In a chaotic environment of converging (and competing)
media, the Dallas Morning News has established itself as a vital
contributor to the public debate. by Bob Mong '71
Bob Mong '71 (photo: David
Woo/The Dallas Morning News)
It should come as no surprise that my role in this newspaper theme issue
is to be Dave Barry’s straight man. The juxtaposition is elegant.
He’s older, but his hair is brown, and he looks 30ish, while, charitably,
I appear 50-plus with gray-white hair. He writes humor; I help run a large
metro paper. Just the other day, I noticed a Dave quotation on a newspaper
industry daily calendar: “We newspapers are very big on profits
these days. We’re a business, just like any other business, except
that we employ English majors.” Hey, I’m an English major,
and I’m big on having a decent profit margin. Is there any more
Let me begin with a story about having the right temperament for this
job. I’ll conveniently use another editor as an example.
Deborah Howell is an excellent editor who ran the St. Paul Pioneer-Press
for many years, during which the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes. After
one of them, she walked into her office prepared for her readers’
warm accolades. A stack of messages welcomed her arrival. Problem was,
the Pioneer-Press had published the wrong snow-plowing schedule in the
paper, and all over St. Paul people were digging out from under what the
city tractors had deposited on their cars. Deborah handled the complaints
and forgot about the Pulitzer for the time being.
As exhilarating as it often is to preside over a big city paper, I’ve
learned it is wise to maintain a healthy dose of humility, even in the
face of good news about your paper.
A few years ago, the Columbia Journalism Review named us one of the five
best papers in America. When I first heard about this, I was genuinely
elated. We had worked hard for 20 years to make the Dallas Morning News
a distinguished paper. We built it person by person, department by department
into something pretty good. Now we were getting the kind of recognition
we thought we deserved.
But the other side of me was wary. I don’t think you can be any
good in a job like this if you preen and fail to see the many problems
and deficiencies you and your institution have.
I dashed off a note to the staff congratulating them on the ranking and
reminding them that we are still far from the paper we want to be.
When I started in Dallas in 1979, we only had 170 journalists in our newsroom.
Mediocrity was everywhere. Today, we have more than 625 journalists, many
of them national leaders in their fields. Our company believes that there
is a strong market for high quality journalism.
Like a college, a good newspaper is the sum of its various departments.
I believe we have generally accepted national class departments in sports,
business, religion, Mexico and South America, science, lifestyles and
coverage of Texas. Nearly two years ago, I challenged our staff to become
the best in the country covering education. We’re not the best yet,
but we’re making significant strides in that direction.
Fortunately, our market has been supportive of our improving newspaper.
In 1980, our circulation was around 280,000 daily and 350,000 Sunday.
Today it is 525,000 daily and 785,000 Sunday. I think it’s important
to note that markets do respond to improved content.
Yet, the competitive landscape becomes more challenging each year. It
is true that every decent newspaper has a strong core readership that
is loyal to that product. But the core reader is aging and younger readers
are not nearly as drawn to newspapers as previous generations. Newspapers
can’t grow without attracting more of these younger occasional readers.
Many of these readers are strapped for time and find the morning a tough
time to read.
For them, newspapers are also about the last mass medium in an era of
highly targeted media. Newspapers are often about common interests and
furthering community dialogue at a time of specialized, focused “communities
More subtle issues challenge us as well. Newspapers are perceived by some
younger audiences as “authority” in a world raised to question
authority. Much has also been written about the link between citizenry
and newspaper readership. As voter numbers decline, so does newspaper
readership, partly, I suspect, because many people care less about the
civic issues newspapers write about.
As the world becomes increasingly complex, many papers simply haven’t
taken advantage of the strengths they have for providing context. Instead,
they continue to tell readers “what” happened rather than
“what happened and why.”
Go into virtually any community in America, and the local newspaper employs
the majority of reporters on the street covering news and issues. If you
are a good editor, it matters how you deploy those reporters. How an editor
answers that question makes a huge difference in how useful the paper
is to its readers.
Journalism at its best is the main way Americans gain perspective on events
from their neighborhoods to the United Nations. Good papers try to explain
what influences are at work shaping these events. Poor papers, often unwittingly,
portray situations as one disconnected fragment after another.
For me, newspapers should unabashedly be from someplace. They should reflect
the region where they reside. For us, that means putting bureaus in east
Texas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, the border with Mexico, Lubbock and
Oklahoma City, as well as publishing comprehensive coverage in and around
It means placing more reporters in Mexico than any other U.S. paper. Why?
Because Mexico is a local cultural, political and business story. By the
way, one of our most talented reporters in Mexico is Brendan Case (Haverford
Class of 1993), who covers business issues out of Mexico and Latin America.
Brendan is one of many specialists we have hired to get at issues with
more sophistication and nuance. The big issues of the day are usually
interrelated and interdependent. Explaining these issues clearly is the
hallmark of great modern reporting; and specialty reporters with deep
training often get at the heart of things better than generalists can.
We recognize that there is a large readership for deep reporting, as long
as it is interesting. Newspapers that consistently produce content that
readers can’t find anywhere else will to prosper. But this unique
and unduplicated news is the most difficult content to develop. It requires
the collective will and skill of the newspaper driving toward this goal.
To continue to find new audiences, newspapers must improve the way they
cover major issues. You are no doubt aware that many books and articles
have been written in recent years lamenting the way the press covers everything
from religion, the military, higher education, politics and big business.
These real and perceived flaws must be taken seriously, but the situation
is far from hopeless. Take higher education coverage as an example. The
press and the academy have much in common. Both have strong First Amendment
ties. Both live by words and ideas. Yet the relationship is often strained
by university administrators who fastidiously avoid the press and by newspapers
that cover higher education superficially if they cover it at all.
Newspapers that reach out to universities both through their news and
editorial page staffs can benefit from deeper and richer perspectives
talented professors and administrators provide. At the same time, newspapers
need to put excellent reporters on the beat.
Trust does not come without effort. I have known some college administrators
in Texas for more than 20 years. The ability to pick up the phone and
talk to them can be invaluable. When we built our science staff, it took
time before scientists would open up to our reporters. Some of our writers
even had doctorates in the same field as the professors we were trying
to reach. With time and determination, honest and enduring relationships
Once in the early ’90s, when we were building our religion staff,
one well-educated woman stood up in a public forum and told me she wished
we’d stop our plans to improve coverage of religion, ethics and
spirituality. She was afraid of how we might mangle such sensitive subjects.
She wasn’t alone in her concerns either. Thankfully, many other
readers, academics and religious leaders worked with us in good faith
suggesting ways to improve our coverage.
This kind of informed back and forth with readers can provide great benefits
to a newspaper. Editors must train themselves to listen closely.
Most of our communities are becoming more diverse each year. Texas is
now more than 30 percent Hispanic. Our Asian population is growing rapidly.
The African-American population holds at about 10 percent. At the Morning
News, 45 percent of our employees are minority, and we are far more alert
to our community because of this diversity. Our readership is now about
25 percent minority.
If our reporters’ sources don’t continue to expand to better
reflect today’s Texas, we’ll soon be two-dimensional figures
in a three-D world. Any decent editor understands that community discussions
can help the paper’s coverage. I had been meeting with Muslim leaders
in the Dallas area long before Sept. 11, 2001. The familiarity that these
often tense meetings provided helped us bring more Muslim perspective
to our readers after Sept. 11.
It is also important for a paper to keep changing and evolving. Our sports
editor, Dave Smith, is often considered the best at what he does in the
country. Before coming to Dallas in 1981, he had built the Boston Globe’s
excellent sports section. Now, nearly 65, Dave comes to work every day
with marked up sports pages and an enthusiasm to make the next day’s
section better than today’s. He’s never lost his passion for
the business or his willingness to try something new.
Since the invention of radio, experts have predicted the demise of newspapers.
Ted Turner even stood up in front of a group of newspaper executives 25
years ago and said it was nice knowing them, but cable television would
spell the end of papers. With the advent of television, cable, the internet,
specialty magazines and 24-hour news and sports, the nation’s appetite
for information has only grown (along with the advertising pie). Newspapers
continue to compete robustly in this heated environment.
It is also true that these media are converging. It is not uncommon for
one of our reporters to write for the paper, the paper’s Internet
site and appear on our 24-hour state cable news channel – all on
the same day.
Theories abound on where this is heading. But as the quality media compete
in a world of increasing tabloidization, I don’t think the serious
folks should give in to infotainment, trivialization and the noisy, shouting
talking heads. There will remain a wide audience for strong reporting
skills, sophisticated analysis and accessible context.
Americans are overwhelmed with information and much of it is junk to them.
Great journalists can help them distill and make sense of the glut and
tangle. That’s why we value the smart, informed work of specialists
like Brendan Case. His work in Mexico and Latin America helps our readers
understand why they should care about the chaotic economies south of our
borders. Many of our readers hunger for deeper knowledge, and that is
why we have added Ph.D’s, lawyers, MBA’s and economics majors
to our staff. Specialists, combined with talented generalists, can usually
get to the heart of issues faster than generalists alone.
Our democracy has been an incredibly durable phenomenon, just as a free
press has been an indispensable partner in preserving our open society.
The fact that today’s newspapers still breathe life into our public
debate seems like good news to me.
Bob Mong ’71 is editor of the Dallas