DMN Bids Goodbye to WFAA Because the Partnership Never Really Worked

Belo Corp vs. A.H. Belo. If you haven't seen this movie, it doesn't end ... amicably.
Belo Corp vs. A.H. Belo. If you haven’t seen this movie, it doesn’t end … amicably.

Jim Moroney — chairman, president, and CEO of A.H. Belo, owner of the Dallas Morning News — dreaded this day. He knew it was coming, but that made it no easier. When the recommendation came from his top editors (news side bosses Bob Mong and George Rodrigue, as well as digital chief David Duitch), it said what he thought it would: partner with Channel 5, pass on Channel 11, say goodbye to Channel 8.

Moroney called up Mike Devlin, WFAA Channel 8 president and GM, and asked if he could stop by, said he had something to tell him face to face before announcing it to the staff. Moroney walked across the parking entrance that divides the two buildings and told Devlin the decision had been reached. Beginning January 1, KXAS Channel 5 would be the new content partner of the largest paper in the Southwest. (Read Ed Bark’s take for all the details of the deal.) Devlin, Moroney says, took it like a pro.

“But it was very emotional for me,” says Moroney, who started his career as a sales trainee at Channel 8 in 1985. “I love that place. We [DMN and WFAA] worked together for decades. But I knew when the time came, I would make the decision recommended to me, and that decision would be the one that’s in the best interest of the Dallas Morning News. But it was really, really personally heartbreaking.”

Moroney was unique in this media-biz scenario, however. That’s because the DMN and Channel 8, the two biggest brands in DFW media, had been drifting apart for years, ever since the two companies split in 2008 (Channel 8 was owned by Belo Corp., the DMN by A.H. Belo). Most of the cross-polinization came only at the highest level of management, where people like (retiring) Robert Decherd and Moroney sat on the boards of both companies.

The truth is that the print-broadcast marriage had dissolved, and the companies’ efforts at “content sharing” looked more like divorce-lawyer meetings than newsroom brainstorming sessions. (Early on, the efforts at making it work were more heavy handed. Read Ed Bark’s take linked above for examples.) Here’s an example told to me off the record, so I’ve stripped it of identifying subject matter: Channel 8 breaks a story. The next day, the newspaper beat reporter writes a follow-up and discovers the Channel 8 story is 90 percent wrong. So the print reporter corrects it. Then the Channel 8 reporter calls up DMN bitching. The DMN reporter gets yelled at by his boss because he didn’t credit Channel 8 as breaking it — to which the print reporter replies, “Fuck him!” (So, exactly like a marriage.)

In fact, the partnership had just about ground to a halt. Think about it: how involved was WFAA in the yearlong JFK50 series? How many times do you see a DMN reporter (outside of Sunday morning talk-show dead zones) on Channel 8 lending perspective to a story, or even offering a concert or movie review? Outside of breaking news and low-effort cross-promotion (hey, it’s Pete Delkus’ pic on the weather page!), the two sides didn’t work much together.

What’s more, anyone at the paper who suggested partnering with Channel 8 was given the severe stink-eye by management. There’s been something of a revolving door at the VP level as the paper tries to bring in people from the tech or non-media biz world to innovate, and many times those new types would look at the doubling of resources by the two media companies on stories or projects and say, “Uh, exqueeze me? Baking powder?” Those people quickly learned such inquiries were ignored.

The under-the-surface animosity between the two newsrooms makes sense. Each side has talented, arrogant loners who succeed especially because they don’t share well. When you’re rewarded by finding stories on your own — and when you barely have time to do so under normal circumstances — why would you want to increase the difficulty of your task while also reducing your share of the spoils by inviting your corporate cousins next door to go spelunking?

The corporate split in 2008 also made folks at the paper feel as though the honchos at Channel 8 didn’t believe in them as a business enterprise. The feeling was that the TV station didn’t want the red ink of its print partner to stain its balance sheets. (To which I say, duh.) Just one more reason to raise a middle finger toward WFAA when heading to the parking lot.

Does that mean the paper’s second marriage with the younger, more carefree Channel 5 is just an arm-candy exercise? No one knows. It is fair to say that a) Channel 5 was way more enthusiastic about the possibilities of this partnership than the other two bidders, channels 8 and 11. (“There were high-fives in the building when we got the phone call,” says a Channel 5 reporter.) Of course there were: Channel 5 stands to gain much more in reputation enhancement than would Channel 8 at this point (acknowledging that reputation and quality of product day-to-day don’t always correlate). Say what you want about the declining fortunes of newsprint. The people at the paper who conduct brand surveys tell me what my gut confirms: the Dallas Morning News is by far the most respected media brand in North Texas. Channel 5 can’t help but be lifted by its association with the paper.

How does this help the DMN? Well, there are cost benefits to be had. As Bark mentions, Channel 5 will produce commercials for the paper at no cost. (Will they come up with another promo this awesome? Impossible.) Digital newsroom head honcho David Duitch, a longtime TV guy, has been pushing video content (and wanting it to be better produced/edited/etc.) since the day he walked in. Internally, he is seen as the guy who pushed hard for this new partnership. He is also, as one person told me, “the most divisive figure in the newsroom.” So people will be watching closely to see if this partnership pays off in the ways he’s suggested it will. In other words, by making the paper more of a true multi-platform company, less of a print place that does video when the bosses make them.

Channel 5, then, is to help modernize the paper’s video output, reduce promotional costs, and champion the paper’s reporters and columnists. The two sides tried some test runs of this during the bidding stage, talking up the JFK50 series and writers like Alan Peppard, and the DMN bosses were pleased with the result. Channel 5, in turn, not only wants brand enhancement, it’s looking for increased digital traffic from Dallasnews.com.

After a year, they’ll all reevaluate and see if the partnership worked. “I really don’t know if a TV partnership is necessary for a newspaper nowadays,” Moroney says. “We think it can help us, Channel 5 thinks it can help them. If we’re wrong, we’ll look at it in a year and say goodbye.” The same no-illusions plan most second marriages have.