“What we saw was an almost overnight change in attitude and responsiveness and in assertiveness, and to this day, the bell has never gone off when our group did not respond with all the engines.”
Excerpt from chapter 25 of Burl: Journalism Giant and Medical Trailblazer. Used with permission from author Jane Wolfe.
In this excerpt, Burl Osborne had been at The Dallas Morning News a little over six months when the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan occurred on March 30, 1981. Moments after he learned of the assassination attempt, Osborne called Robert Decherd, the executive vice president of The Dallas Morning News, to say he wanted to put out an extra edition of the paper. Decherd didn’t hesitate. Osborne hurriedly gathered the paper’s circulation, production, marketing, and newsroom managers to discuss not whether but rather how quickly it could be done.
In an announcement about Burl’s taking the job as the executive editor “of that large Dallas newspaper” printed in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph in early January 1981, Stubby Currence wrote: “Buckskin came to Bluefield as a young fellow to work for the AP and his rise up the ladder was fast. That was certainly no surprise to us because it has been my opinion that no national news service that circulates in this state has ever had a better reporter in West Virginia than Burl Osborne. I doubt if any person ever went higher in a shorter time with the world’s largest news gathering agency than Burl Osborne. And we’ll brag a bit—we told you so, often.”
The Morning News projects reporter Howard Swindle, who was there when Burl arrived, said, “Burl established a presence in the newsroom that quite frankly scared the hell out of a lot of complacent journalists, and he let it be known very quickly that an average job was an unacceptable job, and we must perform to the best of our abilities. This was a very critical point in the turnaround of the paper.”
Mong likewise recalled, “He was ultra-competitive and very demanding. Some people, behind his back, called him ‘The Little General.’ He would say, ‘We are going to win more than we’re going to lose. We’re going to out-think and out-smart the competition.’ And he was so smart to do this. He got great work out of people. I was so determined to do well that I was working about seventy hours a week. Burl noticed this and came to me and said, ‘This isn’t sustainable. You’ve got to get more rest.’ So, I cut it down to about sixty hours a week.”
A detail guy, Burl also had some very particular new rules about seemingly insignificant issues. Within his first few months on the paper, for example, he instituted a policy of referring to individuals in stories as Mr. or Mrs. as opposed to using their surname only, much in the same way the New York Times does. When asked why, he said, “It’s polite.”
Burl also issued an edict about the word “posh.” Iconoclastic reporters had used posh in a derisive way to describe homes, restaurants, and even a prison camp. “Don’t call a house posh,” Burl said. “Tell us how much it’s valued for on the tax rolls. Give us a few words of description.” He didn’t like the word and wanted never to see it in The Morning News.
Decherd and the senior executives were stalwart supporters of Burl’s every move in his first months at The News. The support was invaluable as Burl disrupted what he considered a paternalistic and complacent status quo at the newspaper.
I detected that there was a degree of lethargy. And so it seemed important to us to change it. I’m a change agent, and some people were displaced. An extraordinary number of people had the ability to get with it and excel. There were not many people who couldn’t cut it. We found jewels hidden in unlikely places throughout the company, and we tried to identify those people and give them visibility and give them a chance. Many of them blossomed.
There were terrible disparities and omissions in pay. A lot of the News Department salaries were not competitive, and—worse—they were not equitable. A copy editor in this department with five years gets this and the same level over here gets something else. So, one of the first things we tried to do was to equalize or make equitable the pay scales, which you could only do by increasing at one side; we didn’t cut anybody’s pay. And secondly, raising the “jump-bar”—the performance expectation—big time. And I guess the day everybody figured it out, finally, was in the spring of 1981.
On March 30, 1981, at 2:27 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (which was an hour earlier in Dallas), John Hinkley Jr. fired bullets at President Ronald Reagan as he left the Washington Hilton Hotel. Hinkley, happened to be a former resident of Highland Park, an affluent town surrounded by the city of Dallas, giving the story a local angle.
That day’s edition had already been printed, but Burl pounced on the Reagan story. He knew the paper had run comprehensive coverage of the Kennedy assassination the day after it happened, complete with first-person accounts from reporters on the scene and in the president’s motorcade, but it had failed to run an extra edition on the day of the assassination. That hung like an albatross around the newspaper’s neck. Other papers—from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the Washington Post—had managed to print extra editions without the hometown advantage enjoyed by The Morning News.
Moments after he learned of the assassination attempt, Burl called Decherd to say he wanted to put out an extra edition of the paper. Decherd didn’t hesitate. “I just said, ‘Let’s go!’”
There was only one problem. No one at the paper could remember how to do it.
The last time an extra edition of The News had been printed was on election day, August 31, 1948, because of the tight race for the U.S. Senate between Lyndon B. Johnson and Coke Stevenson. The latter led the race by seventy-eight votes shortly after 6:00 p.m., when the edition went to press; the former later emerged the winner by eighty-seven votes.
With the advent of first radio, then television, extras had become rare in America. Staffers had no idea what it entailed. Were there enough reporters on deck to write the stories? Were pressmen still in the building to print it? How and where would it be distributed? But Burl didn’t care how unusual it was, or how difficult the logistics. He hurriedly gathered the paper’s circulation, production, marketing, and newsroom managers to discuss not if but rather how quickly it could be done.
The newsroom filled with nervous laughter as reporters and editors, hearing that an extra might be in the works, whispered among themselves: “He can’t be serious, can he?” “Does he think he’s still at the AP?”
Yet, by 3:00 p.m. Dallas time—a mere ninety-three minutes after the bullets were fired in Washington—reporters and editors had cobbled together a bold, twenty-four-page extra edition that included staff-written stories, wire service dispatches, and compelling photographs. It was an up-to-the-minute report on the day’s extraordinary events. “President Shot,” read the 120-point-type headline.
Before 4:00 p.m. in Dallas, The News had printed 27,500 copies of the extra edition and had resorted to giving them away at the entrance to the Dallas North Tollway and distributing them in downtown Dallas, at convenience stores, in hotels and motels, and in newspaper racks. And, yes, at some of the outdoor locations, the people distributing the papers did call out, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”
Jane Wolfe is the author of two previous best-selling biographies, The Murchisons: The Rise and Fall of a Texas Dynasty (St. Martin’s Press) and Blood Rich: When Oil Billions, High Fashion, and Royal Intimacies Are Not Enough (Little, Brown & Co.). She is also a freelance writer for several publications, including the New York Times and Town & Country magazine. She lived in Dallas nearly forty years, but now resides in Columbus, Ohio, where her family for more than a century owned The Columbus Dispatch.