Swan Song for Dallas Times Herald
Editor Roy Bode discusses the challenges that swamped his newspaper, and that face other city dailies
SIDE-BY-SIDE newspaper vending machines at the corner of Griffin and Pacific told it all: In one box, copies of the Dallas Morning News declared "Last Times Herald goes fast." The other box, the Times Herald's, contained nothing.That was Dec. 10, the first time in 112 years that the city had been without "Today's Paper for Dallas" as the Times Herald masthead insisted right up to the previous day's issue, the last it would publish before succumbing to the recession and relentless competition from the deep-pocketed Morning News. For a year Times Herald publisher John Buzzetta had quietly called on more than 100 potential buyers or investors for his newspaper. When none was willing to play the white knight, Mr. Buzzetta pulled the plug and sold substantially all of the Times Herald's assets to A. H. Belo Corporation, owner of the Morning News. Belo wasted no time in moving to efface the name of its vanquished rival. Across Griffin street from the newspaper boxes stood what a day earlier had been the Times Herald building. "I don't know if they want me to say anything, so I'd better not," said a man as he measured the giant bronze letters forming the defunct newspaper's name. "Are they changing the name already?" asks Times Herald editor Roy Bode. But curiosity is absent from his voice. Indeed, as he slumped deep into a plush executive chair in the office he will soon vacate, head not much higher than the desk before him, Mr. Bode appeared drained of feeling. "Newspaper people are unique in a certain respect," he says, gazing through a glass wall at the vast, nearly lifeless newsroom beyond. "They subordinate their personal lives to their work and make an enormous emotional investment in it. This is like the loss of a family member." Even before joining the Times Herald in 1970, Bode had developed a connection to it. While he was in high school in the West Texas town of Andrews, an oil and ranching community, he won a spot-news writing contest judged by Times Herald editor Felix McKnight. When his school newspaper sent Bode to Dallas to interview the staff at the Texas School Book Depository, from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy, the Times Herald lent him a desk to write his story. Bode put in the better part of 20 years at the Times Herald, leaving twice but somehow always being drawn back to the gutsy, establishment-tweaking daily. In 1988 he became its last editor. "I think there are people in this newsroom today because they don't know where else to go," Bode says. He could have been speaking for himself - Bode plans to take a few months to figure out his next move, possibly out of journalism - except for a few final tasks. One was those was to play matchmaker for his 900 former employees, suddenly on the street with 60 days of severance pay. Knowing the reputation of the Times Herald's staff, newspapers as far away as Alaska that have open positions began lighting up the switchboard. Bode helped them recruit. The other task was that of official source for the story of the Times Herald's demise. A stack of media inquiries lay on Bode's desk between his manual typewriter and two untouched coconut-frosted doughnuts. All the calls would be returned. Now that the Times Herald is news, Bode says, he wants to treat the media the way he had wanted other organizations to treat his staff. "It's a trying time for the business," Bode observed. "We may not be the last casualty." Bode says that newspapers have a role in providing information that other media can't fill. But news must be relevant, and ensuring that it is requires listening to readers to determine what they want, otherwise "they will ignore you in droves." Essential information must be offered in a way that busy people can assimilate it easily, Bode says. But that's not an argument for having only six-paragraph stories. "Readers are not going to go away because we provide thoughtful, intelligent stories. But we have to make an editorial decision on what they need." Some of that information may fall outside the traditional definition of news, such as how to buy a concert ticket or how to calculate your property taxes - answering questions before people ask them. Bode says the Times Herald had taken many steps to regain readers. Its Lifestyle section was one of the most innovative in the country, he says. "Things were working. We just ran out of time. We couldn't withstand the recession." Certainly the Times Herald didn't lose to the Morning News because of quality of journalism, he added. Both papers had won three Pulitzer prizes. But in the past 10 years the Times Herald had also had 12 Pulitzer finalists, against four for the Morning News. "Two of the finest papers in America were published in Dallas. They were both superb newspapers," Bode says. m only sorry that as of today there's only one great newspaper here." One thing that hurt the Times Herald was its legacy as an afternoon newspaper in an age when most people like to read their newspapers at breakfast and in the afternoon watch television news. Only in the past year had it switched solely to a morning edition. Then there was the loss of a dozen popular comics and features when Belo bought their syndicator and switched those features to the Morning News. The Times Herald also endured a succession of editors, publishers, and owners, Bode says. In contrast to that "continuing upheaval," the Morning News had the benefit of stability. "They had consistency. They had a plan. They meticulously followed their plan with no deviation whatsoever," Bode says of the rival paper. That plan included investing money from Belo's chain of television stations in the Morning News's editorial product and in promotion and marketing. "They didn't pull back in bad times. They had the resources to do that," Bode says. But would the Morning News continue to improve without competition from the Times Herald? Bode pondered the question as his secretary cleared photographs from the credenza behind him. "Motivation is a legitimate concern," he says. "Competition makes better newspapers." But Bode says he is optimistic. Belo had shown that it was willing to spend money for quality journalism. Furthermore, the Philadelphia Inquirer had been an outstanding newspaper after its competitor folded, just as the Washington Post was even before the Washington Times was founded. On the other side of Dallas, Morning News editor Burl Osborne paused before entering a meeting to answer the same question. "Make no mistake. It is a problem to maintain one's competitive juices," he says. "The view here for a long time has been that one's direct competition is not how you measure progress." Rather, Mr. Osborne says, the Morning News set goals for itself and compared its performance to them. Rather than slacking off, he says, now that the Morning News had Dallas to itself it would feel obliged to work even harder. But Darwin Payne, a professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University and a long-time observer of both newspapers, believes that "human nature will take over. The quality will not remain the same."