Metropolis: Wednesday, January 23, 2003
Marching in a Different Direction

Morning News buries the dead in Arlington and opens a new front to the north.


The war between the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Dallas Morning News for the soul — or at least the subscriptions — of Arlington has long been over, won handily by the Star-Telegram. But earlier this month, the Morning News finally buried the emaciated corpse, ceasing publication of its much-shrunken Arlington Morning News.

A few days before the last AMN edition on Jan. 12, Star-Telegram Executive Editor Jim Witt, Publisher Wes Turner, and other newspaper honchos called together the staff of their Arlington edition and warned them not to gloat.

In fact, journalists seldom gloat when a newspaper closes. In a multi-paper Metroplex, spouses and friends are often the folks who are losing their jobs when a press ceases to roll. Having tough competition keeps reporters on their toes and encourages bean counters to allot more beans for reporting. And, frankly, there’s just too danged many papers calling it quits around the country.

Instead, many reporters and first-line editors at the surviving paper begin to worry, usually with good reason, about whether the beans — jobs, resources, space for stories — will start getting re-assigned elsewhere.

Asked whether the Arlington Star-Telegram editorial staff — which hit a high of about 70 people in 1996 and is now around 60 — might begin to shrink, Turner told Fort Worth Weekly, “There are no plans to make any changes.” Asked whether that meant that staffers who leave would be replaced, Turner would only say, “I’ve answered the question.”

Dallas Morning News reporters, in the meantime, are worried for different reasons. Failing to make any inroads in Arlington, that paper has swung its sights to the north, to Collin County, where it is fast building a major news operation to put out a fully Collin-ized edition beginning this spring. It’s doing it, of course, mostly by removing reporters from its main Dallas newsroom. The prospect of being reassigned from the Dallas newsroom to a suburban operation produces in many veteran staffers a strong urge to affix postage to resumés.

The Arlington version of the Dallas paper was begun with much fanfare in 1996 — big billboards, a big sign on the building facing Interstate 30 that housed the AMN offices, and vows that Belo Corp., owner of the Dallas paper, WFAA-TV, and other news organizations around the country, was committed to Arlington for the long haul.

But the AMN never really grew beyond the approximately 20,000 circulation it started with, and Belo staffers saw the newsprint on the wall early on. The paper was cut back from seven to five days a week. At the same time, it was moved from “live” deadlines — meaning reporters could get breaking news in the next day’s paper — to being part of the paper that was printed several days in advance. From that point on, AMN staffers — already badly outnumbered by the Arlington S-T — had little hope of competing.

Following his own advice to staffers, Turner declined to characterize the outcome of the Arlington situation as a “win” for the Star-Telegram. “All I can tell you is, the Morning News made a strategic decision to get a better return on its investment in other parts of the Metroplex,” he intoned. He ignored the fact that the Arlington bureau’s top editors consistently referred to the competition as a war, placed green metal army helmets in strategic places around the office as a constant reminder to staff, accused the AMN of padding its distribution figures, and regularly gloated in monthly staff meetings about AMN’s inability to keep pace with the Star-Telegram or put out a quality product.

Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson, who spent 15 years as the Arlington police’s media spokesman, said many people in Arlington were excited a few years back at the idea that it might become a true two-newspaper town — but felt the Morning News never really got in the game.

“They made all this noise about, ‘We’re going to cover Arlington the way the Star-Telegram does,’ but it never really materialized,” he said. “The Star-Telegram had the home-field advantage, but people also thought that Belo had the financial wherewithal to take them on.”

Bob Mong, editor and president of the News, said that Arlington “is still important to us, but we’re taking a different approach” there.

The News still has a Northeast Tarrant bureau, putting out a three-day-a-week section. Deputy Managing Editor Walt Stallings said the paper’s circulation in the Grapevine-Colleyville-Southlake area — where newer residents have less traditional allegiance to Fort Worth and the S-T — continues to grow.

However, the News presence in Fort Worth itself continues to fade. Twenty years ago, the News struck fear in the gut of the Star-Telegram by publishing a daily section of news devoted to Tarrant County. As recently as a few years ago, the Dallas paper kept a half-dozen staffers in its Fort Worth bureau. Today, the bureau includes only one or two reporters, depending on who’s counting. “It’s almost like [the Morning News] is waving the white flag for the whole of Tarrant County,” Anderson said.

Like many major-city dailies around the country, the Morning News realized years ago that much of the population growth (and therefore, advertiser interest) in its circulation area for the foreseeable future would be in the suburbs. The News set about buying small papers in some area cities and created sections specifically targeted to other communities.

In the last three years, the News converted those suburban papers into “zoned” — or targeted — sections of the main paper. The purpose, Stallings said, was to provide better coverage in those communities, improve the main paper’s regional coverage — and stave off competition. Stallings said the move is working — that the suburban sections are making a little money, circulation is up, and that efficiencies have enabled the paper to actually “increase the journalist headcount” in some areas.

Mong acknowledged Monday that the drive to build a 40-person satellite newsroom in Collin County has caused fear in the main newsroom, where reporters worry both about possibly having to move to Plano and about seeing the paper lose strength in covering its home base — which hasn’t been the paper’s strong point in recent years anyway.

“We’re not going to take news coverage away from the city of Dallas or anywhere else,” Mong said. He’s been meeting with the staff, he said, and “I actually think the anxiety level is going down.”

The Collin County effort is also drawing skepticism from staffers and former staffers who don’t think the Belo approach has necessarily improved the quality of journalism in suburban areas — and who fear that they, like former Arlington staffers, could end up stranded if the News loses focus in a couple of years.

Fort Worth Weekly Editor Gayle Reaves, who wrote this story, formerly worked at both the Star-Telegram and Morning News.

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