Mong: "We're Righting the Ship." So, There.
The Dallas Morning News editor Bob Mong was on, of all places, KTCK-AM (1310, The Ticket) this morning talking about the future of his newspaper. He didn't say terribly much; surprisingly, morning-show hosts Craig Miller and George Dunham didn't ask Mong about the 111 buyouts, specifically the departures of SportsDay columnist Kevin Blackistone and the great Gerry Fraley. Instead, it was mostly softball stuff; not even any CueCat drops were played, which might have sent Mong into a seizure. Alas. Mong did mention how he played football and baseball at "powerhouse" Haverford College. Sportsy. Here, then, a hastily typed and very edited transcript.
Craig Miller: Ten years from now, where is this paper?
Bob Mong: I think it's gonna be really viable paper. It'll be different. I think in 10 years, you'll have news on paper, ink on paper. It'll be much more enteprise, investigative. It'll be smaller, and a lot more of it'll be on the Internet, I think. I think that's where it's migrating. There'll still be ink on paper. There'll still be a large audience like we have today. Today we have hundreds of thousands of what I call core readers. They make up about 85 to 90 percent of the people who read us every day. We're a part of their lives. So that's our bread and butter now. It'll be smaller probably in 10 or 12 years."
Mong then said DallasNews.com produces "revenue the size of a mid-sized Belo television station. It's grown that fast." Then Gordon Keith, who contributes to the News' young-audience sampler plate known as Quick, asked Mong about what D magazine editor and publisher Wick Allison's recent story in which he offered five suggestions how to make the paper better.
Mong: I lived and died by the Cincinnatti Reds growing up, and I felt like I owned 25 percent of the Reds...A lot of our core readers feel like they can do a better job than I can in editing the paper, and I think that's great, because that means they're vested in the paper. Now, if you get a critic, though, that's a competitor...It'd be like ESPN Radio going on air talkin' about The Ticket. There's a little bit of a conflict there. I take a little more seriously what our core readers say than somebody who's a competitor."
Gordon Keith: Do you think the lack of competition has made the quality of the paper suffer?
Mong: I don't think so. In the old days, with the Times Herald and in some respects the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, was more conventional warfare. Today, it's guerilla warfare, and if you're really honest with yourself about that you have to realize you're competiting for people's time... We're under a lot of pressure to get the paper in the bag and there early, because people are pressured... Do I wish there was more competition? Yes... In some ways we're better today, and in some ways we're not as good."
Sadly, no one asked the obvious follow-up. Rather, George Dunham wondered if the News is competing with the Star-Telegram (Mong said yeah, but mostly in the Mid-Cities), and Miller asked if the paper would ever go to a tabloid format (Mong said that's up to the core reader; what isn't?).
Miller then asked Mong whether, in 25 years or so, the Web site would be the News' "primary thing."
Mong: I think it'll be an evolution toward that. For our core readers, they get their information like you do. I am a multi-channelist...a lot of people get their news that way."
Keith: What mistakes has The Dallas Morning News made?
Mong: I would say, and I was certainly a part of this, and I am not sure it was a mistake... I think you have to experiment. If you don't try and fail some stuff, you're probably not pushing the envelope enough. There was a lot of research nationally that newspapers should go after occasional readers more than it was. Basically, the conventional wisdom was you go after your occasional readers--the people who pick you up maybe once a week--and try to move them to two or three times a week, and the mathematics behind that means your circulation will go up or your readershup will go up. The problem is, when you do that you have to change the newspaper in a way that appeals more to an occasional reader and less to a core reader, and, again, a core reader makes up 85 to 90 percent of our readers, and they're our bread and butter. And the core reader resented some of the things we did that appealed more to the occasional reader.
Keith: Like what?
Mong: Maybe more soft promotions on the cover of the paper. Some soft stories on the cover. Our core really wants a window on the world every day. They love our sports section, they don't want a lot of sports stories on Page One. They don't mind promos, but they don't like two or three sports stories on the cover. They understand something like Byron Nelson and how much space we devotged to that, sometimes a little less so with T.O. Maybe we didn't get the balance between the occasional and core reader right, and we got some backlash from our core, and we're righting that ship right now and going more toward pleasing our core with hard news and investigative reporting. --Robert Wilonsky
Update/Correction: Robert's post here is spot on, but it omits a couple items I thought interesting. Blog-worthy, even. During Mong's appearance, which we Nostradamus-ed last Friday, Dunham & Miller actually did ask him about the buyouts in general and Kevin Blackistone in particular. (Robert notes that the broadcast tape he received from Mark Friedman at The Ticket omitted this discussion, for whatever reason.) To which Mong said, and I paraphrase extremely loosely, "I like Kevin. But you won't miss him after you get a load of our next biggest and brightest star, Jean-Jacques Taylor." After I backed my car out the ditch and dabbed the vomit from my shirt, I think I heard Gordo try to pin Mong down on exact circulation numbers. Like a hamster hauling ass in his wheel, Mong went into full spin cycle. Instead of numbers, he tried to trick us with something subjective and all-encompassing called "reach." Translation: Circulation is down.