Dallas — This certainly isn't the only two-newspaper city in the country. But there aren't many other two-paper towns with rival dailies as evenly matched as the Morning News and the Times Herald. ``We have the two best newspapers of any city in the US,'' says Times Herald editor Will Jarrett, with typical Texan self-effacement.
The great Dallas newspaper war has been raging away for about 10 years now. But if it's war, Mr. Jarrett says, ``Both parties are fighting under conventional rules.''
And the winner so far is the newspaper-reading public of Dallas.
Which paper is which? Well, if you don't mind dabbling in stereotypes for a moment, the front-page color photos that the two papers carried on my first morning in Dallas illustrate something of the difference between the two papers:
The Times Herald photo showed two grieving parents whose teen-aged son and daughter-in-law had been killed, with four other young people, in an auto accident in Palestine, Texas.
The Morning News photo showed a uniformed waiter serving coffee to evacuated guests of a fashionable Dallas hotel that had caught fire. (No one was injured in the blaze, as the photo caption noted.)
Not to overstate the case. ``From a news standpoint, they're pretty equal,'' says Eric Miller, associate editor at D Magazine and the author of his publication's most recent story on the two papers. ``The columnist and writers are better at the Herald, and they're more `down home' at the News.''
If one paper excels at one thing, the other will do something else better -- for a time. But there are differences.
Time was when ``the Herald newsroom was just like the play `The Front Page,' '' says Mr. Miller. Legendary copy editors would rewrite stories by inserting livelier ``quotes'' and then answer complaining reporters, ``Well, if he didn't say that, he should have.''
This act has been pretty much cleaned up, but the Herald still puts more emphasis on crime and violence than does the Morning News. Its editorial page is more liberal than the News. Since 1970 the Times Herald has been owned by an outside company, the Times Mirror Corporation of Los Angeles, which owns the Los Angeles Times, the Denver Post, the Hartford (Conn.) Courant, and the Long Island daily, Newsday, as well.
The Morning News, meanwhile, is owned by the A. H. Belo Corporation, the oldest company in Texas. The editorial page is decidedly conservative; in fact, the term ``right to work'' was coined by a Morning News editorial writer.
It was Times Mirror's acquisition of the Herald that has been the catalyst for the newspaper war. ``No doubt about it,'' says Miller.
David McHam, journalism professor at Southern Methodist University, isn't so sure: ``Much of what happened would have happened anyway. If not the Times Mirror, it would have been someone else. They just came at the right time. Oh, boy, did they come at the right time!''
The Herald's Jarrett, unsurprisingly, concurs with Mr. Miller rather than Mr. McHam. In any case, it took a few years after Times Mirror's 1970 purchase of the Herald for existing management contracts to run out, but by the mid-'70s, the ``new'' Herald was initiating some major investigations.
The paper looked into the high numbers of deaths of Mexican-Americans at the hands of the police in Texas. The Herald's coverage led to the sentencing of a town marshal to life in Fort Leavenworth federal penitentiary, says Mr. Jarrett. ``We got the attention of lawmen in the state of Texas'' that they couldn't treat people like that ``without answering at least to the Times Herald.''
Mr. Jarrett maintains, ``Times Mirror has wrought a more meaningful and positive change in Dallas than the hometown company. Texans were not into introspection; Times Mirror has forced Dallas and Texas to be more introspective.. . . That has brought the other paper into 20th century.''
Indeed, the Morning News has similarly upgraded its staff and generally beefed up its quality in response to the competition. And ironically, it has been the Morning News that has edged ahead of its rival in terms of both circulation and advertising.
``The Morning News is thicker with ads,'' says D's Mr. Miller. ``There's potential for `tipping over.' '' By this he means potential for the News to develop an advertising lead so strong that the Herald would cease to have much of an advertising base. He notes, though, that ``the Herald has chipped away'' at the Morning News stronghold, ads like those for the Galleria shopping center.
The Morning News has had a firm hold on the upscale readers, says its editor, Burl Osborne, and with its upscale demographics has done very nicely indeed in attracting the top-of-the-line retail advertising. He identifies ``a need to strengthen ourselves among the less affluent,'' however, ``those for whom our service is even more important.''
He characterizes Morning News readers as tending to be ``better educated, more mobile, more managerial.''
But the Herald's Mr. Jarrett characterizes its readers as ``younger, more progressive. . .more receptive to change -- they're the `new Dallas'; [Morning News] readers are `old Dallas.' ''
And the Herald is not ready to concede yet. ``We have an overall circulation lead in Dallas County; they're ahead daily, we're ahead Sunday. In close, it's a dogfight.'' Interestingly, there's is an overlapping readership of about 20 percent between the two papers.
An important development has been the Herald's decision, starting in 1977, to expand from afternoon-only to all-day publication, with morning as well as evening editions.
It's ``the best decision we've ever made,'' says Mr. Jarrett, noting the national downward trend of afternoon papers, victims of competition with TV news and other factors. ``About half of our circulation is in the morning -- but we have a substantial afternoon base.''
Mr. Osborne disparages the Times Herald's move to morning publication as neglect of what he calls ``the afternoon franchise.''
``He just wants to see us wither and die,'' counters an official at the Herald, privately.
That fate is not expected for either paper any time soon. Professor McHam is bullish on Dallas both as a media town and as a booming economy. The health of the two papers in Dallas is a comment on both. Yes, he concedes, Dallas could be in trouble with its two papers if the economy here slows down.
``Except,'' he says, ``it's not going to slow down here.''