The Line Out the Door
On Wednesday, Dallas Morning News staffers could begin accepting the newspaper's buyout offers, and they did so in droves; some 80 staffers have taken the parting gift, among them some high-profile arts critics, reporters and editors. They've been named here and here, but those lists aren't necessarily final: As Bob Mong, the paper's editor, reminded Unfair Park yesterday evening, those who have said they will take the offer have until 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to withdraw the offer, and at least two people on those lists have suggested to Unfair Park that they might do just that.
"Since it's first come, first served, people signed up, but they did so knowing they had a week to reconsider," Mong says. "You don't know till it's over. It's a process."
Fact is, it's likely most of the people who have said they want to take the offer will accept the permanent vacation. Some staffers are looking for other jobs in journalism; others have decided to get out of the business altogether or retire; some have said they will take some time off to travel and consider their options. Staffers at the paper have long complained of a wearying, dispiriting atmosphere at the paper, which is suffering its second significant gutting in two years, and just want the break. Which has not stopped them from being pros--as Mong points out, and rightly so, "We've done great Sunday Page Ones, a really fantastic run of papers"--but has kept them from enjoying their jobs. So they lined up with their hands out, waiting for the permanent-vacation package that would set them free.
"What I said in a memo to the staff when the press release [announcing the buyouts] came out was, if someone wants to get out of what is a very dynamic environment for daily metropolitan newspapers--if they want to get off the train--this is a good time to do it. I think if that's what they want to do, as much as we can, we should let them do it."
But what's fairly stunning are the number of recognizable, big-name reporters and critics on the list of those wanting off the train. Some, you almost expect; TV critic Ed Bark didn't allow Adam McGill to publish his letter lambasting DMN management for not allowing him to write about local network affiliates because he was looking to ingratiate himself with his bosses, after all. And lead film critic Philip Wuntch said yesterday he's leaving because, at ag 61, he's "had a good run." But will--or can--Belo bosses allow all of their film and TV critics to leave? Or will they allow their Washington bureau to disintegrate? Or will they let some of their high-profile sportswriters vanish into TV Land? Those are issues with which Mong, DMN Publisher and Chief Executive Officer Jim Moroney, Vice President and Managing Editor George Rodrigue and Belo chairman Robert Decherd will have to wrestle in the next three weeks, Mong says.
"There may be situations, of course, where we've oversubscribed in some areas," he says, meaning more people may have signed up for buyouts in some sections than the paper can comfortably live with. "Let's just say you have Department X and you have 10 copy editors in Department X and all 10 want to take it. Well, you have to put out a section. That's why it's first come, first served. That's all to be worked out. Right now, it's a period where I know there's a lot of visibility with some of the names, but I don't think anyone can count on anything till 5:30 on the 30th, because you can pull out till then. We're obviously watching, but till we get to that point, we don't know what's going to happen."
That may be wishful thinking on Mong's part: If nothing else, imagine the awkwardness of accepting the offer (I want outta here!) and then withdrawing the acceptance a few days later (Ya know, on second thought, I wanna stay). But more to the point, how will the paper put out, say, its GuideLive section if it doesn't have a film or television or book critic? Will it have to replace one or more of those writers, or will the paper go to wire-service reviews?
"I just can't talk about that," Mong says. "I am not talking about any names. They need the anonymity and dignity they deserve during a period like this, and I won't intrude on it. What we will look at—what George and Jim and I and others will have to see--is how many take it and are serious about it, by which I mean are in there at the deadline, and then we'll see who we have to move around. We have to put out what will be a good paper. It'll be different, but it'll be good. We have to get back to everybody in a prompt way. We have many scenarios in mind: If this happens we have to do this, if this happens we have to do that.
"It's going to be a process but one that turns around pretty quickly. That's kind of what we're facing. After the 30th, then we have two weeks to get back to everybody, and I don't know if it'll take all that time. It depends on what we find."
It would be prudent for management to act as quickly as possible; staffers have described the place as being "like a morgue," and they're complaining that management's out of touch with the pain being brought on by these buyouts. To some, the very thought of playing the waiting game for two more weeks is debilitating.
"People are being very professional, but it's a tough time," Mong says. "I've had the benefit of more time to think about it, and it's my role to think about the outcome. We have to come out of this and have a leading paper in the region. That's our commitment, and we'll still do that. We'll still have the largest and best staff in the region, so people will see it's going to be a very good paper. But that doesn't mean the process isn't difficult. It's difficult on everybody."
And, perhaps to prove that point, Mong dismisses rumors that upper management was not offered the buyout; "I got it, and George got it, absolutely," he says. But he just as quickly dashes the rumor that he's leaving--specifically, that he's taking over as dean at Louisiana State University's Manship School of Mass Communication in Baton Rouge, where Mong is on the Board of Visitors. He also says that Rodrigue isn't leaving--"not to my knowledge"--which hasn't stopped some DMN staffers from driving by his million-dollar Preston Hollow home to see if there's a for-sale sign plunked in the front yard.
"There has been a lot of loose talk," Mong says. "Reporters are circling around George's house. It's to be expected. The Manship thing started only because I am the head of the Board of Visitors there, and I am still going to be, but they have a very good dean in Jack Hamilton. He's one of my best friends. We were joking about the rumor. Everyone had me taking over his job. My wife wouldn't let me move to Baton Rouge. Besides, I am committed to staying here and seeing this through."
At least he had a choice. --Robert Wilonsky