of the time that Robert Crandall, the longtime head of Texas-based American Airlines, exploded at a News business reporter over a humorous and seemingly inconsequential story. Crandall banned the reporter from the airline's premises. Osborne, who is well acquainted with Crandall, talked him into letting the reporter back in. The person who tells the story, who is not associated with the Morning News, cites it as an example of back-scratching among fellow members of the upper crust.

Another source who wishes not to be identified--also not a News employee--says the top officers of a Dallas-based corporation a few years ago went over the head of a News reporter who was investigating the company's stock decline on Wall Street. They met with senior editors and were assured that the editors would take a close look at the reporter's story. The source does not know whether the editors toned down the piece, but he says what appeared in print was not as tough as had been expected.

Reporters at two other news outlets say the Morning News' coverage of the Texas savings and loan scandal of the 1980s was thorough in some regards but tended to emphasize actions by Washington regulators rather than those of the local figures who caused the scandal. Some of those figures were highly regarded in the Dallas business community until they went to prison for such activities as using company money to buy beach houses and hire prostitutes. The same men stole hundreds of millions of dollars that had to be made good by the federal government. One of the competing reporters puts it this way: "Everybody who is somebody in Dallas is on somebody's bank board. There's no way you can do a story [like the savings and loan scandal] without hanging someone important."

Langer, with his customary calm, dismisses the idea that the city's business leaders have undue influence with Belo, even though the company's board includes some of the most prominent business executives in Dallas.

In the old days, it was common knowledge that eight or 10 leaders of the Citizens Council (no relation to the disreputable white citizens councils that once struggled for racial segregation) made decisions affecting the entire city, and Belo was definitely represented on the council. This small club could get an arena built or new road pushed through. But Langer says the Citizens Council no longer controls Dallas, because the political power has been dispersed.

Dallas voters this year approved a large bond issue to build a new sports arena, and some in the newsroom saw the paper's handling of the story as yet another example of supporting the business leadership that wanted it. Langer says this notion is likewise untrue, and probably was floated because word got out that Osborne was interested in the story. "There are people in the newsroom--any newsroom I've ever been in," Langer says, "who see sacred cows where no one can hear a moo."

Curiously, the history of the Dallas Morning News begins not in Dallas but in Galveston. The paper was a spinoff of the Galveston News, which was started in 1842 when Texas was a republic and that port community its primary city. It was not until north Texas began to develop after the Civil War that the News saw fit to open a branch office in the little town of Dallas.

By then, the paper had long been the leading editorial voice of Texas. Its first owner of substance, Willard Richardson, was an influential political voice in pioneer Texas. He was a political enemy of Sam Houston. They fought among other things over secession; the editor was hot for it. He also stood up for slavery. When he died in 1875--outlasting the hero of San Jacinto by 12 years--control of the paper passed to an equally strong-minded younger man, Alfred Horatio Belo.

Colonel Belo had gone to work for the paper in 1865 fresh from battle. He had led a regiment of his fellow North Carolinians through much of the fiercest fighting of the Civil War. He was wounded twice by Yankee soldiers and had barely escaped a third wound in a duel with another Confederate officer. He was just 26 when Lee surrendered, and he was reluctant to quit fighting. Settling in Galveston and working for Richardson was a suitable compromise. The News continued a kind of war throughout Reconstruction as it led a five-year campaign to wrest political control of Texas from "the alien, the scalawag and the thief."

Partisan journalism would fade as readers demanded more hard news objectively presented. The News led the way in Texas. It set up its own statewide network of about 100 correspondents after the new Texas Associated Press failed to meet the paper's needs. It printed market reports transmitted from New York by telegraph at considerable expense. As Colonel Belo got his passions under control, he shifted the paper steadily toward the more impersonal journalism that would characterize American newspapers for most of the coming century. The emphasis on news instead of opinion paid off. At one time in the 1870s, the News claimed a daily circulation of 8,000, double that of any other Texas paper.

For the Galveston News, sending hundreds of copies of the paper to north Texas by railroad every day got expensive. In 1882 Belo ordered G.B. Dealey, a 23-year-old mailing clerk, to scout out a location for a separate edition of the News. Dealey had joined the News as an office boy eight years earlier, not long after his family stepped off the boat from Liverpool. Belo saw promise in the young fellow. When after long study Dallas was selected as the home of the new paper, Dealey was named its business manager.

The Dallas Morning News put its first papers on the street October 1, 1885. To demonstrate that the new paper would not be merely a shadow of its parent in Galveston, Colonel Belo moved his own family to Dallas. The paper quickly established itself as a spokesman for business and economic development. The railroad magnate Jay Gould was its friend. When workmen struck the Texas railroads in 1886, the News called them conspirators and subversives. Its news columns might be reserved for facts, but the editorial page continued to deliver strong opinions, just as it had under Richardson.

The paper burnished its reputation as a champion of Texas against its former owners. Mexico arrested a visiting El Paso editor in Juarez in 1886, and before the episode was settled diplomatically, war fever had broken out across the state. The News called the arrest "provocation beyond endurance" and lamented, "Unfortunately the hands of Texas are tied by membership in the Federal Union. Texans love the Union in every regard, except that it subjects them to outrage without defense. They have stood more from Mexican marauders than it is human nature to take quietly."

The editors were also alert to danger from the political left. Populism, which became strong among Texas farmers during the last two decades of the 19th century, was a favorite target. So was communism, which already had the power to alarm. A proposed commission to regulate railroads in the late 1880s was branded "an insidious form of communism." At the same time, the paper championed numerous civic improvements and public works. In the growing city of Dallas, Dealey led movements to clean up the town and make it healthier; to build a new railroad station, better streets and bridges, and a system of parks; to make city government more efficient; and to establish a city plan that would permanently shape Dallas' development.

Colonel Belo gave George Dealey responsibility over all departments of the paper in 1895. When the old man died and the company passed first to his young son and then, after the son's untimely death, to a succession of Belo relatives, the middle-aged general manager quietly continued to guide the paper. He finally assumed the title of company president in 1920, a generation after he had taken de facto control.

Two years later, Dealey started a radio station in Dallas. WFAA had 100 watts of power and used a transmitting aerial strung between two downtown buildings. A year after expanding to radio, the company sold the Galveston News and cut its last tie to the paper that had sired it. It was now a Dallas outfit and on its way toward becoming the dominant journalistic voice of the Southwest.

The giant who made it so had never been more than a salaried employee of a company owned by others. George Dealey by the '20s was already one of the nation's best-known newspapermen. He was seen in Dallas as a person of high character and public rectitude. His influence spread far beyond Dallas. But he always felt inferior in some ways. He had no college education. He lived comfortably but much less luxuriously than many of his fellow leaders. The company owners spent their vacations in Maine and New York; the Dealeys took theirs in a modest resort in the Arkansas Ozarks.

Then as the Belo heirs dispersed and died, it became prudent to reorganize the company and look to its future. The last direct heir to control the newspaper, Jeannette Belo Peabody, took the lead. She greatly admired Dealey. With her encouragement, he arranged financing and bought a controlling interest in the company in 1926. Dealey could have given the business any name he wished. He chose to honor the memory of the old warrior who had hired him 52 years before. It remains the A.H. Belo Corp.

Honors came plentifully during Dealey's last years. He especially valued a few words of praise from Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times. In a dinner speech at Houston in 1924, Ochs said that when he bought the Times in 1895, he was determined to keep it free of "the vulgar, the inane and the sensational." He said, "I received my ideas and ideals from the Galveston Daily News and the Dallas Morning News."

In the '20s the paper led the fight in a cause that could have killed it. After World War I, the Ku Klux Klan spread west and north from the Deep South and became a potent political force. It captured local and county offices across much of Texas. A friend of the Klan was elected to the U.S. Senate from the state in 1922. The Morning News fought the organization from the start. Part of its reasoning would sound strange a generation later. Explaining why the Klan was not needed, an editorial said, "White supremacy is not imperiled." The paper reported the organization's violence from around the nation. Anti-Klan leaders were sought out and interviewed. Editorials spelled out the Klan's violations of the constitutions of Texas and the United States.

The KKK fought back by boycotting the News and spreading the false rumor that the paper was owned by Catholics. Advertising declined. Circulation fell off. A cash surplus of $200,000 was wiped out, and some of the company's real estate had to be sold to pay the annual dividend to the heirs of Colonel Belo. But the Klan's power was ebbing. It ran one of its members for governor in 1924 and lost, thanks in part to the determined opposition of the News. George Dealey some years later would call the fight against the Klan "perhaps the most courageous thing the News ever did." Part of the credit went to his son E. M. "Ted" Dealey, a political analyst on the staff of the News. Ted sensed that the Klan was weakening and urged his father to come out strongly against the organization's last bid for statewide power.

Ted Dealey became president of the company in 1940, and his reputation would be quite different from his father's. The paper developed views that resembled its earlier anxiety about Mexican marauders. Ted Dealey once said to President Kennedy at a White House luncheon for Texas publishers, "The general opinion of the grassroots thinking in this country is that you and your administration are weak sisters. We need a man on horseback to lead this nation and many people think you are riding Caroline's tricycle." He allowed the paper to run a John Birch Society ad attacking Kennedy on the day the president was killed in Dallas.

The man who runs Belo today is three generations removed from George Bannerman Dealey. Dealey's daughter Fannie married Dr. Henry B. Decherd; their son Ben Decherd was Robert's father. If Robert Decherd keeps his great-grandfather's philosophy alive in the Belo corridors today, there is one big difference in their circumstances. Whereas Dealey had to satisfy a small band of family members, Decherd runs a public company with stock traded on Wall Street. Satisfying more than 10,000 impersonal shareholders is a far different challenge.

How has Decherd handled it?

Mainly, he has stuck determinedly to his notion that journalism is a valuable commodity that can be sold without trivialization or insult to customers' intelligence. And he has gone out of his way to see that the business side of his papers is ruled by news values. He says, "I have an extremely strong bias in favor of people with news and editorial backgrounds playing influential roles in the life of this company as a corporation and in our operating companies as public trusts and journalistic organizations." He thinks it unfortunate that the business offices of the media generally have such a limited talent pool of people with journalistic backgrounds.

Indeed, at a time when many journalists worry about a breach between news and business, Belo's innovative approach is getting national attention. Two years ago the paper started conducting workshops for business executives and employees. Editors, some from other Belo papers, teach the classes. The discussion leader is from the American Press Institute. Circulation and advertising people and the others are challenged to think like reporters and editors. They talk about what makes news, developing sources, ethics, writing on deadline, making up pages, using graphics. They are asked to understand the sensitivity of newsroom people to pressure from the business side.

In short, the editors teach the business folks how news people think and feel. I remember getting my first exposure to that at the feet of Professor Frank Luther Mott at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. It took two semesters. The Morning News crams it into two and a half days, and maybe it works. I met a couple of business executives who got misty-eyed talking about their new appreciation of the newsroom. Now the paper is reversing the process. This spring, editors and reporters were brought in to listen to business people.

In addition to the occasional workshops, the paper for more than 15 years has had daily meetings of the top officers of news and business. "We talk about absolutely every aspect of the newspaper," Halbreich says, "just to keep everybody aware of what's going on. We talk about new product activities, we talk about coordinating with production, we talk about new marketing initiatives, we talk about human resources policies that affect everybody. It's where we coordinate the newspaper. And so literally every morning of every work day for this many years, this key group, our absolute senior group of staffers, are hearing from Burl, from Ralph, from me, how we're running the newspaper. And they hear and understand how we're making decisions and why we make them."

Halbreich says it would be insulting to reporters and editors to suggest they might be compromised by such close association with the business side. "Our advertising folks are not going to come up with some hare-brained ideas that impinge on the objectivity of our news reporting," he says. "They're just not going to do it."


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