Editor’s Note: This is the 21st in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”
As a teenager who once collected a scrapbook filled with editorials from his hometown paper in Tulsa, Okla., it seems fitting that Eric Celeste would one day go on to become a journalist who wrote his own column.
Filler, which he penned for the Dallas Observer, chronicled the ins and outs of the local media industry — providing readers with insight, analysis and biting commentary that stretched beyond what Celeste says are the usual "weekly bee stings" that most alternative newspapers inflict when reporting about their daily counterparts. It was this approach that allowed him to report from the inside and write articles like "At the Ripping Point," which won him a 2005 AltWeekly award for media reporting/criticism.
The article describes the decline of The Dallas Morning News. In it, Celeste reports on the managerial missteps — bad advice from an ill-equipped consulting firm, failed investments and an unclear mission — that led the paper to have editorial and financial problems.
Since writing the story, Celeste has ended his five-year tenure at the New Times paper, where he served first as an associate editor and then staff writer. He has moved on to become the editor of Southwest Airlines’ Spirit Magazine. But he continues to live and do freelance reporting in the Dallas area, and he still keeps a watchful eye on the local media market.
You sound like a news junkie. What are some of your must-read sources, and how often do you read them?
I think I do pretty much what everyone does. I have my electronic must-read stuff that I go through everyday. I’m a huge sports fan, so a lot of it is that, but then besides that, it’s going through your news sites. The great thing about my current gig is I don’t have to buy too many magazines because they all come across my desk. On my essential list is The Wall Street Journal, which I read every day — it actually is the best paper in the country — and then Newsweek and Time, The New Republic, Slate for online, and the men’s mags.
Your article is ostensibly a negative piece about a competing publication. Was it difficult to get the story?
No because I really feel as though I had a lot of very good sources, and, at the time, I didn’t have a lot of competition for covering the Morning News. One of the things that I don’t like about a lot of the alt-weeklies around the country is that traditionally, when they cover their local media, they just say, God, the daily sucks, it’s awful, let’s talk about how much it sucks, let’s make fun of the bad headlines, let’s talk about how dumb the reporters are. What I was much more interested in writing about and what my column was always about was more the inner workings of the paper. I think staff members appreciated that and began to believe that that was my goal.
So it wasn’t difficult getting reporters to talk?
To Bob Mong’s credit, when he came in as editor of the Morning News, they changed the policy. I started calling him, and he would talk, and he told everybody they could talk on the record to us. That was a huge sea change that was really important and I think made the paper look less small and petty. Most people still didn’t want their names on things, though, because they feared retribution — often in much more subtle and demeaning ways than being fired or anything.
How does relying on anonymous sources affect your ability to report on the press?
If you’re going to cover the media right, you have to use anonymous sources, and you’ve got to be careful and not be spun. You can’t be the guy who just picks up the phone and takes the latest bitch from whoever calls you for your story. You lose credibility. I can’t tell you how many times you get through the rumor-mongering mills that are newsrooms, and you hear something from four people, and you go, "Wow, this has got to be true." Then you realize they’re all repeating what that first person said. It makes it tough to figure out what’s really happening. I tried hard to make sure that when I took out a paddle, it was for a good reason.
How much of the Dallas Morning News’s instability do you think can be attributed to the economic downturn of the city?
Dallas is actually not in that terrible a shape financially. The city as a whole and its core businesses — real estate and other things — are doing pretty well. You can’t point to that for the decline. In my opinion, part of it is not the paper’s problem; it’s just what’s happening in the industry. Part of it is artificial inflation that they’ve been doing for years to mask that decline, and part of it is — the publisher, Jim Moroney, is right –they’ve needed to change the way that they think about what it is they do for a long time. The problem is that a lot of the changes seem sort of arbitrary and reactionary, and they don’t get at what I would say, and what some other media critics would say, are the core problems.
Fundamentally, what makes great newspapers really interesting still — The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal — is the combination of two things: reporting not on blanket-coverage things, but on the things that are very important to people in the city who pay attention, and lots of great interesting, insightful opinions.
The alt-press is doing pretty damn good because while there may be things that need to be tweaked, and the average age of an alt-weekly reader probably shouldn’t be 40 years old, they still are able to put news in context for people. That’s what all these great papers do for you. Alt-weeklies have always done a great job at that. The daily papers can take more of those cues instead of trying to do more blanket, piecemeal coverage of pop culture and all these things they’re trying to do to attract people. They’re also going to need to create a dynamic, living newsroom online, where stories are constantly changing.
What about media consolidation?
I think that’s bad. I’d like to say it isn’t, and I’m one of the people that’s pretty hopeful that the New Times-Village Voice merger is going to be a good thing, despite the cries that it’s not. In the newspaper industry you’d be hard-pressed to find a case where a paper that has become a part of chain has gotten better, especially if it was part of a smaller chain and it got absorbed by a larger one.
So is it going to be difficult for the New Times-Village Voice merger to be a success?
No. I think it’s good for New Times because, as a chain, it does a lot of really great things and already has some great markets. I think New Times will keep the best people at Village Voice and put in new life and get the best of both worlds. It’s a unique situation. There are internal things that I think they’re struggling with, like staying relevant to the youthful market — which is what weeklies should do — that aren’t going to be any easier. This is not going to be the death of independent journalism as we know it. New Times’s record sort of speaks for itself.
Will The Dallas Morning News survive its decline?
Yes, but it will be a very different publication. They can take a lesson from the alt-weeklies. What the alt-weeklies do well is focus on a few issues, grab hold of them and really shake them hard. When people read the paper, they want to know about what the heartbeat of the area is doing, and in this area that’s Dallas. The Morning News needs to sink all their coverage into the city, into important issues, into the things that people say they don’t want to read about — poverty and race and class and all those things. It’s a leap of faith, but it’s certainly not working the way they’re doing it now, and it won’t.
Joy Howard is a freelance writer living in Amherst, Mass. A 2003 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism, she has written for Boston’s Weekly Dig, Cleveland Free Times and the San AANtonio Convention Daily.