Richard Connor: The daily paper’s glory days are gone and won’t return

I’m getting undo credit for the Star-Telegram bringing Fort Worth back to its nameplate and announcing a plan to hire four reporters and add some more space to the paper midweek and Sunday.

I have written about my effort, separate from the Business Press, to form a nonprofit online newspaper, The Fort Worth Press. I have formed a 501(c)(3) to do this and we are in the final stages of getting our tax exemption.

The Fort Worth Press project is taking shape, but slowly. I have the Business Press to run and that is the first priority. We have received pledges and are talking with foundations about grants. Once we have raised $250,000 we will start hiring. We have a strong applicant pool that includes some veteran reporters and editors who worked for a long time at the Star-Telegram.

At the moment, though, our Fort Worth Press website sits idle and empty.

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Readers have written to say they believe my announcement spurred the Star-Telegram to promise some content changes and the hiring of a few new reporters. But that came in the wake of the massive layoffs that have been the pattern of the local newspaper for years.

Just last month, the paper offered 11 employees early retirement packages and most accepted them.

I’ve responded to the congratulatory emails by flippantly saying, “Well, I have been accused of worse things.”

Others have written to say they find it incongruous for the daily paper to be offering early retirement packages and threatening more layoffs while at the same time saying they are looking for four new reporters.

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There is no incongruity. The paper is getting rid of its most expensive – i.e., older – employees. The new reporters will start at pay levels far below those who have left.

It’s simple math. How do I know?

I’ve done my share of newspaper early retirement packages, layoffs and staff reductions over the years. Many of those decisions are ones I like to think I would not have made if I’d been older and wiser.

I’ve also written “letters to readers” much like the one penned by Star-Telegram Publisher Ryan Mote. I know the drill. You try to convince readers that moving the newspaper in new directions –these days, it’s digital – is a gift to them, a benefit.

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What you are really trying to do in these letters to readers is make them believe that less is more. Problem is, readers are not that easily fooled.

Most days a strong wind might blow the Star-Telegram off your doorstep if you don’t get to it quickly enough. It has no “plop” factor. There are not enough pages to give it heft.

That will not change.

I am rooting for the Star-Telegram. I had over 10 wonderful years there as its president and publisher. But, sadly, the game is over. Directions for its business come from Kansas City. Reporters and editors with deep knowledge of the city and its leaders are gone.

Other than columnist Bud Kennedy, there is basically no one left with institutional memory or real connections to the city. And it’s not just the city of Fort Worth that has been overlooked. News coverage of Arlington and Northeast Tarrant County was not even mentioned in the announcement about improvements and changes in the paper.

Bud, by the way, was the first journalist to track down the correct age of the late Dan Jenkins, who was 90 when he died March 7. Most news organizations, including the Business Press, reported his age as 89; it turned out Dan had been telling folks for years that he was born in 1929 rather than 1928. No one seems to know why.

Most longtime readers of the Star-Telegram want one thing and one thing only. They want their old paper back. Guess what? It’s not coming back. I would argue the decline of the paper began when Knight Ridder bought it from Disney back in 1997. Knight Ridder sold some of the Star-Telegram assets and closed others.

McClatchy bought the Star-Telegram and other papers from Knight Ridder in 2006 and then the 2008 mega-recession hit the newspaper business along with most others and all hell broke loose. McClatchy found itself over-leveraged and has been trying to cut its way to prosperity ever since.

McClatchy has mountains of debt and declining revenues. That combination will continue to make life at the Star-Telegram difficult. Putting Fort Worth back in the nameplate and adding a couple of pages here and there is a nice, symbolic touch and it’s sincere but altering the writing in the paper will not change the writing on the wall.

I believe our nonprofit Fort Worth Press will help fill the void in local news reporting but it will not, cannot, ever be what the Star-Telegram once was.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at