Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Belo B-Ball Buy Sparks Controversy in Dallas

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Belo B-Ball Buy Sparks Controversy in Dallas

Article excerpt

When Dallas-based Belo, parent of The Dallas Morning News, bought a $24- million minority stake in the Dallas Mavericks basketball franchise and a planned sports arena, some reporters complained of an appearance of a conflict of interest.

The grumblings became public when a message posted by three reporters on the News' internal electronic message board was leaked to the alterna-

tive Dallas Observer, which printed it. News executive editor Gilbert Bailon scolded the reporters for airing their grievances in such a format and maintained that the deal won't affect coverage.

"Ownership does make covering the arena more tricky, but fair coverage is very possible," Bailon writes on the same message board, noting that the guidelines for covering the arena remain the same as for any story.

Belo chairman Robert W. Decherd told the News that the deal is purely a business decision and a way to position the company to get access to sports programming. Other stations have contracts for the Mavericks' broadcast rights, but it's possible Belo could get programming for its TV stations in the future.

In dollar terms, the $24-million investment is small potatoes for Belo, which earned $233 million from operations in 1998 on revenues of $1.4 billion. In addition to the News, the company owns The Providence (R.I.) Journal and six other dailies, as well as 17 network-affiliated TV stations.

Executives at Hillwood Development Corp., which is chaired by Ross Perot Jr. and is the majority owner of the Mavericks, say the Belo deal is a typical example of corporate ownership of sports teams. "The whole sports business is revolving more and more around what's going on in the media," Hillwood CEO Rick Patterson says. "These are big professional organizations, and they do this all the time."

Patterson says he expects Belo will help the team set a long-term strategy, nothing more. "You have a fiduciary responsibility not to have a conflict of interest."

Others bristle at the suggestion that the paper's integrity is compromised. "What Belo Corp. does really has no effect on what we as news reporters do," says Dave Smith, executive sports editor. "We're going to cover the Mavericks the same way we always have."

Naysayers contend the deal is especially disturbing in light of what they allege is the News' poor track record in covering certain high-profile issues. …

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