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The Dallas Morning News

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Amazing. A. H. Belo will spin off the Dallas Morning News and newspapers in Providence, Rhode Island and Riverside, California. The News, once uncontested as Texas’s leading newspaper and the newspaper of record for the state, will be spun off to Belo’s shareholders. Not a good day for those of us in the print media biz.

In the 1998-99 Texas Almanac, which is also a Belo publication, under the headline “Belo Growing with Texas,” an unsigned article says, “A. H. Belo … has a history parallel to that of Texas itself. Pioneered in 1842 as the one-page Galveston News, Belo had gone on to become a leading diversified media company, encompassing newspaper publishing and network affiliated television broadcasting operations across the country….A. H. Belo is the oldest continually operating business in Texas….[T]he company was in the publishing business three years before the Republic of Texas achieved statehood.”

What used to be one company will now be two: A. H. Belo Corp., which will operate the newspapers, and Belo Corp., which will operate the television stations. Robert Decherd, currently chairman and CEO of Belo, will be chairman, president, and CEO of the new A. H. Belo Corp. You can read the press release for the details.

You really have to wonder about the viability of newspapers. Belo claims to have the 9th largest daily circulation and the 12th largest Sunday circulation in the country, with annual revenues of $750 million, and yet the paper was regarded as a declining institution, both in quality and in economic viability. Recent years have featured cutbacks and buyouts. The Columbia Journalism Review recently said that the Star-Telegram had become a better newspaper than the Morning News.

There will be many different opinions about why the Morning News failed to maintain its status. Management’s decision to go to war with the Startlegram in Arlington–an expensive and losing battle, as it turned out–may have played a role, and the cutbacks and buyouts cost the paper some of its most talented reporters. In the end, I don’t think the problem was anything unique to the Morning News. Simply put, the world changed. Inner city Dallas became increasingly populated by people who do not subscribe to newspapers. Many of the paper’s onetime readers abandoned the central city for the suburbs and the exurbs and no longer cared to read about their former home.

The Internet undercut the newspaper’s monopoly over classified ads and automobile ads. Younger readers prefer to get their news in bytes rather than atoms. Everybody in the media business has to wonder where their revenue is going to come from ten years from now. I don’t present these as penetrating insights. It’s just the way the world is today. I can’t foresee anything that will improve the position of the spun-off Dallas Morning News, and I can foresee a lot of things that could make it worse.

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