Tuesday, July 10, 2007

D(a)MN, That Hurts!

Seems like I can't go anywhere these days without running into a former Startlegram colleague. And that's mostly a good thing, because I think that there are a number of very dedicated and talented people who work their butts off to cover Cowtown. I'm flattered that most of these people still remember and want to take a few minutes to talk to me. Guess I wasn't too big an asshole.

That said, in case you haven't noticed, there is a malaise in media circles these days about the impending death of newspapers. The chatter this past week has mostly regarded a recent Columbia Journalism Review piece on the aftermath of the layoffs at the Dallas Morning News. Not surprisingly, there's more more than a few sour grapes from people who got a pink slip and unease from the people left behind. From the article: "Reese Dunklin, who received a 2004 Livingston Award for Young Journalists, chose not to take the buyout. At thirty-three, Dunklin wants to remain at the Morning News but concedes he is worried about the paper’s future. 'At times you wonder where it’s all headed,' he says, 'because you sense this air of desperation.' ”

I met Reese once and I thought he was a pretty neat guy, and certainly the Livingston Award certifies him as a rising young reporting talent. While I wouldn't have wanted to be Reese last week -- "Uh, Reese, this is Bob Mong. Have you lost your FREAKING mind?!" -- he nailed the mood in Metroplex newsrooms right now. Most don't feel very confident about the direction of their profession generally and the management decisions of the local papers specifically.

While it isn't hard to get someone who was pink-slipped to say something bad about the company who cut them loose, I've always had a more compassionate view of the situation. But one of my former S-T friends I saw on Friday, who is also a former D(a)MNer, had an interesting take on the whole situation.

"I don't feel bad for most of those Morning News people," he said. "What happened there was way overdue. They were overpaid, underworked, arrogant assholes. They would cruise in at 9:30, shoot the breeze, make a few phone calls, then take a long lunch. Maybe -- MAYBE -- do an interview in the afternoon, then leave at 4. They had no idea what it was like other places."

I have to say I was a little taken aback by this, but then again, there is a particular brand of schadenfreude that comes from former D(a)MNers. It's not just that they feel bitter about shabby treatment they endure there, it's like they feel angry because the Big Bad Belo stole part of their soul, too. But my friend was right about one thing, the folks at the D(a)MN had it easier than most for longer than most. Welcome to reality.

While the CJR story paints a rosy picture of life for the RIF-fed 30 percent of the newsroom, I have a hard time believing things are quite so good. Sure, Ed Bark’s blog gets lots of (deserved) praise, but he’s still going to be freelancing for the S-T. If blogging paid the bills – and I assure you, it does not – I don’t think Uncle Barky would be taking that on. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he just wants to get back into the local market.

But if you want the ultimate contrarian POV, read Matt Pulle’s take at Unfair Park. I think this perspective has some merit. The D(a)MN is going through a painful re-focusing process. They are no longer trying to be a national newspaper that sees itself as a peer to the LA Times, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune or the Washington Post. The paper, like the city of Dallas itself, always thought that the eyes of the country were on it. In truth, they weren’t. The D(a)MN never was the paper it thought it was.

Nonetheless, it is doing some things right. They did man up and basically admit their Web site re-design was a disaster. Now they are trying to fix it. When the Startlegram’s redesign eventually implodes, will the same thing happen in FW? And the only reason I'm implying that the redesign isn't working is a little reporters' mutiny that the S-T sherrifs are trying to keep a lid on. And the fact that everyone I talk who works at or reads the paper hates it. Other than that, it's just my hunch.

So as fashionable as it is to bag on Belo, there is still some quality journalism going on there. Pulle is right about that. And not all the former D(a)MNers are spending their time sticking it to their former employer -- Manny Mendoza is working on an interesting looking film that gets to the root problem: what’s wrong with American newspapers.

I don't know how to solve the problem with American newspapers, but I know what I think would make the Metromess's papers a little more compelling: focus on quality over quantity. By being the best at covering the news in their communities, they will make their papers indespensible to their readers and the community. Don't waste your time with "News You Can Use" infotainment. Give me meaningful local news and put it in context. That's what you do. Do it well.

1 comment:

Kevin Buchanan said...

The S-T's new look is horrid. Web site, and paper. Not to mention the boneheaded "let's remove the Fort Worth part of the name" strategy. Sure, they say they've put it back, but I'm sorry - four-point font doesn't count. And I get really tired of picking up, say, the Star-Time and reading pages of reviews for restaurants in far-flung burbs.

They're the FORT WORTH Star-Telegram. Amon Carter's spinning in his grave thinking of the S-T removing the first two words from their name.