The Last Obit

Died: The Dallas Times Herald, age 112, of natural causes. Survivors include a veteran columnist, who recalls better days.

February 1992By Comments

My wife, Polly, took the message for me. I had thought my biggest problem that Sunday, December 8, was going to be getting back from the store in time for the Cowboys kickoff. I had gone out for cat food and the papers. The Dallas Times Herald carried a page-one story of the Pearl Harbor fiftieth anniversary ceremonies, but the lead story was about the bright side of a grim Dallas economy. The banner headline, curiously worded for its big boxcar type, read: BEST TIME TO BUY A HOUSE IN A DECADE. The irony wouldn’t sink in until I got home. Gently taking that Meow for More and the stack of papers in my arms, Polly said, “Ron Ruggless called. The News has bought the Herald, they’re closing it down tomorrow, and you get sixty days’ severance and benefits.” Once again I marveled at her. She’s never taken a formal journalism course, and she’s mastered the inverted pyramid lead.

Frank Luksa, the droll dean of Times Herald sports columnists, heard the news on his car radio, driving to his umpty-dozenth Cowboys game at Texas Stadium. He heard it from Jim Dent on the KLRD pregame show. Dent had left the Times Herald last spring after thirteen years covering the Cowboys. His departure had made paragraph two of a two-paragraph memo posted on the bulletin board. Paragraph one was pleased to announce the appointment of a new clerk.

My three incarnations at the Herald totaled thirty years. My first job there, in the mid-fifties, was as a sports-desk flunky. I kept adding new part-time duties in various departments. Finally I pestered Bert Holmes, the city editor, into hiring me as a cub reporter on the city news staff. The starting job for a cub was the obit desk. You rewrote clips from the Morning News about dead Dallasites, you called half a dozen funeral homes twice a day to see who was new, and you talked to a succession of grief-stricken survivors about the distinctions of their loved ones, their terminal sufferings, their wrongful or premature deaths. It was a surefire regiment for producing cynics and depressives. It also taught the importance of accuracy; this was the only time most of those people would ever get their names in the paper.

In 1955 I was drafted into the Army, and when I was discharged two years later, the Times Herald offered me my job back as a general assignments reporter. There had been a steady hemorrhage of Times Herald writers over to the slightly better pay and much better local image of the News. The Times Herald executive vice president and general manager Jim Chambers announced his coup: He had hired away the News’s celebrity editor and artful writer, Felix R. McKnight. There was general jubilation in the newsroom. “Oh, boy,” assistant city editor John Weeks whooped. “They’ve been stealing all our Indians, and suddenly we’ve got Sitting Bull!”

McKnight brought a cachet of prestige and a dimension of renewed civic credibility that had been lacking at the blue-collar and pedestrian afternoon paper — not that the Times Herald hadn’t been immensely profitable through every year of its existence. It had its own loyal Dallas constituency. From 1896 until 1967, it had had only three publishers — Edwin Kiest, Tom Gooch, and John Runyon. Parks and schools and streets were named after them. These pillars of the Dallas establishment made the promotion of their fellow pillars Times Herald policy. Some of the more blatant stroking of Dallas’ leadership came in a months-long daily series called “Illustrious Sons,” fawning and heroic profiles of the heirs and scions who were in that burgeoning Dallas industry of “the son bidness.”

Through the twenties and the thirties there had been four dailies in Dallas, with an attendant scramble for scoops and exclusives, although they came mostly from the crime beat and other safe milieus that didn’t alienate any important people. When the board chairman of a major Dallas bank was convicted of misappropriations of funds in 1938, Dallas readers learned about it not from the local press but from Newsweek. Photostats of the story were still circulating thirty years later.

The News and the Herald were unfriendly competitors, but compared to the newspaper war that was to come, it was a pillow fight. Each paper had its own peculiar eccentricities of policy. Because of an edict from editor Allen Merriam, the Herald never ran pictures of snakes, reportedly because they scared his wife. Someone tested the policy in the early sixties, running a page-one photo of some school kids with a python at the Dallas Zoo. The press was stopped, and the page had to be replated between editions.

In the early sixties I was writing a page-one daily column blatantly patterned after Paul Crume’s eloquent “Big D” column in the News; it was part of the virtual cloning of the News that began with McKnight’s arrival. “Dallas Diary” was largely made up of harmless anecdotes, but it uncovered policies I hadn’t known were there. Once a column was killed because it involved a disgruntled customer of Orand Buick who was carrying an “I Bought a Lemon” placard in front of the dealership, a valued advertiser. Our irascible managing editor, Hal Lewis, had a standing order against using brand names. I could never convince him that something’s being “as big as a Buick” read funnier than its being “as big as a four-door sedan.” In 1962, at the height of the Cowboys-Texans pro football war, Lewis muttered that the clubs should have to buy ads instead of getting all that free promotion in the sports columns. The decision makers at the News were just as silly. Joe Goulden, an eventual Pulitzer-nominee author, was irate that his copy desk kept changing the phrase “had sexual intercourse” in the story about a rape trial to “had relations with.” Finally he wrote the phrase “testified that the defendant screwed her.” The desk changed it to “had sexual intercourse with.”

Why did some of us stay on — then and later? I did because I was still learning, because I was stubborn, because I was determined to tweak the Times Herald and Dallas until they developed a sense of humor, because I thought enlightened citizens such as Stanley Marcus should prevail their vision of what Dallas could become. Through the sixties, some stories embarrassing to the city’s image and pomposity were still suppressed or ignored by both papers. As a Time magazine stringer, I filed some of those stories amid the grim joke that Time had become Dallas’ third newspaper.

In 1958 McKnight made the master stroke that transformed Dallas’ newspapering, bringing sports columnist Blackie Sherrod to Dallas from the Fort Worth Press. Sherrod, revered for his witty writing, had an equal talent for management and journalistic insight. He brought with him to Dallas Dan Jenkins, Gary Cartwright, and Bud Shrake. Sherrod’s hiring marked the beginning of the Herald’s development into a writer’s newspaper, a personality that would in time take it to the top of Texas journalism. The sportswriters’ innovations, energy, and goose-bump writing brought the sports section first to parity with the Morning News and then to supremacy. In Big D’s priorities, sports was just about all that mattered. Through Sherrod’s example, the rest of the paper got brighter and more innovative. The pay was still bad, though. Nearly everyone moonlighted — for political candidates, drive-through animal parks, and PR agencies, or by editing other companies’ house organs and publications. You could also moonlight at the Herald, making overtime by writing puff stories on department stores with grocery chains for the special sections the paper published.

That was the situation that greeted and appalled Tom Johnson, Ken Johnson, and Will Jarrett when they arrived in the mid-seventies to run the Herald’s news operation for its new owners, the Times Mirror Company of Los Angeles. They banned most moonlighting, upgraded salaries, demanded quality, and added more writers. A new brand of journalism (for Dallas at least) cut through decades of passivity and faintheartedness. It was hard-edged and it sparkled like a sword — a double-edged sword, as it turned out. Dallas had never had a tough, neither-fear-nor-favor newspaper, and it wasn’t ready for one. “I think that was the beginning of the end,” says Frank Luksa, echoing a theory of many of his colleagues. “It scared the city’s leadership, having a paper that wouldn’t do their bidding.”

The Times Herald started making all the lists of best papers, but it alienated the Dallas establishment with its aggressiveness and its “outsiderness.” That perception was encouraged by the Morning News, which was getting its nose bloodied. The News followed its enemy in deciding to spend money to make money, and what resulted was the most intense newspaper war of the times. Tom Johnson’s forbearance and Will Jarrett’s minimalist management made the Times Herald a columnist’s delight — mavericks like Molly Ivins, Bill Porterfield, and Jim Henderson came in the wake of the earlier era’s alumni like Jim Lehrer, A. C. Greene, and Seth Kantor.

I missed six of the best years of the war, from 1979 to 1985, when I was off dabbling in broadcasting and traveling for two years with my family. While I was gone, Times Mirror added a morning edition of the Herald, causing years of subscription headaches and driving off many suburban readers. Management alienated Sherrod, who defected to the News. The News began to win the circulation war in the suburbs for the first time. Times Mirror sold the Herald to the acquisition wunderkind William Dean Singleton in 1986. Times Mirror had piped out a lot of profit and was trying to loot the pension fund on a technicality when it was foiled, ironically, in a federal suit filed by some of the investigative bulldogs it had trained.

Singleton’s choice as editor was David Burgin, and the Herald again burned with the kind of brief incandescence that precedes a light bulb’s end. Bullish and volcanic, he too was a columnist’s editor with writing talents of his own. He was given to turns of phrase that were tentative but memorable: “USA Today looks like a Hawaiian shirt”; “Never read a column by a guy named Rick” (a dictum that was 75 percent ominous in my case); “That’s what the back of the paper is for — stories about India.” But he was trying to put out a superior paper with inferior resources. Before his arrival in Dallas, upwards of 120 staffers had moved on, signing their names over a few weeks to a giant card labeled “Bailing Out.”

I had been brought back by Tom Johnson and Will Jarrett in 1985, presumably to shore up the Herald’s Dallas identity. That year a stag Christmastime gathering held by Stanley Marcus, his former NorthPark Neiman’s manager Ben Eisner told me, “I really miss reading your column, Dick.” I said, “Why, Ben, didn’t you know I came back to the Herald last June?” “Yeah,” he said, “I knew, but I don’t read the Times Herald anymore.” Neither did most of the men in the room that day. The hard-nosed Herald had lost first the affection, then the respect, then the readership, and ultimately the advertising dollars, of the Dallas decision makers.

The Herald went into a free-fall in 1988, when Singleton — who abruptly needed some large equity following his flamboyant purchases of the Houston Post and the Denver Post in the same week — sold the paper to former New Jersey associate John Buzzetta. Burgin was replaced as editor by Roy Bode, who was given even fewer resources and who exacerbated his predicament with what seemed like corporate-death-wish decisions. Bode’s first move was to cancel the column of Dan Jenkins, who had been brought back aboard by Burgin. Friends of Burgin, including myself and the gritty columnist Laura Miller, went into eclipse. Miller was fired; I was consigned to a lifestyle section that doubled as a columnist’s equivalent of an elephants’ burial ground. The section came to be referred to as the Jonestown of journalism. First to go was the communal sense of humor. Poses and pomposities that once had been the subject of ridicule became sacrosanct; we could no longer make fun of ourselves.

Bode doted on the digest, the collection of brief items on the front page of a section. He preferred hard news to column writing, the Herald’s stock in trade. One day in 1989, Bud Shrake said he had been stunned to pick up an edition of the Herald, turn to the sports section, and not find a single columnist.

That was about the time we sensed tiny auguries of the end, when the purchasing department switched from buying Liquid Paper to Sid and Ethel’s White-Out Fluid. Directives came from human resources, all beginning “In an effort to improve employee benefits …” and ending with an announcement of a reduction or cancellation of a benefit program.

“Bode thought hard news was going to turn the paper around,” says Burgin. “Well, baloney. Talent was going to do it more than anything. So what does he do? He takes the paper’s one major strength — columnists — and he sabotages it.”

In his statement on the death of the paper in December 8, Bode cited the crippling effects of the recession and bleak prospects of any resurgence as the reasons for the closing. Yes, that too.

So little time, so many redistricting stories to write. Sayonara, you all. SAMPLE.

This just in from the Times Herald board of economics: It’s officially a recession. FISHER.

Jim Beam whiskey and wine missing from features. That was to share, not for one person to take. Please return ASAP. Desperate need back here. LMILLER

Driving home that night, wondering where my career would take me next, I found some solace in the fact that the Herald had at least perished on a historical weekend. Everyone was already in a somber mood from the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Moreover, the Times Herald, having lived for 112 years, survived 43 years longer and one day later than the much bigger, more widely known — and similarly insolent — Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I wondered if I could get that obit past the copy desk.

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