An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; . . . and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
That well-known passage from one of Emerson's most widely quoted works, from 1841, could have been written about Belo Corp., which got underway only a year after Emerson wrote his essay. In today's volatile media world, with announcements almost weekly about one or another of the media giants selling off properties or splitting into several companies, or even selling out completely, the timing is good to examine the history of a company that has endured for more than 160 years.
Even as this book goes to press, the description of that company must be revised to acknowledge a transition that was announced at 7:00 a.m. on Monday, October 1, 2007. In a story published on the front of the Business section of the Dallas Morning News on October 2, the staff writer Terry Maxon reports that "Belo Corp. officials surprised Wall Street Monday with a bold strategy aimed at bolstering the company’s lagging stock price by splitting the company." The large headline proclaims, "Wall Street applauds Belo’s split." The headline in the New York Times the same day read "Belo Corp. to split its newspapers off from its TV business."
Addressing the turmoil in the media business in 2006, Belo's chairman, chief executive officer, and president, Robert W. Decherd, had told Wall Street analysts, "We are in the midst of transforming Belo's businesses to compete effectively in what is becoming an increasingly Internet-centric marketplace. . . . We are determined to remain the content provider of choice in our local markets and are confident that we have the assets and management talent to succeed.1
Even as Belo Corp. continues what he described as an "enterprise-wide transformation process," both of the new entities still bear the name of one of its earliest leaders, Alfred H. Belo, who died more than a hundred years ago, in 1901. His successor in ownership and in leading the company, George Bannerman Dealey, built on Belo's solid foundations, adding his own considerable strengths, as well as a succession of descendants who still lead the company today.
This book is about the vital institutions that bear the Belo name and the culture and leadership over time, so it is also about G. B. Dealey and his descendants. The story unfolds through the consistency of purpose of all of the company's leaders who have sustained the institution, which of necessity evolves and continues to invent itself every day, in step with the fierce rhythm of events, technological advances, and the interests of its audiences and shareholders.
The main body of this manuscript was declared complete on an auspicious day in 2006, in order not to have to continue updating on a near daily basis, as the entire media industry grapples with its transformation. That special day was October 1, the 122nd anniversary of the first day of publication of the Dallas Morning News. Then one year later, of course, the change in the structure of the institution required some revision.
The new structure encompasses two individual publicly owned companies: Belo Corp., which owns twenty television stations and seven cable channels, and A. H. Belo Corporation, which owns four metropolitan daily newspapers. Altogether, the television and cable properties, along with the newspapers, own and operate more than thirty Web sites.
Belo Corp. is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and its influence is felt in cities across the breadth of the United States. When the division is complete, A. H. Belo Corporation will also be a public company, with approximately one-half the annual revenue and half of the employees, but with no debt. But the combined companies are also the modern manifestation of a Texas legend: they are the oldest business institutions in Texas, and among only a few companies in the United States to have the fourth generation of the same family working in the business.
In some ways Belo has continued to operate like a private company serving its readers and advertisers; however, it has had to deal with the intense pressures of the public marketplace in terms of Wall Street's and shareholders' expectations for revenue growth and price per share.
The four daily papers have received a combined thirteen Pulitzer Prizes, the most recent one awarded to the Dallas Morning News in 2006 for its photographic coverage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In 2005, the News's Web site DallasNews.com was awarded the Scripps Howard Foundation National Award for Web Reporting. And the television stations have twenty-one Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Silver Baton Awards, including one given to WWL-TV in New Orleans in 2006 for its incomparable coverage of the 2005 hurricane and the aftermath. In the 2006 national Edward R. Murrow Awards competition, Belo stations won five awards, more than any other station group in the country. And even more awards have been announced since I concluded this study.
Writing a book on the history of Belo Corp. was the natural culmination of my twenty-six years of gathering information about the company, interviewing countless former and current employees and former and current competitors, and organizing the company history materials into what came to be called the Belo Archives.
I have used the primary sources in the archives and various other libraries, conducted more interviews with more key individuals, and tracked the outside perceptions of the corporation over its history through reports in other publications.
I have attempted to write the true story of the company's development over time in a straightforward way, addressing a reader who is curious about the company and its mystique and not interested in company hyperbole or revisionist history. However, I readily admit that attempting to tell the true story is the best I can do, because the real stories behind the stories are rarely recorded, even if all those involved could agree on a single version; and even then, what is recorded is often told aslant, as Emily Dickinson poetically advised those attempting truth.
My first few years at Belo were spent at the Dallas Morning News, which began a major modernizing process about the time I arrived, in early 1980. Executive leadership changes on January 1, 1980, were followed by new, and in many cases, much younger department heads taking over from longtime managers. Retirements were announced every day, it seemed. The combination of excitement and fear that always accompanies change led to managers scrambling to clean out the accumulated clutter, dusting off the filing cabinets, and generally updating operations throughout the newspaper.
I had been hired as a consultant to the Dallas Morning News to assist in its early efforts to develop young readers by introducing newspapers into the classrooms of area schools. My first few months were spent trying to learn everything there was to know about the company, its history, and how the newspaper was put together every day, so that I could be a credible representative. With the support of management, I set about talking to people throughout the company—from the pressroom to the executive suite and every place in between.
Loving a good story, and hearing plenty of them in my visits around the building, I soon discovered that not only is a newspaper a daily miracle, but the operation of a media company is a microcosm of the human experience. From the lofty heights of the editorial suite where the philosophers argue daily, to the glamorous trappings of a television news studio, and the deafening noise of the manufacturing plant known as the pressroom, I found the most interesting mix of people that anyone could hope to meet.
Everyone I met, from the writers and producers to the salespeople to the cleanup crews, seemed to feel that their jobs held special meaning, that they were serving a useful purpose in society and generally serving the public good. Many of them had been at the company for years and never considered working anywhere else.
I was hired as a full-time employee of the News in January 1981 and continued to document and write about the history of the company, along with other responsibilities. I moved to the corporate ranks in 1986, as Belo's first public affairs manager. Throughout my tenure, the company's executives supported my efforts to assemble an archive, including the minutes of stockholder and director meetings from the days of private ownership, almost eighty years of internal departmental reports, and the private papers of a succession of leaders. I have cleaned out the closets, quite literally, and collected information about the company and its leadership from countless sources, internal and external.
I retired from my full-time duties at Belo at the end of 2004, in order to focus on writing the history I have come to know through the people of Belo. The story of Belo is a great and complex one, and I have tried to do justice to it and to the people who have lived it.
Belo began operations as the Daily News in 1842 in Galveston, Texas. The origins and early days were documented in two authoritative books by authors who knew many of the company's early leaders. The more comprehensive of the two books was written by Sam Acheson, who was a Texas historian and editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News. It was published in 1938. The other, a biography of George Bannerman Dealey, who established the Dallas Morning News in 1885 at the behest of Alfred Horatio Belo, was written by Ernest Sharpe, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and it was published in 1955. While much has changed over the years, some things have remained constant.
This book will recount the main story from its beginnings and then bring the story up to date, connecting the dots that form the big picture of a company formed in the Republic of Texas that survived both the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the first technology revolution of the twentieth century. Like every other media company in the twenty-first century, Belo continues its transformation within the electronic revolution, and, as with all revolutions, the outcome is far from clear.