News Makers

Is there an audience for a CNN-style cable channel devoted exclusively to Texas? The state’s reigning media conglomerate hopes so.

DONALD F. “SKIP” CASS, JR., the general manager of Texas Cable News, walked into a cavernous warehouse that once held giant rolls of newsprint for the Dallas Morning News.  It was the middle of October. Naked steel beams supported a recently added second story, and the bare concrete floor was littered with debris. Men in plaid work shirts and hard hats were threading their way through the place. High above them, someone was welding a metal stairway together. The crew was building the set of a new statewide cable news channel (think of a Texas-specific CNN) that goes on the air January 1. As a plume of orange sparks fell behind him, Cass—a soft-spoken man with black hair, pale skin, and brown eyes—unrolled a blueprint and described his vision of the newsroom being created. “We’re standing where the anchor’s desk is going to be,” he said. Pointing to the spot where the sparks had landed, he added, “The producers’ cubicles are all over there.”

The downtown Dallas warehouse is located in the heart of the print and broadcast empire known as the A. H. Belo Corporation, the most powerful media conglomerate in Texas. It’s within walking distance of the company’s seventeen-floor glass and granite headquarters, and it’s just a few blocks from the sober gray limestone building where The Dallas Morning News, Belo’s flagship daily newspaper, is published. The Morning News remains the company’s single largest asset—analysts estimate its annual revenues are nearly $462 million—though Belo owns five other papers as well: The Eagle in Bryan—College Station; The Providence Journal in Providence, Rhode Island; The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California; The Gleaner in Henderson, Kentucky; and the Messenger-Inquirer in Owensboro, Kentucky. Still, Belo has become much more than a newspaper publisher. On another nearby corner, an array of white satellite dishes tilts skyward beside a huge red-and-white signal tower emblazoned with the call letters WFAA. Belo bought the TV station, its first, back in 1950, and the purchase signaled a change in the company’s direction. Today Belo owns seventeen stations in cities across the nation, from Tucson, Arizona, to Charlotte, North Carolina, giving it access to 14 percent of the nation’s households with TVs. In 1997 the broadcast division’s revenues were just under $581 million.

Lately, however, the hegemony of traditional television has been threatened by cable and the Internet, which explains the genesis of Texas Cable News, or TXCN. Spearheading the venture is Ward L. Huey, Jr., who is the vice chairman of Belo’s board, the president of its broadcast division, and one of several people at the company who at one time or another had the idea to start a Texas cable news channel. “I’m from Dallas, and I grew up listening to the Texas State Radio Network,” says Huey, a lanky man with white hair and blue eyes. “Regional news has always been extremely popular in this part of the country.”

Before Cass visited what will be the TXCN set, Huey assembled a group in his plush white office to flesh out Belo’s plans. Present were Cass, Belo vice president Harold Gaar, and Steven Ackermann, a veteran of the network news business who will serve as TXCN’s executive news director. Huey began by saying that the main reason Belo had given the go-ahead for an all-news channel was that the company had finally amassed a critical number of news-gathering properties in Texas, and had a unique opportunity to consolidate the resources of its television stations and newpapers throughout the region. In addition to its two papers, Belo now owns three TV stations around the state: WFAA in Dallas, KHOU in Houston, which was purchased in 1984 from Dun and Bradstreet, and KENS in San Antonio, which was acquired from Scripps-Howard in 1997 in a swap for the Television Food Network. Belo plans to put a TXCN reporter at each of these five properties to facilitate an exchange between the cable channel and its sibling news-gathering operations. The Morning News  is expected to contribute heavily to TXCN by allowing its staff to serve as house pundits: The paper’s resident experts will be regularly interviewed by the channel’s reporters.

In that sense TXCN constitutes the next stage in an ongoing Belo experiment aimed at mixing ideas and information between the publishing and broadcast sides of the company, the goal of which is to bring more depth to television reports and more exposure to newspaper stories. Almost two years ago, for example, Belo consolidated the Washington, D.C., bureaus of its newspaper and television properties. Now the D.C. staff of the Morning News helps put together Capital Conversations, a weekly political talk show that airs on WFAA. “It’s a way to utilize the expertise and knowledge of the Morning News to augment the television stations,” says Carl Leubsdorf, the paper’s D.C. bureau chief. “The advantage is that we can show off on TV, and hopefully people will make the connection that if they are interested in a subject, they can read more about it the next day in the paper.” Ralph Langer, who retired as Morning News  editor in December 1998, says simply, “It’s our news content transmitted through a different medium.”

The second factor that influenced Belo’s decision to start the cable news channel was the proliferation of such programming elsewhere in the country. Over the past ten years, at least thirty regional cable news channels have started up around the U.S. Few actually make money, but they attract a loyal base of viewers, and they serve as promotional vehicles for the companies that run them. “What drives the decision to start one of these things is the desire to become a dominant player in local news,” says Craig Marrs, the chairman of the Association of Regional News Channels. “Around the country, television stations and other news organizations are seeking another platform from which they can shout their brand name. You need to think of this as brand extension.”

Belo has been involved in three of these ventures. The company wandered

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