News Editor Bob Mong: New Business-Editorial Arrangement Won't "Cross the Line"

Categories: Media
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Late this morning, Dallas Morning News editor Bob Mong called Unfair Park to discuss, at great length, Wednesday's memo in which Mong formalized what he refers to in the missive as "business/news integration," which involves some section editors reporting directly to advertising-side general managers. He says this arrangement has been under discussion for more than a year, and that it's already being implemented elsewhere within A.H. Belo -- at such publications as Briefing, Al Día and FDLuxe. The full text our of interview follows.

So, what does "business/news integration" mean? Because the way I read the memo, it means editors report to people who sell ads. Period.

It's much more of an attempt to get advertising built more around specialization much in the way the newsroom is organized. There were 11 categories created, and the idea is, through collaboration with newsroom, to better understand the markets they're trying to service. That's the thinking behind it. In two of the segments, sports and entertainment, the senior news person will be reporting to a general manager with a strong dotted line to me. I've experimented with that for a couple of years in my relationship with Al Día, with Briefing, with our paper in Denton, where the editor reports to a publisher but they also work and collaborate with me. So it's worked fine.

What's an example of that experimentation?

Look at Briefing. Look at Al Día. Both are profitable now. And there isn't much bureaucracy, and we can move quickly. When issues come up, we can address them pretty fast. I think the thing to look at is time will show ... [Pause] There's no journalist in our organization who will allow a business person to cross the line. It just won't happen. I'm not going to allow it to happen. [Managing editor] George [Rodrigue] isn't. [Executive sports editor] Bob Yates or  [Lifestyles deputy managing editor] Lisa Kresl won't. But I think it's an attempt to go to market in a different way.

FDLuxe has been operating that way for some time. Tracy Hayes and her team work closely with a GM type, and Lisa Kresl is sort of the watchful hand in there. That thing is a very credible monthly publication, especially when you look at our competitors, which do trade-outs. You can trust FDLuxe as a journalistic product, but it's very much a segmented approach to the business. The journalism is uncompromised, as it should be.

You say the journalism is "uncompromised." But the fact that news editors will report to business-side general managers gives the perception that there's a real breach of church and state taking place here.

Well, it's not going to happen. It's important we figure out better ways to generate revenue and create new products and bring in new revenue to the company. That's best done through teamwork and collaboration. So I am very confident ... [Pause] We started talking about this more than a year ago, and in hiring the general manager, the publisher [Jim Moroney] has gotten involved in talking about where the line is drawn. He's been very active in that. So have I, so have the journalists involved.

I understand the perception, but time will prove we can do this. We've already done this in other areas in the paper where the journalism's gotten even stronger. FDLuxe is a better product having operated outside of the structure than when it was a weekly section in the newspaper. And I think anybody who knows our sports culture sure as hell knows where the line is drawn.

I will give you an example. They developed HS GameTime in a very organic way. They talked to the community and translated their wishes into an online product that got very good. It got to a point, though, where they had ideas but no readers. The business leadership in that area was not very strong at that time, and our sports guys were all dressed up with no place to go. They get visions but need an effective GM type to carry it out. I took that to Jim, he hired a GM to work with them. We were asking for a GM to grow the business.

Many of the great business innovations in journalism have been a newsroom idea -- in my opinion, a majority of them. The Wall Street Journal transformed from a 50,000-circulation newspaper in 1956 to 850,000 eight years later because the journalists had a new idea for business journalism that reached a broader audience. They needed the chance and couldn't do it themselves. And what I am hoping for here is people like Lisa Kresl and Bob Yates will help develop ideas that not only have great journalistic legs but also are marketable.

Again, I'd just invite you to keep an eye on it. Believe me, our journalists aren't shy. If they think this thing isn't working right, they'll be the first to tell you. I talked to a lot of people yesterday, and, yes, there's uneasiness in some areas, and I would have been disappointed if people didn't raise questions. Jim will have meetings soon around the building answering questions about this, but we're not backing down from this.

I'd like to go back to something you said a moment ago. Where is the line drawn in this new relationship between general managers and editors?

I mean, I've done a news-for-non-news-executives seminar. George has. On advertising, it's pretty simple. You don't fool readers into thinking content is news content when it's advertising content. That's a real easy line right there. Over the years a lot of folks have tried to do that around the country, and there are publications in this market that do it. And they think they're very clever doing it, but in the end they don't have any credibility with discerning readers. The advertisers are happy, but the readers know they've been duped. We do that, and our credibility is blasted.

That's the simplest line: Whether it's online or in the paper or in some other product, the consumer needs to know whether it's news content, entertainment content or advertising content. That needs to be clear. We're very vigilant ... [Pause] I am not saying there haven't been some instances where something's gotten into the paper where an advertiser looks like a news story. And we come down on it like a ton of bricks, and it makes advertising leadership mad because their checks and balances didn't work. You have to go to market in a different way and see what works.

I understand in some quarters there will be a negative perception, but I am out right now trying to hire top talent. We've got five positions for very senior investigative and narrative writers and specialists, and they don't come here if they think we're playing fast and loose with the line. We recruited Leslie Brenner, and one of her first reviews was one of the biggest advertisers in the Guide [The Old Warsaw], and she didn't hear word one from us except that it was a good review. She's making a difference, and so do a lot of other writers at the paper.

Speaking of hirings, does that also include a City Hall reporter to replace Dave Levinthal?

That's a different matter. That's not one of the five positions. Weve been talking to people internally and externally. But we just hired an investigative reporter for our Austin bureau, Jim Drew, who broke the Coingate scandal in Ohio.

Back to the memo, is part of this about creating new sections for the paper? Or new publications?

Possibly. At The Dallas Morning News itself, we've got our circulation and pricing strategies and adding pages to the paper, putting new features in the paper, hiring top people. That's all an effort to retain our seven-day home-delivery subscriber. That's a newspaper-in-the-bag strategy. But the growth is in new products. We're trying to retain what we've got, and we're trying to grow new products. As a journalism-first company, that'll be journalistically driven. That's what we're trying to do.
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