The New Guy

After eighteen years in Burl Osborne's hands, the Dallas Morning News is a very good paper. It's up to Bob Mong to make it great.

August 2001By Comments

Long before the Dallas Morning News was the staid gray lady of Texas journals, from its formal Mr., Mrs., and Ms. titles to its toned-down headlines, it was a whole other kind of conservative. The paper was a family-run operation, the main interest of the prominent Dealey family. A representative of the paper sat on the Dallas Citizens Council, which handpicked the city’s mayor through the mid-sixties. William Murchison, whose columns still appear on the Op Ed page, was not a lone voice from the far right. His writing reflected what the Dealeys believed, which was in line with the deeply conservative points of view voiced by civic leaders like H. L. Hunt, who underwrote radio commentator Dan Smoot’s Facts Forum program to rail against the godless Communist menace lurking at our front door. At least there was the Dallas Times Herald to balance out coverage. That’s a different Morning News from the one that 64-year-old publisher and editor Burl Osborne retired from on June 15, triggering the first leadership change in a generation. The newspaper’s transformation during his eighteen-year reign, highlighted by its victory over the Times Herald in a war that was the Times Herald’s to lose, and its rise in status to the newspaper of record for Texas, is nothing short of radical. Today it’s a very good paper, the best in Texas. But in spite of what Osborne has done, no one is confusing the Morning News with the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times. Rectifying that problem is the challenge facing a 52-year-old former newshound named Bob Mong, who succeeds Osborne as editor.

Whatever Mong does, Osborne will be a tough act to follow. Among other accomplishments, Osborne oversaw the expansion of the sports and business sections to their current level of quality—as good as it gets outside New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, and sometimes better—and rode herd over new sections such as High Profile and Discoveries and improved a tired lifestyle-family section. Political coverage was stepped up; no media operation in Texas has more people covering state politics in Austin. The news staff grew from 170 to more than 660. Circulation ballooned in the wake of the purchase and closing of the Times Herald in 1992 and is currently the ninth highest in the country (its Sunday edition is eighth). From 1986 to 1994, the paper’s staff writers and photographers won six Pulitzer prizes.

But there is another side to Osborne’s tenure, according to several former and current Morning News reporters—the latter of whom, by talking to me, violated a corporate policy that prohibits staffers from commenting to the press about the newspaper. They describe him as someone who berated reporters in the newsroom and in meetings, micromanaged editors, and was quick to protect sacred cows such as Robert Crandall, the former CEO of longtime advertiser American Airlines, from unflattering coverage. According to one widely repeated newsroom anecdote, adjectives were banned from stories about Ross Perot, another sacred cow, after one reporter described him in an article as a “diminutive billionaire.” Osborne was so concerned about an exposé of Congressman Ralph Hall’s dealings with Rockwall Savings and Loan that the piece was heavily edited and reedited, then held until the day after the O. J. Simpson verdict was delivered. Staffers believed that this may have been payback for Hall’s carrying water for the Belo Corporation, the Dallas-based media conglomerate that is the corporate parent of the Morning News. Then there’s what staffers call the Three Rivers Rule. As long as the subject of a story is three rivers away from Dallas, you can write anything you want. The closer to Dallas a story gets, the more scrutiny is applied from above. The result, say these critics, is blandness masquerading as fairness, and a paper that too often resembles its inveterate nickname, the Morning Snooze.

Osborne’s response to such criticism is as measured as some of his reporters’ leads. “One of the reasons the Dallas Morning News is among the best newspapers in the United States is its unrelenting insistence on being fair, evenhanded, and even-tempered as well as accurate,” he says. “Enforcing these fundamental values can lead to intense discussion about whether a proposed story is evenhanded or judgmental, factually bulletproof or not. As the person responsible for what we published, I could be and was insistent about matters of tone and fair-dealing. Others can judge whether this insistence ‘protected’ individuals or was merely fair to them, or perhaps, whether it protected more the values and principles that allowed the Morning News to be the great newspaper that it is.”

In an era in which newspapers are obsessively watching their bottom line, Mong is in many ways a logical choice to succeed Osborne. The troops consider him a news guy, still one of them, though he’s proven his corporate mettle too. He started at the Morning News as an assistant editor 22 years ago, became the business editor, and worked his way up to managing editor. In 1996 he was road tested for a year as the publisher of the Messenger-Inquirer, a Belo holding in Owensboro, Kentucky. He returned to Dallas to work in the Belo tower as the executive vice president of Belo’s publishing division and later became president, general manager, and CEO of the Morning News.

His challenges are clear and immediate, and he has already acknowledged that there is plenty of room for improvement. One of Mong’s first acts when he became the paper’s CEO was to send the staff a note after the Columbia Journalism Review named the Morning News one of the five best newspapers in America and the University of Missouri named the newspaper’s lifestyle section one of the top three in the nation. His response was not to praise them but to remind them of how far they still had to go. “I told them you can look at a newspaper like a university,” he says. “It’s the sum of its departments. That’s great, but we’re not the paper we want to be.”

Mong tells me this while sitting on a couch in his office on his first official day as the editor. Casually dressed in slacks and a blue and navy striped shirt with an open collar, he looks like a regular news guy, and talks like one too. “We don’t have any excuse not to do a great story,” he says, citing the paper’s deep financial resources. “We ought to be good. Our day-to-day consistency is very good. Over the past twenty years our ability to cover news as it breaks has improved dramatically. But are we creating an environment where we are breaking stories?”

He has reason to be concerned. There has been what one staffer referred to as a “serious Pulitzer drain.” Of the twelve main reporters responsible for four Pulitzers for writing at the Morning News, only two remain on staff. While some undoubtedly left for reasons unrelated to the paper’s management, a number of employees believe, in the words of one reporter, “they left because there was general unhappiness with the way the newspaper deals with long-term projects.”

Then there is the paper’s rigidly enforced conservatism. Under the guise of fairness, its coverage of the city is often toothless, like most of the 45 stories generated by the city’s attempt to woo Boeing to relocate to the area. Boeing jilted Dallas for Chicago, in part because of Big D’s lack of a vital downtown. Instead of a series of soul-searching articles about how to attain a healthy urban core, or a number of profiles of cities (like Chicago) that have attained one, the paper focused somewhat myopically on the details of Boeing’s search and ignored the larger issues.

The same criticism can be applied to many of the paper’s numerous columnists, who attempt to serve readers by informing and entertaining them, but too rarely by challenging them. Two of the few virtues of the Morning News of yesteryear were Paul Crume’s Big D, which ran on the front page and managed to convey a sense of what Dallas was thinking, and the writings of Frank X. Tolbert, who covered Texas and Texana like no one has in a newspaper before or since. I miss Crume and Tolbert, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

Besides dealing with these challenges, Mong must also grapple with newer issues such as cross-promoting coverage with Belo properties Channel 8 and cable network TXCN and justifying more cost cutting when corporate just wrote off the $37.5 million investment in CueCat, the weird-looking capital C with a bar code symbol that’s all over every edition of the paper. It’s an unrealized technology that presumes readers can’t type in a URL if they’re seeking additional coverage of a story, and it takes up way too much valuable newsprint.

Mong has a clear, if limited, agenda. One of his first goals is to better exploit the power of numbers with team reporting. That means project stories, the kind that win prizes. “A few years ago Chris Kelley, one of our most gifted writers, did a series on White Rock Lake,” he says. “The lake was dying and if action wasn’t taken, it’d be dead. If we had to do it again, it may have made sense to have Chris as the lead and an environmental writer and a city reporter backing him up.” Mong also wants to step up coverage of education, particularly in light of the turbulence that has wracked the Dallas Independent School District in recent years. He’s committed to beefing up the paper’s already strong coverage of Mexico, pointing to the recent opening of a bureau in Havana, which he sees as an important link between the United States and Mexico and an opportunity waiting to happen, although other bureaus have been closed as cost-cutting measures.

Which still begs the question: Can the Dallas Morning News ever be as good as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, or—hold your breath—the New York Times? Mong believes the resources are there and the want-to is there. “We have no excuses not to be successful, both as a business and a journalistic entity, in such a dynamic market [as Dallas and the entire Southwest],” he says. Even better, there’s optimism among the rank and file like there hasn’t been since the newspaper war ended nine years ago. As one former staffer put it: “Mong had our respect. You didn’t get punished for going in and talking to him.” In this place and time, that is not a bad place to start.

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