The Legacy of Citizen Robert
At 21 Robert Decherd set out to capture the prize that had eluded his father: the throne of Texas’ most powerful media dynasty. At 34 he has won control of the Dallas Morning News and much, much more—but to what end?
When his father died, Robert Decherd was 21. It was November 1972. He was a senior at Harvard, and his life was full of possibilities. He was young and smart, and he was rich, a fourth-generation member of the family that owned what had been Texas’ most important newspaper, the Dallas Morning News.
Decherd’s father, H. Ben Decherd, Jr., had worked at the paper all his life, beginning when he was 21; he had risen to chairman of the board of the News‘ parent company, the A. H. Belo Corporation. Robert Decherd had displayed his own flair for the newspaper business. In prep school he had been editor of the student paper, and now he was just finishing a year as the first Texan ever to preside over the Harvard Crimson. The family would welcome him at Belo. But Robert Decherd had made up his mind months before that he was not going back to Dallas.
It was a time of rebellion, but Decherd was no rebel. There was more to his decision than wanting to make it on his own. Decherd wanted to work for a great newspaper. Except for a few lingering pretensions, little remained of the News‘ old reputation as one of America’s foremost regional papers. And there was the lesson of his father’s career. Ben Decherd had been the most able family member of his generation, but he had been passed over for the presidency, Belo’s most powerful position, because he had the wrong last name. Dealeys had run the News since its founding in 1885, and Dealeys continued to run it. Robert decided to stay in the East, get a reporting job with a big daily, and work his way up into the editing ranks. Someday he might go back to Dallas. Not now.
On a Friday night near the end of his term as president of the Crimson, Decherd and his fellow editors gathered at a pricey continental restaurant overlooking the placid Charles River. They were there to eat a bit, to drink a lot, and finally to select their successors. In the middle of it all, Decherd was summoned to the phone. It was his mother, Isabelle Thomason Decherd.
Your father is dying, she told him. Ben Decherd had lost a two-year battle with lung cancer. After a brief remission, the disease had reappeared and spread uncontrollably, and now, in a hospital bed at the M. D. Anderson cancer center in Houston. 1,800 miles from Cambridge, Ben was slipping away. Robert returned to the meeting but said nothing about his news. He presided over the selection of the new editors, then went to his dorm, packed a few things, and had his roommate speed him to the airport for a late flight to Houston. When Robert got there the next morning, his father was in a coma. At 5:45 p.m., Ben Decherd died.
Suddenly Robert faced a radically different set of considerations. His mother was a widow, and he was the only son. Moreover, he was coming into his inheritance at a critical time in the history of A. H. Belo; the trust that had allowed the Dealeys to control the News for two generations following the death of G. B. Dealey would expire in 1976, just four years away. Then Robert and his older sister stood to get a hefty block of Belo stock, a total of 16 per cent—not enough to control the company but enough, perhaps, to give him more of a chance than his father had had. Young Decherd was at a crossroads, and the paths before him diverged widely. Down one lay the future he had wanted. Down another—the one he chose—lay Dallas.
Today Robert Decherd, at 34, rules one of the major media empires in America. The A. H. Belo Corporation owns television stations in Dallas and Houston; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Sacramento, California; and Norfolk, Virginia. It owns AM and FM radio stations in Dallas and Denver. It owns seven suburban Dallas newspapers, and, most of all, it owns the Dallas Morning News—still the most important newspaper in Texas, now once again the best.
With his downy hair, pink skin, and unlined face, the most important man in Texas journalism looks more like an overgrown cherub than a media baron. Robert Decherd rarely drinks, never smokes, and eschews all the pastimes of the old-generation Dallas executive: he doesn’t hunt, fish, or play golf. On first meeting, the most striking impression he makes is one of clean-cut, all-business wholesomeness, the sort that prompted his prep school chums to remember him with the quotation “Come on over and have a glass of milk, guys!” and his college friends to recall him as the only classmate they knew who never smoked dope. His dress is as low-key as his personality; he wears dark, conservative suits with cuffed pants, white shirts, and loafers. His office strikes the same theme of the commonplace. It contains no great art, no rare objects, no evidence of worldwide travel or consuming hobbies. The sole clue to his ambition is a glass statue of a winged lion that belonged to his father.
In a company that was dominated not just by old men but also by old relatives, Decherd’s willingness to conform served him well. He still seems slightly uncomfortable with high station. When he rides in the company limousine, he sits in the front seat, next to the chauffeur. He is unflaggingly polite, serious, and deferential. It is not a studied pose; it comes naturally. When the News staff decided to publish an in-house parody issue to mark Decherd’s thirtieth birthday, a reporter was assigned to write a funny story about the young executive who had spent three years training in the newsroom. The reporter nearly gave up in despair; Robert Decherd is not a funny man.
Because of his unthreatening personality, Decherd was able to offer his ideas without offending his elders. But he could never have risen so far so fast on personality alone. Decherd’s real genius is an instinctive understanding of Dallas, the modern media corporation, and how the two fit together. That was why his ideas proved to be the right ideas, and his decisions, when he was allowed to make them, proved to be the right decisions.
Robert Decherd now serves as president of the A. H. Belo Corporation. In gaining the title that eluded his father, Decherd has denied not only his cousin and rival Joe Dealey, Jr., but also a tradition. The Dealey era—a period that had much to do with making Dallas what it is today—has ended at the Dallas Morning News. That Robert Decherd won what his father lost shows how much Dallas has changed in a generation. The struggle for control of the Belo Corporation was a clash of visions, a battle between the old Dallas and the new. The Dealeys stood for tradition, private ownership, secrecy, rigid conservatism, and control by birth. The Decherds stood for the future, change, risk, public ownership, rule by merit, and ambition. In the end, the future won out.
The most visible sign of that transformation is the $32 million, seventeen-story Belo Building, a new corporate palace for Decherd’s new empire. When it is finished in November, Decherd and his top executives will move from the Dallas Morning News building on the southwest edge of downtown to the fancy new office tower across the street. For the first time since the News began publication, Belo’s chief operating officer will not preside from the newspaper building. That is appropriate, for Robert Decherd, unlike his predecessors as president of the Belo Corporation, is not a journalist; he is a corporate executive. Belo is no longer a newspaper company but a media corporation. And that is perhaps the most radical change of all.
The Great Tradition
Around the top of the long rectangular building that has housed the Dallas Morning News since 1949 is a row of polished metal outlines of the state of Texas, with large stars marking the location of Dallas. The maps are more than a decoration; they are a statement of the News‘ traditional position in Texas journalism, as not Just a Dallas newspaper but also a statewide newspaper of record. More than any other institution in the state, the News promoted and championed the idea that the regions of Texas formed a single entity with common concerns. Its cartoonists developed the figure of Old Man Texas, an elderly gentleman with a Western hat. Its editorials established the existence of a Texas position on issues ranging from industrialization (for) to two-party politics (against). It published The Texas Almanac (“as a public service to Texas, rather than for profit”) and formed a news organization that served as the vote counter in all statewide elections until 1984. The News was a second paper for readers throughout the state, with interests ranging from Broadway shows, which were regularly reviewed, to Texas politics. The best testimony to the status of the News in its earlier days can be found in the old Texas-government clippings filed at the state library; most of the time, the only report judged worthy of preserving is from the Dallas Morning News.
The man who was responsible for lifting the News to its exalted status was George Bannerman Dealey, whose stern-eyed portrait today gazes out from the News‘ fourth-floor lobby. Dealey was the prototype of the newspaper publisher as leading citizen. Men like Amon Carter of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Jesse Jones of the Houston Chronicle, and W. L. Moody, Jr., of the Galveston Daily News were to follow, but of all of them, only G. B. Dealey was able to resist using his newspaper for the advancement of his outside wealth and political power. When Dealey died, on February 26, 1946, at age 86, the flags were lowered at the state capitol.
Dealey had worked 72 years at the A. H. Belo Corporation. Hired when Ulysses S. Grant was president, he died after Truman had dropped the atom bomb. And though he is remembered as the founder of the Dallas Morning News, Dealey spent all but the last two decades of his life as a hired hand. He began at the Galveston News, then the state’s leading paper, in 1874, four years after his family had immigrated to Texas from England. He was fifteen and started as an office boy.
The Galveston paper was owned by Alfred Horatio Belo, a bearded Confederate colonel originally from North Carolina. Belo wanted to start another paper in North Texas, where a daily wouldn’t be limited to an island. In 1882 he sent Dealey, who had risen to mailroom clerk, to scout the proper location. After considering such sites as Waco, Fort Worth, and Denison, Belo accepted Dealey’s conclusion that Dallas, a booming town of 18,000, was the most promising location. At 26, Dealey was named business manager of the nascent Dallas Morning News. The paper set up shop in a three-story brick building on Commerce Street in downtown Dallas, and the first edition appeared on October 1, 1885.
That was a perilous time in the newspaper business. Papers seemed to spring up, merge, fail, and disappear almost overnight; though a small city, Dallas already had two dailies. To survive, a paper had to be not only well-run but also carefully conceived.
The News was. From the beginning Dealey established policies that would remain with the paper. Belo wanted a regional paper, a sober journal of record with none of what he called the “shriveled localism” of the competition. Dealey filled the News‘ pages with dispatches on state, national, and world events and sent the paper by train throughout Texas. For the next 99 years (until Dealey’s great-grandson Robert Decherd at last made the paper supreme in its bailiwick), the News relied on its sales outside the borders of Dallas County to claim a circulation advantage over its surviving rivals.
Dealey also bluntly stated his intention to ally the paper with the interests of the city. “The advancement of Dallas is the advancement of the News,” an 1886 editorial announced. “The one is inseparable from the other.” By using the paper’s editorials and news columns in his frequent campaigns for civic improvement, he made the News the voice of the Dallas establishment. Not one to leave matters to fate, George Dealey found another way to assure success. A month after beginning publication, the News bought and promptly shut down the only other morning paper in town, leaving itself with a morning monopoly.
After Belo’s sudden death in 1901, the colonel’s heirs gave Dealey a free hand. The News fought for improved sanitation—it placed the first public trash can in Dallas’ streets—and, above all, city planning. In 1910 Dealey began running large, appealing photos of cities like Buffalo, under the standing caption “An example of civil attractiveness.” The series continued daily for eight years, three months, and 26 days and was the origin of Dallas’ civic obsession with cleanliness and order.
G. B. Dealey did not limit his campaigns to the pages of his newspaper. He pulled strings in Washington to help Dallas beat out Houston for the southwestern branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. He raised funds for parks, for hospitals, and for Southern Methodist University’s first building. Every month, beginning in 1908, he dined with the city’s most powerful men, a group called the Critic Club, who set the city’s future course. Those activities had enormous implications for the paper. Dealey was forging the fateful link between himself and the Dallas establishment that was to make his newspaper the embodiment of its will.
Later, in the hands of Dealeys less gifted and principled than himself, that solidarity would almost destroy the reputation of the newspaper. But G. B. Dealey never lost his long-range vision for the News. He wanted to build a great newspaper, and he knew that it would sometimes require making decisions that cost money. “Revenue must be had first,” he said. “but the revenue is not to be had unless the policy is correct.” In 1907, with the News‘ circulation up to 37,000, Dealey persuaded the Belo heirs to let him stop running advertisements on the front page; it would be another 72 years before the News stopped running ads on the front pages of its other sections.
The episode that most sharply distinguished Dealey concerned his opposition to the Ku Klux Klan in the early twenties. The Klan was strong in Dallas and in Texas; in 1922 it held almost every elective office in town and helped elect one of its own to the U.S. Senate. On the morning after a Klan parade down Main Street, the News (the same paper that many years later would embrace Joe McCarthy) editorialized that the spectacle had been “a slander on Dallas.” Dealey’s campaign prompted first a cancellation of subscriptions, then a boycott by advertisers, and finally a boycott of stores that continued to advertise in the News. The paper’s circulation fell by three thousand copies, forcing Colonel Belo’s heirs to sell the Galveston paper, by then less than half the size of its Dallas offspring. Dealey kept up the attacks, though, and by 1924 sentiment began to shift. That fall an endorsement from the News helped Ma Ferguson beat the Klan’s candidate for governor.
In 1926 Belo’s heirs sold the company to the man who had worked for the family for a half-century. At the age of 66, Dealey took on a twenty-year debt to become majority stockholder of A. H. Belo, purchased for a total of $2,725,000. Belo’s properties included the News, The Texas Almanac, the Semi-Weekly Farm News, and an afternoon paper, the Dallas Journal, which Dealey would sell in 1938. As an owner, Dealey was a benevolent monarch. He knew every employee by name, considered all requests for raises and promotions personally, and kept employees who were sick and unable to work on the company payroll. And only in the most extreme circumstances did the News ever fire an employee.
Dealey would read the paper in the morning and ride to work in a limousine driven by a black chauffeur who lived behind the Dealey home in Highland Park. (Dealey never bothered to learn to drive.) At the News he would shed his suit jacket and hat, slip on a black alpaca coat, reach for an expensive cigar, and begin dispatching memos. They were written on pink slips of paper that only he was permitted to use. Forever waging war on waste, he instructed reporters to slit open used envelopes and type their copy on the inside. New writers were advised not to expect many bylines; G. B. Dealey didn’t want large egos on his staff. Dealey was all business. He worked six days a week and on Sundays came to the office after church to open the mail. Humor came so rarely to him that he jotted down jokes in a small blue notebook for use in speeches.
In 1940, with circulation up to 102,000 and the News‘ place as Texas’ paper of record firmly established, Dealey, at 80, began to make provisions for succession. Among his five children, his first choice to take over the business had been Walter, the older of two sons. Walter had joined the company after college in 1920 and quickly showed that he had a head for numbers and an eye for a good deal. He had persuaded his father in 1922 to invest in a strange new proposition called radio, a business that would support the company during the Depression. Walter became general manager of the company, the man in charge on the rare occasions when his father was away. But Walter Dealey, whose father never drank, was an alcoholic. His affection for the bottle led to a separation from his wife, and in 1934, while in a Dallas clinic to receive the cure, he died of a heart attack. County records attributed his early demise, at age 43, to “alcoholic poison.”
G.B.’s other son was Edward Musgrove Dealey, a large man, moon-faced and broad-shouldered, who had played football for the University of Texas. In his older years, when his jowls sagged and his forehead wrinkled, he looked like a frowning bulldog. With Walter dead, Ted became the heir apparent. The only problem was that Ted didn’t want the mantle. He liked to write and travel. While Walter had been learning bookkeeping, Ted had happily busied himself as a reporter, chasing fires and politicians. More recently, he had written editorials and edited the News‘ Sunday magazine. Ted preferred eating lunch in the company cafeteria with ink-stained pressmen to chewing over the details of newspaper finance. “Hell, when I need to count over ten,” he told a relative, “I have to take my shoes off.” It didn’t matter. However ill-suited for the job he might be, however uninterested he was, Ted Dealey was the only remaining son of the founder. The burden was his. In 1940 his father gave Ted the title of president. Six years later G. B. Dealey died of a heart attack, and Ted had the reins all to himself.
Coarse and Ugly
The new publisher of the Dallas Morning News was unlike any other Dealey. And he was remarkably unlike his father. George Bannerman Dealey had been a serious, industrious child. Ted was expelled from the sixth grade and later sent to a private school for delinquents. G.B. was a cultured man with a fine-tuned sense of propriety. Ted once wrote a Belo executive who had moved into new quarters. “Some day when you’re sitting in that fancy new office of yours, keep in mind that at one time in that exact location stood the finest whorehouse in the entire city of Dallas.” In a collection of essays about his childhood, titled Diaper Days of Dallas, Ted offered anecdotes about his “masturbation period” and urinating in his pants. G. B. Dealey was a progressive man who ordered the staff to stop referring to “Jew girls” and was sensitive about the treatment of black people. Ted laced his speech with remarks about “niggers.” G. B. Dealey never drank, but Ted, like his late brother, drank too much, and the booze turned his mood coarse and ugly.
Ted cared little for the civic meetings and causes, the fundraising drives and betterment groups that had been his father’s lifework. He became a charter member of the Dallas Citizens Council, the group of Dallas executives that would chart the city’s political course from 1937 to the mid-seventies, but he rarely went to its meetings. He preferred to hunt and fish, often at a private lodge near Athens called Koon Kreek Klub, frequented by other members of the Dallas power structure. His great civic passion was the Dallas zoo.
“But the most critical difference between father and son was reflected on the editorial page. Gone was the sense of moderation. The editorials began to take on Ted’s personality—strident and shrill, outspoken and mean. Ted Dealey was a red-baiter, a supporter of Joe McCarthy, an unforgiving opponent of the United Nations, an enemy of social welfare and unions and federal aid, and so was his newspaper. In the News‘ editorial columns, the Supreme Court was a “judicial Kremlin.” Liberals were fools, dupes, or fellow travelers. U.S. recognition of Russia, an action that G. B. Dealey had applauded, was a “Queer Deal.” Ted Dealey’s News never strayed far from its free-enterprise gospel, not even when it was speaking to the high rate of traffic deaths in Texas. The accidents, it observed, resulted from “the same human qualities that made America great—willingness to risk, driving energy, rugged individualism.”
Just as G. B. Dealey’s editorial page had changed the Dallas of an earlier era, Ted Dealey’s shaped his. The public life of the city turned ugly in the fifties and sixties. The art museum took down a Picasso after a barrage of calls protested that the artist was a communist. When the museum board resisted attempts to close a photography exhibit that included Russian photographers, the News headlined its story MUSEUM SAYS REDS CAN STAY. Police pressure forced all local bookstores to take Tropic of Cancer off their shelves. In 1960 Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson were spat on during a campaign visit to the Adolphus Hotel. Four days later John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States, an event that led to Ted Dealey’s most notorious public acts.
In October 1961 Ted joined a group of nineteen Texas publishers for a Friday lunch at the White House. It was a typical presidential courting ritual: an elegant bite to eat, an off-the-record briefing, and a bit of pleasant conversation, all harmless enough. But this time was to be different.
After lunch Kennedy spoke to the publishers about foreign affairs and then asked if any of his guests had anything to say. One publisher got up and delivered the best wishes of his local citizenry. Then Ted Dealey rose, pulling out a prepared statement. Since Kennedy’s election, the News‘ editorial page had leveled an unrelenting attack on the president: he was a buffoon, a thief, thirty times a fool. Now, face to face, Dealey continued the assault. “The general opinion of the grassroots thinking in this country is that you and your administration are weak sisters,” Dealey read to the president. “If we stand firm, there will be no war. The Russians will back down. We need a man on horseback to lead this nation, and many people in Texas and the Southwest think that you are riding Caroline’s tricycle.”
The other publishers were aghast. “Mr. President,” said Jim Chambers, publisher of the Times Herald (Dallas’ afternoon paper) and a man who knew Ted Dealey well, “I think you should know that Mr. Dealey does not express the sentiments of all the publishers around this table.” The incident produced a national media fire storm, and the News relished every moment. Around the state and the country, Ted Dealey was condemned as a reactionary and a boor. But in Dallas, the News received more than 2,000 letters, and 1700 of them voiced approval of his actions. In Dallas it was Jim Chambers who fielded the stacks of hate mail.
Two years later a News advertising salesman took the copy for an unusual ad up to the executive suite. He was worried about the ad’s strong language and uncertain origin. Normally such questions would have been routed through Joe Dealey, Ted’s son, but Joe was away at a newspaper convention and wouldn’t be back until President Kennedy’s visit the next day. Instead, the decision was left to Ted.
Even today Joe Dealey shakes his head at the memory of the ad. “Damn, we ought not to have done it,” he says. “If I’d been sitting there, I’d have killed it.” But Ted was sitting there, and so, on November 22, 1963, John Kennedy was greeted with the ad that would forever link the Dallas Morning News with the tragic events of that day. “Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas,” it began, and it went on to ask a series of rhetorical questions, such as “Why have you scrapped the Monroe Doctrine in favor of the Spirit of Moscow?” The entire ad was enclosed in a thick black border. That morning Kennedy read the ad and handed it to his wife. “Oh, you know, we’re heading into nut country,” he said. Three hours later he was struck dead by an assassin’s bullet—as his limousine passed through a plaza named for G. B. Dealey.
The Dealey Dynasty
The News‘ downhill slide did not stop with the editorial page. Ted Dealey’s lack of vision afflicted the entire paper. Early in the fifties Felix McKnight, managing editor of the News, proposed to Dealey that the paper hire a talented sportswriter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram named Blackie Sherrod. Ted Dealey said no.
“No” was a word heard frequently in the paper’s newsroom. Bureaus were shut down. Staffing increases were denied. Raises were refused. One editor recalls trying to hire a reporter from Abilene, who responded that he could make more money staying where he was. The low salaries inspired a couplet that circulated in the newsroom: “Be-lo, Be-lo, Be-lo par,/ That: is what our paychecks are.”
The stinginess wasn’t due to poverty. With Dallas growing and the company’s new local TV station (WFAA) producing profits, Belo was making more money than ever. It was a matter of attitude. Like many who inherit wealth and power, Ted was content to maintain what he had, and there was nothing to stir him from complacency. Since 1942 Dallas had had only two newspapers. The News had a monopoly in the morning, the Times Herald had the afternoon, and they happily divided the pie. The News led in total circulation—it prided itself on being the only daily sold in every county in Texas—and in several advertising categories, particularly classifieds. The Herald sold more copies in Dallas County and carried more retail advertising. Both papers made money, and the hierarchies of the two institutions maintained cordial relations.
The papers competed for news, but the competition was gentlemanly and limited. The restraints applied to competition for talent as well. For years the papers adhered to unwritten rules against raiding one another’s staff. The quiet conspiracy avoided bidding wars that might escalate newsroom salaries. The rules dictated that a reporter or editor had to quit one paper before the other would consider hiring him. In 1957 Felix McKnight became the solitary exception. McKnight had been at the News for sixteen years, most of the time as managing editor. But he knew he could rise no higher. Belo’s top echelon was restricted to family and longtime close associates. Even company stock was closely held. Though McKnight ran the paper’s news operation, he was not allowed to buy a share. So when the Herald offered him the job of editor, with stock options and a position on the board. McKnight jumped ship. At the Times Herald, McKnight promptly hired Blackie Sherrod.
Part of the problem was that Ted Dealey made no effort to manage the details of his business. Until 1956 the company had no annual budgets. To Ted, the News‘ profit-and-loss statements were a mystery. “I used to go in there and give him the monthly financial report,” says Bill Smellage, an accountant brought in as chief financial officer in 1954. “Ted never was interested in the details. ‘Bill,’ he asked, ‘was the took-ins more than the took-outs?’ That’s all he wanted to know.”
The board of directors did nothing to compensate for the problem. Its meetings were as formal and informative as a family reunion, and for good reason: it was made up entirely of family members and a few intimate associates who had worked at Belo for decades. Belo had never had a true outside director. G. B. Dealey’s widow, Olivia, served as board chairman until her death in 1960 at age 97.
At board meetings directors received no written materials. Jim Moroney. Jr., one of G. B. Dealey’s grandsons, remembers his father’s giving financial reports that lasted less than a minute: “Second quarter was a pretty good quarter … did a little better man last year. Had a problem with newsprint … pretty good Quarter.” Says Jim Junior, now 63, “You were lucky if you knew what the profit was when the meeting was over.”
The Dallas Morning News was one of those rare institutions in which time seemed to alter nothing. But it was the unbroken pattern of family management that was particularly distinctive—management that drew not just on one line of G. B. Dealey’s heirs but four. In addition to his two sons, G.B. had three daughters: Maidie Moroney, Fannie Decherd, and Annie Jackson. The Jacksons were the only branch of the Dealey family that was never represented at the News. The reason was not lack of interest: more than one Jackson son inquired about the possibility of a newspaper career. But the answer was always no. A family member says the banishment resulted from G.B.’s conflicts with his daughter. It seems Annie was a nervous, talkative woman who drove old George Dealey to distraction, and he refused to countenance her frequent presence. “His reasoning was that if we allow any of the Jackson boys to work for the News, Annie would be down here every day telling us how to run everything,” says the family member.
To keep Annie out of the picture, the family member says. G.B. tried to have her committed to a mental institution, asking grandson Ben Decherd to arrange it. In time the breach between the Jacksons and the rest of the family would produce enormous headaches for the Belo Corporation, and provide the wedge that Robert Decherd needed to take control.
The four grandsons—Joe Dealey, Al Dealey (Walter’s son). Ben Decherd, and Jim Moroney, Jr.—each served an apprenticeship at the News before World War II and returned immediately afterward. When they were all back. Ted announced that they were to assume important roles. “The employees better get used to it,” he told them. “You boys are going to run the business. We’re going to bring you in and make you junior executives.”
From that day forward, the “boys” participated in all major decisions at the News. They sat in on board meetings as well, even though they did not become directors until the annual meeting of 1952, when Joe Dealey, Ben Decherd, and Jim Moroney, Jr., were elevated together. Al Dealey supervised bookkeeping until he left the company in 1951 to join the ministry. Jim Moroney, Jr., worked in circulation and broadcasting, a division run by his father. Joe Dealey, as befitted Ted’s son, had come up through the newspaper. He had served an apprenticeship as a reporter and business editor before moving to the executive offices and becoming secretary of the corporation.
Ben Decherd, the oldest of the three remaining boys, was the intellectual of the group, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UT. With his round-rimmed glasses and receding hairline, he appeared almost professorial. Decherd began at the News as a cub reporter in 1936, then left to serve during the war as a general’s aide. He rose to lieutenant colonel before his discharge, and the military made a deep impression on him. He returned to Dallas with a cool, formal bearing and a penetrating look. In the company he received the title of assistant to The president (Ted Dealey) and assumed an assortment of administrative chores. Many of them were jobs that no one else wanted, responsibilities like production, personnel, and public relations. Decherd helped develop Belo’s first budget and initiated stock options for top management. Progressive employees came to view him as an ally, a man who could get things accomplished in the closed circle of family rule. He had great confidence in his abilities, and equal ambition. Ben Decherd began to think about how much more he might accomplish as president of the company.
The Dealey Deal
The key position at the News, the title signifying day-to-day control, had always been that of president. In January 1960 Olivia Dealey died, leaving the position of board chairman vacant. It was time for Ted Dealey, 67, to do as his father had done twenty years earlier—turn over the presidency and become chairman of the board. Ted would hand his burdens to a younger man. But who? There were three grandchildren, three members of the third generation, still working at the company: Joe Dealey, Ben Decherd, and Jim Moroney, Jr.
The choice seemed obvious, at least to Ben Decherd. He was the oldest grandchild. He had worked at Belo the longest. He was better educated than the others. And he had labored skillfully for years on the company’s most difficult problems. Ben Decherd was certain; the presidency should be his.
Decherd also stood to be the company’s largest single shareholder. That was the problem; he stood to be, but he wasn’t. That honor still belonged to the estate of a man who had been dead for fourteen years, G. B. Dealey.
When he died in 1946, Dealey owned two thirds of all Belo stock. His will divided the stock among the families of his five children, but there was one catch. The children would receive the dividends, but the stock itself would remain in trust until five years after the last of them died. Then the Dealey trust would expire and the shares would be passed on to the grandchildren.
Because he had no siblings, Ben Decherd would be the beneficiary of his family’s entire share. But in 1960 the Dealey trust was still in effect. The shares were voted not by the grandchildren but by the three trustees, Ted Dealey, Jim Moroney, Sr., and a longtime friend of G. B. Dealey’s. Ted controlled the votes, and he intended to deliver the Belo empire to his son, Joe, just as his father had delivered it to him.
So sure was Ted of the outcome that he wasn’t even bothering to attend the board meeting at which the presidency would be filled. He had planned a trip overseas and saw no reason to cancel. But Ben Decherd wasn’t willing to give up. He floated the notion that he had been G. B. Dealey’s favorite grandson, that the dead patriarch of the company had wished him, not Joe, to take over. One day, while driving back from a business meeting shortly before Ted was to leave town, Decherd pleaded with Joe to make his father delay the vote. “I had the feeling Ben wanted me to say, ‘I’m going to remove myself,’ “ says Joe. But Joe didn’t budge.
The meeting went exactly as Ted had planned. There was no discussion, and the vote was unanimous. Ben Decherd came around the table and was the first to shake Joe’s hand, but he was bitterly disappointed. His lifelong ambition had been to become president of Belo. It was not to be. The job, once again, belonged to the Dealeys.
Joe had the title, but his father still dominated the company. For nine years, the formative years of Joe’s stewardship, Ted Dealey wouldn’t let go. As a result Joe became far more influential outside the News than within it. His single-spaced resume in 1970 listed no fewer than 21 community organizations in which he was active: the Dallas County Fund, the Cotton Bowl Athletic Association, the State Fair of Texas, and on and on. By the time his father died, in 1969, Joe Dealey’s notion of his job had been shaped. He believed in the newspaper executive as civic leader, almost to the exclusion of running the paper. But he was a different kind of civic leader from G. B. Dealey. The patriarch had splashed his civic concerns across the front page. Joe served as president of the Citizens Council, the organization that pulled all the strings in Dallas, but his newspaper wrote nothing of what he knew. G.B. had warned against “entangling alliances,” forbidding Ted to accept a seat on the UT board of regents, but Joe sought entanglements. G.B. had decreed that “newspapermen aren’t news” and shied away from self-promotion. In disdain of that dictum, Joe’s paper published countless articles and photos of its president.
Joe Dealey was a pleasant, cordial fellow, with none of the abrasive bluster of his father. He liked things quiet, peaceful, and unchanging. The paper was growing, making money, and staying out of debt. The Herald wasn’t doing anything. Why should anything change?
But if there was no pressure for the newspaper to change, the same was not true for the corporation. Television was coming on strong, and anyone with business acumen could see that there was big money to be made. The men who ran the company’s broadcast operations, Jim Moroney, Jr., and Mike Shapiro, wanted Belo to buy more stations, but Joe wasn’t interested.
Part of the reason was his notion of the company. To Joe, and to Ted before him, Belo was a newspaper company that tolerated a few broadcast companies to help pay the bills. If Ted Dealey realized that television and radio were producing more profit than the News, he didn’t show it. “Ted hated broadcast,” says Shapiro. “Belo’s annual report would devote three pages to the newspaper and a paragraph to broadcasting.”
Moroney and Shapiro combed the country for broadcast acquisitions, and many seemed like sweet deals—stations in Wichita, Sacramento, New Orleans, and Tulsa, properties that would cost far more just a few years later. The two men would scout properties, discuss a purchase price, and return to report back to the board. Time after time, the board said no. “What do you mean, buy something outside of Dallas?” Ted would ask. “What would we want another station for?”
Joe had another objection: he abhorred debt. He thought every station Moroney and Shapiro pitched was overpriced. He wanted to buy with cash, but even cash-rich Belo couldn’t buy TV stations without borrowing, so it didn’t buy at all.
By 1968 the company had accumulated so much cash that it practically had to buy something. It found a small CBS affiliate—KFDM-TV in Beaumont—Port Arthur, a market that ranked number 115 in the nation—that the company could buy without borrowing a penny. It was the first broadcast acquisition the company had made in nineteen years and the only one it would make for eleven more.
Belo’s only other significant acquisition was closer to home. In 1963 the company bought the News-Texan chain of seven suburban newspapers. The papers were miserable rags, and they would never make Belo any money. But they served a purpose. They blocked the creation of any real newspapers in the suburbs ringing Dallas, and because they published in the afternoon, they cut into the Herald’s advertising and circulation.
The News-Texan papers became the responsibility of Ben Decherd. He and Jim Moroney, Jr., had become vice presidents after being passed over for the presidency. In 1968, following the death of Moroney’s father, Decherd was named chairman of the board, but the position carried no power, and Decherd soon decided he had spent enough time at the Belo Corporation. He began spending half days at the News, splitting his remaining time between a large ranch he had purchased near Denton, and St. Mark’s School, where he was chairman of the board. Four years later, at age 57, he was dead.
Decherd was the fifth Belo director to die in four years. There was room on the board for new blood, an opportunity for change, but Joe would delay until 1973 before reluctantly accepting five outside directors. In the style of G. B. Dealey, who used to place a chain and padlock around the company ledger before locking it in his safe, Belo remained a zealously private institution. At annual meetings the financial reports handed out to stockholders were numbered and collected before anyone left the room. The top newsroom editor, Jack Krueger, was due to retire after 29 years; he would be replaced by Thomas Jefferson Simmons III, a man who had worked for Belo since 1931. And already the heir apparent, Joe Dealey, Jr., had begun his apprenticeship. It seemed as though it would go on forever.
The Rival Returns
In 1970, while young Robert Decherd was writing sports stories for the Harvard Crimson, the outside world penetrated the complacent environment of Dallas journalism. The Times Mirror Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times and Long Island’s Newsday, two of the best newspapers in the country, bought the Times Herald. One year later Dallas voters rejected the Citizens Council’s candidate for mayor in favor of a former TV sportscaster named Wes Wise. Dallas was changing; events were overtaking the somnambulent Dealey dynasty, but the Morning News went on as before, as if its small lead in advertising and circulation was unassailable, allowing the Herald plenty of time to prepare its assault.
The siege began in 1973 when Times Mirror named Tom Johnson, a former aide to Lyndon Johnson, editor of the Herald. Only 32, articulate, and charming, Johnson was a new breed of editor for Dallas. He added staff, boosted salaries, and proclaimed his intention to make the Herald “the best newspaper in the Southwest.” Reporters revered him. When the News failed to follow suit, its demoralized newsroom staff began organizing a union.
In the middle of that crisis, Robert Decherd returned to Dallas. Even before he arrived, the beleaguered newsroom staff had thought of him as a messiah, a rival to the Dealey dynasty. The staff knew that his years at Harvard had given him a perspective different from that of the Dealeys’ News. During an era of heated antiwar feeling, Decherd had fit in well enough at the Crimson to be chosen by his left-leaning peers to head a very left-leaning campus paper. As a reporter there, he had blasted the Harvard administration for refusing to grant union employees time off to participate in a strike against the Viet Nam War. In Washington to cover the massive war protest in 1971, he had written that an outdoor detention center “had all the trappings of a concentration camp.” His final act as a collegian was to deliver the graduation speech for the class of 1973. Decherd urged his classmates “to probe America’s social and political order.” He concluded with an exhortation to shun “this modern-day laissez-faire society.” Then he set off for its capital—Dallas.
But there was another side to Robert Decherd at Harvard that offered better clues to the role he would play at the Dallas Morning News. People naturally deferred to him. “Robert was thirty when he was eighteen,” says a former colleague. Once elected Crimson president, he proved to be not nearly so radical as his colleagues had first perceived. Decherd, who acknowledges that he was gunning for the Crimson presidency from the start, had revealed a talent for adapting to any political environment.
The News staff didn’t really know Robert Decherd, but they knew all about his competitor for power within the family. Joe Dealey, Jr., had spent summers in the newsroom while attending Trinity University, and reporters had taken turns rewriting his stories. He started at Belo following his graduation in 1970 but left after only two months for a full-time enlistment in the Army National Guard. He found commanding a tank platoon more romantic than learning to run a newspaper. One weekend Joe wrote a long letter to his father, explaining that he had enjoyed his military experience and wanted to make the Army his career. Remember, Joe Dealey told his son, you have a duty to your family as well as to your country. In February 1972 Joe Junior returned to the News as the first enrollee in the paper’s three-year management training program, with the expectation that he would one day take over the company.
It was hard not to like Joe Junior. He was a sweet, prematurely balding fellow, gangling and endearing as a puppy. With a mixture of derision and affection, his fellow workers called him Scoop. Joe wore preppy jackets and bow ties to work, but he remained at heart a man in uniform. He stayed in the National Guard, and when he attended the formal functions that were required of a young man of his station, he wore his medals on his tuxedo.
Robert Decherd’s arrival a year later seemed certain to set up a replay of 1960; it was Dealey versus Decherd once again, with no prospect for a quick resolution. The tradition at Belo was that the generations moved up together. Joe Dealey and Jim Moroney would both reach retirement age while Joe Junior and Robert were in their thirties. Whoever won the fight for control of the Belo empire would rule for three decades.
But Joe Dealey, Jr., didn’t seem to realize that he would have to fight for his father’s office. He served his time in various departments of the company but did no more than he was told. When he completed the training program, he asked to become an editorial writer. He had no interest in the corporate world. It bored and bewildered him, as it had his father and grandfather. They had risen nonetheless because they were Dealeys. But now the Herald was at the gates, and dissolution of the G. B. Dealey trust was about to change the rules of family succession.
In contrast to Joe, Robert emerged as a key player in the company. The occasion was a pressmen’s strike in the spring of 1974, the newspaper’s first labor dispute in more than forty years. Decherd volunteered to help Belo defeat the union. He worked eighteen hours a day scheduling press crews, arranging for security, manning the phones, running messages. The News published without interruption; six weeks later, the pressmen begged for their jobs back, but the News had already replaced them. Belo had rid itself of its most troublesome labor union, and Robert Decherd, nine months into his training, had displayed a talent for management.
Joe Junior had spent the entire strike helping out in the pressroom, working beside janitors and advertising salesmen. He remained there long after the crisis was over because he preferred running a press to being groomed for the executive suite. But when his father insisted that he return to his management training, Joe heeded the call and left the News‘ basement.
While Joe Junior resisted his legacy, Robert Decherd embraced his. Already he had developed the ambition of his father —and more. At the age of 22 Decherd realized that he no longer wanted to run a newspaper; he wanted to run the Belo Corporation. And he wanted Belo to be not just a newspaper company but a national media giant.
Decherd began making the right moves in Dallas, just as he had at Harvard. First he made it clear that he was there to stay. He bought a townhouse. He married well, to a charming, attractive woman named Maureen Healy. And he started doing what Fine Young Men in Dallas do: working for the Salvation Army, the United Way, St. Mark’s, the Dallas Symphony, and half a dozen other organizations. Even before he received his inheritance from the G. B. Dealey trust, Decherd began buying Belo stock and started building a team of people who were loyal to him. Finally, he made the most important move of all. In his second year at the company, he asked for a seat on the Belo Corporation’s board of directors.
Joe Senior was surprised by the request, and he did not like it. He, Ben Decherd, and Jim Moroney, Jr., had all become directors of the company on the same day. Giving Robert Decherd a seat would promote him ahead of Joe’s own son. Why should young Decherd sit on the board and not Joe Junior?
Decherd made a blunt argument. The Dealeys already had a board seat; the Decherds had a right to one as well. Except for Joe Senior, Decherd was about to become Belo’s largest stockholder. When Jim Moroney sided with the Decherds, Joe yielded. Two crucial precedents were set: when push came to shove, Joe would not fight for Joe Junior, and Jim Moroney would fight for Robert. In March 1976 Robert Decherd, 24 years old, assumed his place on the board.
The Inner Circle
Before Robert Decherd’s first board meeting, Joe Senior took him aside for a talk. “You’re young,” Dealey told him. “Just like Jimmy and I did, you ought to listen to the older and wiser heads on the board. Speak when spoken to.” A few minutes later Decherd jumped into a board discussion. To most of Belo’s directors, his remarks sounded thoughtful and modest. But to Dealey they sounded like a direct challenge—”Frankly, I was a little enraged about it. I felt like, ‘He’s trying to call my hand here, but I’m not going to react.’”
In not reacting, Joe was true to form. His method, whether he was running his company or protecting his throne, was to drag his feet rather than stand and fight. The immediate issue was nothing less than the future of the company—whether Belo would stay private and small or go public and reach for greatness. But unlike Robert, Joe had no interest in the big time. Going public would create enormous wealth, but it would also open the door to outsiders. Joe didn’t like the idea that people would know his salary, and he didn’t want nosy shareholders looking over his shoulder. He blocked broadcasting acquisitions and botched a golden opportunity to build a regional publishing empire by failing to purchase papers in Waco, Austin, Lufkin, and Port Arthur.
But time was on Robert’s side; the last of G. B. Dealey’s children had died five years earlier, and the sands were running out on the Dealey trust. On the evening that it was to expire, Decherd was in Grand Prairie, skidding around curves on a grimy track in a go-cart. At midnight he inherited $10 million worth of Belo stock. Twelve other descendants of G. B. Dealey also came into large blocks. Most didn’t work at the company, and many wanted to sell their shares. But as long as Belo was a private corporation, they could not get what their stock was worth. Still, most of the clan was willing to leave the decision up to the relatives running the company, but not Gordon Jackson.
The sins of the father were about to be visited on the children. Just as Ted Dealey had wronged Ben Decherd, so G. B. Dealey had wronged the Jacksons. G.B. had exiled his daughter Annie and her children, including Gordon, from the family business. Now they would set in motion the events that would send the Dealeys into exile.
Gordon Jackson owned 112,250 shares of Belo stock. That was only 4 per cent, but it was enough to make him a nuisance to his cousins who ran the company. He constantly pressed them to go public. He demanded access to the books. Then Jackson became more than a nuisance. He discovered a federal rule that made any company with more than five hundred stockholders on the last day of the year subject to public reporting requirements. Jackson was plotting to take Belo public against its will.
In July 1978 Jackson took out an ad in the Wall Street Journal announcing a public offering of his Belo stock. Selling no more than three shares at a time, Jackson raised the number of shareholders from 144 to more than 600. He published his own prospectus, revealing secret details such as executive compensation ($231,204 for Joe Dealey in 1977) and stock ownership (Dealeys, Decherds, and Moroneys owned more than half the company).
For once Belo’s directors were unanimous. Whether they favored going public or not, they agreed that they shouldn’t do it on someone else’s terms. They had to deal. But how? Jackson didn’t get along with Joe Dealey or Jim Moroney, but he had always gotten along with Ben Decherd. So Dealey turned to Ben’s son. Just as in the pressroom strike, Robert was at center stage, and this time, rather than volunteering, he had been asked. He carried Belo’s offer to Jackson; Dealey, Moroney, and Decherd would buy him out for $44 a share, around $5 million. Jackson accepted.
But the battle wasn’t over. Belo still had to get the number of shareholders below five hundred. The company’s strategy was to carry out reverse stock splits, forcing small shareholders to sell their fractions back to the company. Ahead lay angry questions from outside shareholders, more questions from the press-exactly what Joe had always dreaded. Once again, he turned to Robert. Decherd left his job as assistant to the News‘ executive editor and set up camp in the fourth-floor executive suite. He became Belo’s expert on the reverse splits and did most of the talking in the shareholders’ meetings. When the crisis had passed and the number of shareholders was safely below five hundred, Decherd did not return to the newsroom. He stayed on the fourth floor with a new title (vice president for administration), a new assignment (to study taking Belo public), and a new status. Along with Joe Dealey and Jim Moroney, 27-year-old Robert Decherd became a member of Belo’s inner circle.
The Jackson crisis had helped to draw the lines within that circle. One day in October 1978 Joe Dealey asked Jim Moroney and Robert Decherd to come over to his palatial home in Highland Park. Dealey was a rich man, yet he was uncomfortable with the million-dollar debt he had incurred to help buy out the Jacksons. Joe told his cousins he wanted to unload his share of Jackson’s stock. He thought he had a buyer. Did they want to sell too? Decherd and Moroney were astonished. The two spoke privately. They could not let Joe sell to outsiders; they must buy his stock themselves. This was a matter of control; it would prove that they believed in Belo, even if Joe did not. It was a watershed moment. Joe Dealey surrendered more than 38,000 shares to the only two men who could challenge the extension of the Dealey dynasty.
Moroney, at 57 the head of Belo’s broadcast division, became a key Decherd ally. He was tired of his years in the shadow of the Dealeys and frustrated by Joe’s refusal to let him buy more television stations. Yet Moroney had never thought to challenge Joe; he was too much the follower to lead an insurrection. Decherd in turn had always had a deep affection for Moroney. Now he began to solicit Moroney’s advice, and a new decision-making pattern evolved in the management of the Belo Corporation. When a problem developed, Decherd would do the legwork to figure out how to solve it. He and Moroney would confer to decide what to do. Then the two of them would meet with Joe Dealey to gain a formal blessing of their plans.
The Newspaper War
The Dallas newspaper war heated up on Saturday, September 6, 1975, when the presses at the Dallas Times Herald rolled twelve hours earlier than usual. It was a daring step. Except on Sundays, the News had enjoyed a morning monopoly since 1885. Now the Herald was challenging the News on its home turf—successfully, too. The Saturday edition soon grew from 24 to 90 pages.
Under Times Mirror, Tom Johnson and Jim Chambers transformed the Herald. They redesigned the paper, started new sections, and cleared ads off the inside section fronts. Its reporting became more aggressive, its writing bright and sharp. In 1976 Time named the Herald one of the top five papers in the South. The strategy was working; the Herald was cutting into the News‘ advertising lead. For the first time, it nosed ahead of the News in Sunday circulation.
In a rapidly changing city the News seemed stodgy and old-fashioned. Long after the Citizens Council had lost its clout, the News trumpeted its slate of candidates on page one. The Herald seemed to speak for the city Dallas was becoming, the News for the city it had been. In September 1977 the Herald did what the News had feared; it began putting out a morning edition seven days a week.
The News‘ response was: nothing. Its design had not changed for thirty years. Its writing was dull. The newsroom union had collapsed following Belo’s quick disposal of the pressmen, but the complaints that prompted it—low pay in particular—remained.
In the executive suite Decherd became the company’s expert on the News. Even Joe Dealey was worried about the Herald by that time. The News had to do something. But what? Decherd seized on two solutions; both were vast departures from traditional News policies. One was to hire Yankelovich, Skelly and White, the New York market research firm that had helped remake the New York Times, to provide a road map for the News‘ future. The second was to tell Joe Dealey that he wanted to look outside the company for an editor.
The paper had not gone outside its own ranks for an executive editor since 1929, and even then G. B. Dealey had appointed his brother, a retired college professor. The current editor, Tom Simmons, who had worked for the News since 1931, was due to retire in 1980. Terry Walsh, the 58-year-old managing editor who had worked at the paper for 34 years, was waiting in the wings. But Decherd thought Walsh lacked the aggressiveness and savy for the job. Ever loyal to the past, Dealey insisted that Walsh be considered against any outside choice, but he agreed to the search.
In January 1980 Decherd began a personal, eight-month quest for a new editor. He wanted a promoter as well as a journalist, someone who could make the News a very good paper but, just as important, someone who could make it very successful. Decherd had no interest in a crusading zealot; Dallas was not Harvard. He cared deeply about tone; he believed in journalistic restraint and wanted an editor who shared that obsession. He also needed a choice who would satisfy Joe Dealey.
By early fall Decherd had winnowed his list to five candidates: David Jones of the New York Times; Gene Foreman of the Philadelphia Inquirer; Ron Martin of the Baltimore News American; Stuart Loory, a former editor of the Chicago Sun-Times; and Burl Osborne, managing editor of the Associated Press. When Jones dropped out, Decherd had three proven newspaper editors to choose from, but he was drawn to the one candidate who had never run a paper. A political moderate raised as a Baptist in Kentucky, Burl Osbome had worked at the AP for twenty years. His wire service had to satisfy thousands of newspapers of vastly different tastes; to do so, he had learned to prune out overwriting and flamboyance. Moreover, Osborne, at 43, was a businessman. His job involved dealing with clients as much as with copy; he knew that the news had to be marketed.
Late one afternoon in October 1980, Robert Decherd returned to the newsroom to introduce his choice. He looked pleased but worn. This was the most important decision he had made in his life; Decherd’s ambitions were riding on it. The reporters were eager too. They had heard rumors of big names from great newspapers. “The new editor would like to come out and meet you,” Decherd announced. “His name is Burl Osborne.” Decherd proceeded to lead a short, pudgy man around to each desk in the newsroom. After Decherd and his choice departed, the disappointed reporters gathered in clusters to ask the question. Who’s Burl Osbome? One headed for a copy of Who’s Who in America to find out more about the AP lifer who was going to run their newspaper.
Osborne started work that same month, which allowed Decherd to fade into the background. Within a month, the Business Tuesday section was launched, and a flurry of other changes followed. The News hired Baltimore Sun reporter Carl Leubsdorfto head its Washington bureau; it adopted a clean new design; it opened bureaus in New York, Tel Aviv, and Toronto; it raised salaries and expanded the news staff.
The News‘ circulation and advertising slide had bottomed out in 1978. The paper regained the Sunday circulation lead and began pulling farther ahead on weekdays. Its advertising advantages grew. The Herald‘s reporters could still take solace in the knowledge that they worked for the better paper, but those days were numbered.
Under Osborne the News steadily improved, becoming an excellent paper by regional, if not national, standards. Its business section regularly embarrassed the Herald, and its sports section became one of the best in the country. The News began building reporting talent and started to do serious investigative reporting.
In the meantime Times Mirror contributed to the Herald‘s decline by promoting Tom Johnson up the ladder and out of Dallas. His successors lacked the magic and made foolish decisions to boot, dropping the popular Parade magazine, losing Ann Landers’ column, and alienating Blackie Sherrod. All three ended up with the News. Reporters began to complain of mistreatment. Suddenly it was the Herald newsroom where morale was low and the News that was making all the smart moves.
Robert Decherd’s man had turned the Dallas newspaper war upside down. But not everyone stayed around to savor the victory. Seven months after Osborne’s arrival, Terry Walsh, the man who had been passed over, took a Friday off. That night he returned to the building, emptied his desk and files into cardboard boxes, and posted a short note on the bulletin board: “Nice to have known you people.” Then walked out of the empty newsroom, never to return.
The Last Goal
With Osborne in place, Decherd returned to the battle against the Dealeys. The question of public ownership had been before the board of directors, unresolved, for three years. Decherd could wait no longer. He drafted a long memo to Dealey and Moroney reviewing the company’s options and concluding that going public was inevitable.
Dealey, in character, was still reluctant. Moroney took up Decherd’s cause, met privately with Dealey, and cajoled him to move. On Christmas Day 1980, the descendants of G. B. Dealey gathered at Moroney’s home for the annual family Christmas party. The next day Dealey met Moroney and Decherd in his office. He was ready to go along. Dealey did no more than authorize the hiring of three investment banking firms to study whether Belo should go public; as was his wont, he really made no final decision at all. But it set Belo rolling inexorably down the path to public ownership. As usual, Decherd was delegated to handle the details. From that day forward, the Belo Corporation was Robert Decherd’s company.
A year later Belo offered two million shares of its stock to the public at $23 per share. Joe Dealey sold 133,350 of his shares, Jim Moroney 111,000. Robert Decherd, now Belo’s single largest stockholder, did not sell a share. Following the public offering, his Belo shares—9.4 percent of the company—took on a market value of $20 million.
Decherd’s vision for Belo was almost fully realized. He had saved its newspaper, he had taken it public, he had thwarted the Dealeys, he had taken charge. Only one thing remained to be done; he had yet to bring Belo into the big time as a media company. Belo was ready for it, thanks to the stock sale and Joe Dealey’s don’t-borrow policies. By the end of 1982 the company had working capital of almost $64 million, including $47 million in cash and securities, and of course no debt to speak of. All it needed was the right deal.
In May 1983 Dun and Bradstreet announced that it was placing its six television stations, known as the Corinthian Broadcasting Group, on the market. Five were to be sold right away but individually, while the sixth—KHOU in Houston—would be withheld until 1984. Decherd was interested but not on Corinthian’s terms. He wanted all the stations, especially KHOU. He flew to New York and laid out a counterproposal to Dun and Bradstreet’s bankers. Belo wanted to make the pitch in person to Dun and Bradstreet’s management, he said. If they would provide financial data on KHOU, Belo would make a specific offer within 24 hours. Dun and Bradstreet agreed to grant Belo an audience.
In the evening, after making its initial presentation, the Belo delegation was given the Houston numbers. Decherd’s new financial officer called Dallas, fed the figures into a computer, and calculated a price. Moroney looked at the number; it was so staggeringly big that he couldn’t even say it. “Six hundred thousand,” he kept saying, and finally he wrote out a cue card displaying the figure—$600,000,000—so he wouldn’t make a mistake and sound like a small-timer in the meeting.
But when Moroney made the offer, the Dun and Bradstreet executives huddled and then said no. Now it was Belo’s turn to huddle. They had no idea how much more to offer. They decided. What’s another one per cent? Belo returned and offered $606 million; take it or leave it, said Decherd. Dun and Bradstreet took it. Robert Decherd had brought off the largest broadcast acquisition in the country’s history. The last goal was met. Belo was in the big time.
Two months after the Corinthian acquisition was announced, Joe Dealey, Jr., stepped into Robert Decherd’s office. Joe Junior had been happy writing editorials, but in 1980 he had become a vice president at his father’s insistence. It quickly became apparent that he lacked the skill and personality to join the high-powered team that Decherd was assembling. In an earlier day a place would have been made for a family member who didn’t quite fit in, but Belo wasn’t a family company anymore. “I’ve thought it all over,” he told Decherd. “I don’t see a big future for me here at Belo.” Joe Junior, the erstwhile heir to the Belo empire, was leaving the company. At last he was doing what he wanted; he would not tell his father until after submitting his resignation. Ten months later he took a job as PR chief for the Dallas—Fort Worth airport. In the fourth generation, the Dealey dynasty had come to an end.
Joe Senior had also seen the handwriting on the wall. Going public had made him wealthy, but it had also completed the transformation of Belo into Robert Decherd’s company. In the late summer of 1982, at 63, Dealey sat down with Jim Moroney and told him that he had had enough. Joe Dealey was giving up his title two years early. Moroney, the perennial second fiddle, became chief executive officer of Belo. After announcing his decision, Dealey vacated his large office in the News building and moved into a small suite in a North Dallas bank tower. He remained chairman of the board, but he rarely visited his relatives at the company. He began devoting his days to the civic activities that had always interested him most.
His final demotion came two years later, in an episode that evidenced his confusion and bitterness about what had happened to his company, himself, and his son. The occasion was Belo’s annual meeting in April 1984, when Robert Decherd was shepherding a set of shareholder resolutions to block a potential hostile takeover of Belo. Approval required a two-thirds vote, but prospects for passing the proposals looked good—until Joe Dealey, chairman of the company, disclosed shortly before the meeting that he was voting no.
Decherd and Moroney were dumbfounded. Joe had voted for the measures in board; he had signed the proxy statement urging their approval; he couldn’t vote against the company. Why not, Dealey wanted to know. Why couldn’t he vote the way he wanted? As stalemate threatened to become chaos, Dealey reverted to form. Having dragged his feet, he finally gave in and voted for the shareholder measures. The board met privately after the annual meeting and asked Dealey to leave the room. He could no longer be chairman, of course. The board members agreed that Joe would remain a director but not stand for reelection as chairman. Jim Moroney assumed the last of Joe Dealey’s titles. Nine months later, on January 1, 1985, Robert Decherd, at the age of 33, became the president of the A. H. Belo Corporation.
In the twelve years since he returned to Dallas, Decherd has acquired the kind of personal wealth that G. B. Dealey could never have imagined. His compensation from Belo in 1984 totaled $434,840; he earned an additional $627,938 in dividends. At a closing price of $51 per share on the New York Stock Exchange, his stock in the A. H. Belo Corporation was recently worth more than $44 million.
Through his position at Belo, Decherd has become a man of influence in Dallas. In his city of businessmen, young Decherd has joined the inner circle of business leadership. He serves on the Dallas Citizens Council and the executive committee of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce. But ultimately Robert Decherd’s influence, like that of the three generations of Dealeys before him, is reflected in the pages of his newspaper. Thus it has always been at the Dallas Morning News, a paper that reflects the personality not of its editor but of its publisher. At its best the News has possessed the spirit and integrity of G. B. Dealey; at its worst, the small mindedness of Ted Dealey. What will be Robert Decherd’s legacy?
When Decherd returned to Dallas, he set out to beat back the Herald‘s challenge and to assure the long-term financial success of the News. That he has done. In the past five years the News has tripled its daily circulation advantage; it now leads the Herald by an almost insurmountable 125,000 copies every day of the week. Last year the News made Belo $33 million. Barring a reversal unprecedented in the history of journalism, the Dallas newspaper war is over. The Dallas Morning News has won.
But Robert Decherd also set out, one day while a student at Harvard, to work on a great newspaper. There is no question that he has improved the News substantially. It has become, once again, one of the nation’s top regional papers. Much like Robert Decherd, the News is thorough and deep, sober and responsible.
But it suffers as well as benefits from its leader’s personality. At the Harvard Crimson Decherd tested the waters before launching his political views. In Dallas he has fashioned the News with the help of market studies and consultants; it is carefully designed to please. As a result, the Morning News today, for better and for worse, is a remarkable mirror of its city—thriving, ambitious, upbeat, clean-cut, and mannered. It maintains a passionate interest in sports and business, a fawning obsession with the wealthy, a desire to do the right thing, a parochial view of the world, and an abiding belief in Dallas. The News‘ columnists include not a single cynic, and Decherd offers no apologies for that. He considers it appropriate for his upbeat town. He defends even the News’ unenlightened editorial page by citing market studies showing that readers love it. “You have to reflect your readership,” says Decherd. “We have changed the Morning News to reflect what we opine the readers want.”
The problem is that a great newspaper must do more than reflect. Robert Decherd’s News, like that of Ted and Joe Dealey, lacks the independent vision of its city that the paper’s founder possessed. “There is a popular idea abroad that a newspaper should give the people what they want,” George Bannerman Dealey once declared. “This I do not believe in its entirety. Generally, the readers should be given what they want so long as what they want is good for them.”