Media Watch

'Dallas Morning News' editorial staff members leap for buyouts; and 'Austin Student' publisher says 'vendetta' by former UT boss partially drove her to sell her weekly paper

Media Watch
Illustration By Doug Potter

Faced with a choice between accepting a buyout or riding out the coming upheaval at The Dallas Morning News, 20% of the paper's newsroom staffers opted to take the money and run. The paper's management hoped about 85 reporters and editors would voluntarily leave; instead 111 walked out this month, which, if nothing else, speaks volumes about newsroom morale.

Those taking the buyout included nationally known sports writer Kevin Blackistone and longtime Austin bureau staffer Pete Slover, who was known for his in-depth features. "I was not certain where journalism was going and if I wanted to be part of that," said Slover, who plans to use his law degree and work in Austin. "With all the uncertainty, it seemed like a good time to take fate in my hands."

Belo Corp., the paper's owner, has been slowly dismantling the Morning News' newsroom, once one of the nation's elite staffs, working at the level of The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. The buyout plan came after layoffs in 2001 and 2004; the latter slicing 65 people from the newsroom payroll.

Morale is "obviously not great right now," Editor Bob Mong said. But he noted that the paper bounced back after 2004's layoffs and launched several new initiatives, including more local coverage. "We did it, and we did it well, and it's making a difference."

But obviously it's not going that well. The volume of staffers who decided to take their shot in the Wal-Mart economy rather than stick around for Belo's version of the digital revolution suggests that not everyone is as excited about the progress as Mong.

Belo says it needed to make cuts to save $9 million a year, which also hints that management's grand strategy for taking the paper into the new millennium hasn't been a rousing success. The paper's recent track record includes a scandal in 2004 when management was caught misstating its circulation numbers, costing the paper both cash and credibility.

The new plan is to cut national coverage and focus rabidly on local news, leaving the distinct impression that one of the country's great newspapers is now content to be the best darn paper in south Richardson. In a column explaining the changes to readers on Sept. 17, Mong touted the paper's expanded Metro section and recent investigative work, without noting the irony that many of the people who produced those pieces are no longer employed by the paper.

Slover was the only one of the Morning News' seven-member Austin bureau to take the buyout. And staffers have been assured there are no plans to cut the bureau. "I've heard nothing but support," said bureau chief Christy Hoppe. But as the major media corporations retrench after years of failing to react to the modern age, there's little security in any bureau. The Morning News' Washington bureau is one of the major casualties of the latest reorganization and Belo-owned WFAA-TV in Dallas shuttered its Austin bureau in 2004.

Mong insists that the Morning News has no plans to cut back on its capital coverage. "It's a core area for us," Mong said. "I consider it a local bureau."

Yet few doubt that there is more mayhem on the horizon. "Yes, more change is coming," Morning News Publisher Jim Moroney wrote in a memo to employees, in case anyone had any doubts. Another reorganization plan is due in November. One issue to be addressed in that plan will be the larger-than-expected number of staffers who decided to jump ship, which may leave "gaps" in coverage, Mong said. Going forward, one of the company's top priorities is "to pay a lot of attention to retention" of employees, the editor said.

Due in part to a "vendetta" by her former boss at the University of Texas, The Austin Student Publisher Evelyn Gardner says she has decided to sell the free weekly newspaper, which was distributed on seven area college campuses. The paper stopped publishing in July. Staffers were told the publication was likely to be sold and that there was no guarantee of future employment. A few weeks later, Gardner was hired as the publisher of The Katy Times.

Gardner, the former advertising director of The Daily Texan, launched the paper two years ago as an alternative to the campus papers. With a minimal staff and a roster of student freelancers usually paid $15 to $30 a story, the paper was more lifestyle- and frat-oriented than the established school dailies. The quality often seemed to reflect the pay scale, but it certainly provided another outlet for student journalists and often came across as less stuffy and self-important than the established campus papers. Although it often seemed thin on advertising and switched from a broadsheet to a tabloid format earlier this year, Gardner says the paper was generating "positive cash flow," thanks to advertisers eager to reach college kids.

But Gardner says she was harassed at every turn by Kathy Lawrence, her former boss and director of student media at UT. According to Gardner, Lawrence worked against the paper with student media organizations and suppliers and used UT's weight to turn advertisers and students against it. The final straw came in March, she says, when The Daily Texan began offering free housing ads online, undercutting the market as The Austin Student started a push for housing ads. "I really got tired of it," Gardner says. "We were doing very well … but I was tired of dealing with the vendetta from The Daily Texan."

Lawrence denies working against the Student. "It's simply not true," she says. "We didn't take any action in any way aimed at their publication."

Gardner says she can't offer any details of the sale, but she expects the Student to reappear under new ownership in the near future.

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Dallas Morning News, The Austin Student, The Dallas Morning News, Kevin Blackistone, Pete Slover, Belo Corp., Bob Mong, Jim Moroney, Austin Student, Evelyn Gardner, Kathy Lawrence

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