Two Dallas hyperlocal publishers ‘not surprised’ by Morning News layoffs

On Tuesday, Dallas Morning News owner A.H. Belo Corporation announced another round of layoffs — 38 employees — at the metro daily newspaper. This week’s layoffs marked the fourth for the paper in six years.

The fiscal second quarter was harsh to Belo, which saw a $6.8 million loss in revenue compared to a $0.2 million loss in the same quarter in 2010. Overall, the advertising revenue throughout the newspaper industry has declined every quarter since Q306.

I asked two community media professionals in the Dallas area who are part of the Block by Block independent publisher network their thoughts on local legacy print media in the start-up journalism age.

Mike Orren has a traditional journalism background and founded Pegasus News in 2005, an online news and information site for Dallas-Forth Worth. Orren sold Pegasus News in 2007 and the site is now under its third owner, Archstream Media. Orren remained the site’s publisher through 2010. Orren works on entrepreneurial media business projects. He disclosed for this post that he has done one consulting job of less than a day’s work for the Dallas Morning News and worked at D Magazine, an angel investor in Pegasus News.

Shawn Williams edits and helped establish in 2009 Dallas South News, a nonprofit news site focused on the black community in the southern part of the city.

 

 

Orren and Williams said in an e-mail interview the Dallas Morning News layoffs were not a surprise. The two reflect on how the city’s newspaper of record has changed, and what it means for online, hyperlocal journalism.

Do you read/did you grow up reading the Dallas Morning News? If so, has the paper changed over the years? 

ORREN: I grew up as an avid newspaper reader (and later writer) in North Carolina, raised on the Greensboro News and Record. When I moved to Dallas in the early nineties, my first purchase was a Dallas Morning News subscription. I used the paper as a major tool in learning about my new home, particularly politics and the differences in neighborhoods around town. Early on, it was also a great entertainment guide for a music junkie like me.

By 2004, I found myself frustrated with my morning read. My chugged first cup of coffee outlived the paper, as there was little that was relevant to me, and what was relevant, I’d already gleaned online. That’s not to pick on the DMN — that was endemic in virtually all local papers and at that point was more a function of increased expectations as online news and social tools were just starting to become mainstream.

Over the last 5-6 years, the DMN has been at the forefront with experimentation — you have to give them credit for that. A lot of that was in packaging like Quick — the weekdaily, then weekly, now defunct tabloid. Or the free minipaper “Briefing” that lands on privileged doorsteps, and has even branched out to lower-demographic neighborhoods. Some products, like NeighborsGo, have both unique (even user-generated) content and separate packaging.

But over several rounds of layoffs and cutbacks, and with varied focuses, the paper has become far less of a must-read. I frankly read very little print now, and did not follow the DMN online when it went behind the paywall. I get a breadth of local news and entertainment from Pegasus News; deep political reporting and analysis from the Dallas Observer; and features and pithy commentary from D Magazine. Between those and headlines posted on Twitter and Facebook, I feel better informed about my city than ever before.

WILLIAMS: I started reading the newspaper at a very young age, especially the sports section.  Every Saturday morning I would run to the front yard for the paper so I could see the high school football scores from the night before.  Where else could you get that type of information?

First I read the Dallas Time Herald and switched over to DMN when the Herald shut down.  From the point of a long-time (but not current) subscriber The News remained the same for a long time which was both good and bad.  I do see more of a focus on “investigative journalism.” In some cases it’s wildly successful like stories on Payday Lenders and the uncovering problems at the Texas Youth Commission detention facilities. But sometimes the reporting on public officials borders on “gotcha” style reporting.

In recent years I’ve hated to see the sports department lose it’s best African-American writers.  There is severe threat to diversity in American media in general.  –Dallas South News’ Shawn Williams

The DMN has been steadily shedding jobs over the past several years. Are you surprised at the latest layoff round? 

ORREN: Sadly, I’m not surprised it happened, although the sheer volume — 38 out of a newsroom of around 250 — did. Unsurprisingly, the newsroom has been buzzing about this for several weeks, even before a layoff in the ad and marketing department (which set off no reporting from the larger media community– we only tend to notice the newsroom). There is an anonymous but reliable blog DMN Cuts, which has tracked DMN cuts for years, and it’s been active on this layoff round since late July.

What is surprising is the quality of the people [the Dallas Morning News] decided to let go. –Mike Orren, founder Pegasus News

I won’t name any names that haven’t voluntarily been made public. This group includes enterprise veterans like Lee Hancock, whom the DMN featured in TV ads a few years back. It includes some really digital-savvy hustler reporters. The common remark I’ve heard is ‘I can’t believe they let some of those folks go!’

To the issue of hyperlocal, I’m told it includes a number of people focused on key suburban markets.

WILLIAMS: I’m not surprised because nearly every American business is trying to right-size. I think the media makes a bigger deal out of media layoffs, but my in-laws work at a factory and have been under the same threat of constant layoffs for years. The newspaper industry is one of many that is having to reinvent and redefine itself.

What are some of the DMN’s weaknesses and strengths in the daily news space? 

ORREN: One key strength is that even heavily reduced, it’s still the biggest newsroom in town. I have to believe that there is a way to deploy 200 people that creates more, richer coverage. But it can’t be done with a light org chart reshuffle.

The DMN has a good editorial page and has always been strong in sports. I know I’m not alone in thinking that outside those sections, the columnists are almost universally, painfully weak. [But] They are the only ones in town who can pull off a major enterprise package.

Despite management’s rhetoric to the contrary, I can’t see how the paywall is helping them. Anecdotally, it looks to really be hurting them in organic search. There are occasional stories that I know ran, that I either can’t find at all, or find only on a foreign news site via some syndication deal with McClatchy. I know that even a year or so ago, if my name was in the paper even in passing, I heard about it from dozens of people by noon. Earlier this year, I was mentioned in a business story, and it was a week before I knew it. I know that there is some circulation revenue gain from the wall, but I don’t see how it offsets losing relevance as the center of local information and conversation. I’d love to have seen them do a much more permeable wall like the New York Times’.

WILLIAMS: I’d point to the North/South Gap project as a place where the Dallas Morning News has excelled. It’s been run out of the Editorial Department and focused on Southern Dallas. The project earned the paper a Pulitzer and really has been forward thinking. I also think the organization has been willing to try new things. I’d point to Quick, NeighborsGo and their mobile strategy as attempts at innovation.

Do the DMN layoffs mean a potential gain in audience or staff for hyperlocal sites in the newspaper’s coverage area? 

ORREN: On the audience side, I don’t know. Between earlier cuts and the paywall, I don’t know that hyperlocal sites had that much to pick up from them. I’d also note that if you consider hyperlocal to be specifically neighborhood-focused, Dallas has always had fewer of those sort of sites than similar metros. I’ve always attributed that to the relatively early adoption of serious blogging from the likes of D and the Dallas Observer, as well as Pegasus News filling some of that role. And we have some strong neighborhood newspapers and magazines in the most salable neighborhoods, particularly the People Newspapers (owned by D) and the Advocate magazines.

That’s not to say there aren’t lots of great local sites, but they tend to be more niche focused than geographic. (See PegNews’ content partner roster). DMN has NeighborsGo, but while some great folks work there, the content is mostly press releases, photos and soft news, which I think is reflected in the traffic and engagement online. The print must do better for that to live on. And Pegasus News, while it still has lots of neighborhood info and geocodes everything, has moved more towards the niche versus geographic as well. My understanding is that many of the layoffs announced won’t go into effect until December. I’m also told that a number of local sites have seen traffic growth since the paywall. So it will be some time, if ever, before you can correlate.

On staffing, it’s hard to say– I don’t know exactly who is out there yet, but my experience has been that traditional newsroom reporters and editors who can make a smooth transition to a digital-only hyperlocal environment are a rare breed. –Orren

So it really depends on who it is. I know I’ll be looking for some gems in that group for a B2B startup I’m working on this fall.

WILLIAMS:

I’m not sure about the potential for gain in audience but there is an opportunity for enterprising journalists to fill the void left by the cuts. –Williams

There are so many journalists more talented and experienced than me who could own a piece of the local media pie if they jumped out and attacked it in an innovative and enterprising manor. Most of the hyperlocals are not in a place where they can scale up their staffs, so in the short term there probably aren’t a lot of opportunities in that way.

Has the Dallas-area news landscape changed much? What are you seeing today regarding the metro news ecosystem? 

ORREN: It’s far more diverse, and the action isn’t all around media companies, although they are a major gateway. So much news and analysis comes out of Facebook, Twitter and to a lesser degree, blogs. You see the cream filter up to the media outlets, and some of the better, well-researched writers appearing in the DMN opinion section, on Pegasus News, in D Magazine columns and occasionally hired full-time.

I’m sorry to say that my vision of complete coverage of every neighborhood in the metro is still far from being realized. That becomes increasingly difficult to achieve, much less sustain, as sources of information become even more fragmented.

WILLIAMS: I think broadcast television has become a bigger player in recent years. In general there’s still an ‘if it bleeds it leads’ and ambulance-chaser mentality in TV news. But there have been some attempts at creativity in the space. I hope that continues.

Anything else you would like to add? 

ORREN: Again, not picking on the DMN specifically, but I still can’t fathom why the news industry, with all its myriad cost centers — marketing, distribution, executive compensation, real estate, etc. — thinks that it can dig its way out of disruption and decline by cutting back on its primary unique value proposition: local content.

They just gave us 15 percent fewer reasons to pay for that subscription, whether print or online. Unless there’s a plan for a complete reorganization that gets far more unique content out of each employee, I don’t see how it makes sense. –Orren

Add the fact that those who remain that I’ve talked to are pretty bitter that they’ve seen no merit increases since 2008, while there have been executive bonuses and increases that likely exceed the one-year savings of this layoff..

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2 Responses to Two Dallas hyperlocal publishers ‘not surprised’ by Morning News layoffs

  1. Tracy @ WSB says:

    Third-to-last graf from Mike O, absolutely hits the key point. The jobs that gather/produce/publish/etc. original material are the VERY LAST ONES that should be cut – until you have, for example, every last middle manager out the door, don’t you dare cut a single reporter/photographer/writer … And I say that as someone who quit big media voluntarily after years as an overpaid middle manager. Maybe some of these good folks will start their own sites and serve neighborhoods that need more news/info/discussion sources. Best of luck to ’em.

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