Wednesday, April 8, 2009

How Do You Save the Dallas Morning News?

In the wake of another round of devastating layoffs at the Dallas Morning News, one might be hard pressed to find any silver lining that hasn't already been sold for scrap to pay for A.H. Belo bonuses. But maybe there could be, if there was a dream scenario where someone actually stopped and thought about not only the good of the company, but also the good of the community it serves. As I've said before, I do not think the demise of the Dallas Morning News came solely - as some insist- on it's politics. I do think that some of it comes from its hypocrisy - and I point to the fact that every rah-rah convention center hotel story never mentions that the DMN parent company stands to benefit greatly if the hotel is built, because the property it owns adjacent to the site will go up in valuation. I mean, heck, it doesn't have to mention it in every story, I suppose. I'd be happy if its editorial board saw fit to add it to its missives occasionally, and if the metro desk would insist it be added to anything its columnists put out. But I digress. I said this last year, but it's still true - technology and our industry's failure to be early adopters of it is responsible for, in my opinion, 60% of the crisis we're now facing. Instead of partnering with established leaders in technology, we insisted the Internet was a fad, and eventually the hubbub would die down. So aggregators came along and left us in the dust. This is the past, however. I do think that there will always be somewhat of a market for the dead tree version of a newspaper. But producing one and maintaining the status of Dallas' only daily may take some reversal in mindset for both management and subscribers. In short, the DMN is going to have to go backwards to go forward. It's going to have to embrace the notion that people want a community feel from their newspapers, as evidenced by the fact that many community newspapers are faring far better than their large metro counterparts. That's not to say that they haven't been affected by the economy as well, but they can weather the storm far better because their communities are invested in the paper. The bigger the paper, the bigger the egos, the bigger the disconnect between writer and reader. How do you keep that connection? How do these small weekly community papers do it? Subscribers see themselves in the paper - literally. They don't just see their communities represented, but they can actually see their names in the paper on a semi-frequent basis. Think of this: In Dallas, there are people who will never see their names in print. Ever. They'll never do anything wrong, and since the DMN doesn't offer more than the perfunctory acknowledgement of a sparse set of milestones, there's a good chance they'll never see themselves in the paper. So run the honor rolls. Run the birth announcements from the hospitals. Run them only in the paper, not online. Having worked at a small paper, I can tell you that our best-selling issues were the ones that contained the honor rolls. Mothers like seeing their kid's names in print. Period. Secondly, embrace this pared-down version as a positive if you work it right. At one of my first papers, everyone did everything. Yes, you had a beat, but you also knew how to cover a city council meeting. You knew who your county commissioners were. Everyone had to know where to find the police reports at the station. Everyone had an obit day, which meant you didn't have to hire an obit clerk. Everyone had to take turns being the reporter on call on the weekends. You had a Sunday package every six weeks or so (it rotated among all the reporters), and a Monday profile, which also rotated. And with that smaller, streamlined staff, the paper managed to put out major award-winning stuff. You can cover a beat and engage in enterprise reporting at the same time. I know for a fact it can be done. I come from a place that sounds almost mythical - a place with three major metro dailies in a metro area smaller than Dallas proper. But it happens. All are doing as well as can be expected in the economy, and you're not hearing about massive layoffs, either. So how do you save the DMN? You realize that there's no need for scads of columnists and editorial board members. You realize that to keep the ship afloat and on course, everyone must row, together, which means that you become a general surgeon and not a brain surgeon. The valuable reporter in the new reality newsroom is water - you can pour him or her out and she will travel to the things that need the coverage, filling in ably. In other words, there is no room for ego in the new news room.