Belo the Belt

The Arlington newspaper war gets personal.

IN FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM newsrooms these days, word processors are adorned with dog tags and Army helmets that have Mickey Mouse ears attached—emblems of an old-fashioned Texas newspaper war. The battlefield is Arlington, for many years one of the largest U.S. cities without its own daily paper. Now it has two: the Arlington Morning News, launched April 3 by the A. H. Belo Corporation, the parent company of the Dallas Morning News; and a zoned edition of the Star-Telegram beefed up with millions of dollars poured in by its owner, the Walt Disney Company. Star-Telegram publisher Richard Connor has code-named his war effort “Get Shorty,” and posters from the hit movie have been hanging above reporters’ desks. It’s a dig at five-foot-six-inch News  publisher and editor Burl Osborne; never mind that Connor himself is only five-seven. “An inch makes a big difference,” he says with a laugh.

The rationale for the war—the latest manifestation of the classic Dallas—Fort Worth feud—is that the News sees Arlington as an extension of its Metroplex dominance, while the Star-Telegram sees it as a life preserver; circulation and ad revenues have been declining in Fort Worth proper. Clearly, Arlington is an enticing market. With a population of around 300,000, it is Texas’ seventh-largest city and one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the state. Arlingtonites are above the average in household income ($46,500 versus $31,000 nationally) and education level (64.7 percent have attended college versus 45.2 percent nationally).

So far, there is some irony in how the two papers are positioning themselves. The Star-Telegram, which aspires to be “the best local newspaper in Texas,” is touting its Arlington edition as a full-service paper offering national, state, and local news. Likewise, the Dallas Morning News has always seen itself as the national paper of Texas, yet the Arlington Morning News is relentlessly local, peddling community-oriented stories about high school baseball and the like. As Star-Telegram loyalists are quick to point out, the Arlington Morning News has totally ignored such major stories as the arrest of the Unabomber suspect, but Osborne counters that readers can get state and national news from the Dallas paper.

According to Connor, the Star-Telegram ’s owners will spend what it takes to win. On the day Belo launched the Arlington News, Disney CEO Michael Eisner told Connor, “Do whatever it is you gotta do. You don’t ever want to look back and say, ‘If we’d only done this …’” Connor told Eisner he would need about $2 million, but he has spent about $7 million in operating costs to date. Osborne won’t say how much Belo is spending, only that it’s “considerably less.”

As of June 1, the Star-Telegram led in circulation: 42,458 daily to about 20,000 for the Arlington News, and 68,465 on Sunday to about 25,000. “Where’s the war?” asks the Star-Telegram’s Arlington publisher, Mac Tully. Yet Osborne professes to be pleased too. “We’re much further along than our projections,” he says, adding that the battle will be fought over time: “It’s a matter of years, more than one year but less than fifty.” Shorty, it seems, is in it for the long haul.

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