One of the cardinal rules of retailing is that stores need to keep their shelves stocked. If a store doesn’t have anything for customers to buy, they won’t come in. That’s when you can tell a retailer is having financial trouble. They can’t afford to buy merchandise, and the shelves are empty.

Which, more than anything, shows just how desperate A.H. Belo, the owner of Dallas’ Only Newspaper, is. Everything Belo has done over the past nine months to cut costs in the face of the recession and the collapse of the newspaper business has more or less made sense. They might not have been the smartest moves in the world – Briefing, for one – but they could be justified. And some, like raising the single copy cost to $1, make a lot of sense. The News doesn’t want a lot of circulation any more; it wants quality circulation, and anyone who pays $1 shows they really want the paper. This will make advertisers happy.

That’s not the case with the decision to stop covering the Rangers, part of an agreement with the Star-Telegram. The latter will cover the baseball team and the News will cover the Mavericks and the Stars. Each will run the others’ stories, which will allow each paper to eliminate a chunk of cost in employees and travel expenses. But The News is emptying the shelves, and that’s worse than almost any amount of money the paper can save.
The News bosses say these are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary measures, and that’s certainly true. They point to previous agreements with the Fort Worth paper to share some features coverage and distribution duties. But neither of those are at the core of what The News does.

(Let’s get the full disclosure disclaimers out of the way: I write the wine column for the Star-Telegram, which I’m told is eligible to run in The News under the features coverage agreement. I also own 100 shares of Belo stock.)

But the sports decision is different and more far-reaching. It’s one thing to run a Star-Telegram review of a play in Tarrant County in The News. How many News readers are going to drive to Fort Worth to watch a play? On the other hand, quite a few people in Dallas County drive to Arlington to watch the Rangers. Talk about alienating your audience – your favorite sport is so unimportant that we’re not even going to bother to staff it. And don’t you think the bosses at The News are already flinching? They missed one of the biggest Rangers stories in years this week, when a national TV reporter broke the news that the Rangers’ star player wanted to be traded.

My feeling is that The News’ bosses know all this, but just don’t want to admit it. If they truly believed this style of cost cutting was the way to go, they’d have agreed to share Cowboys’ coverage with the Star-Telegram. Which they didn’t. When they cut back on the Cowboys, as I’ve written, then you know times are tough at Young and Houston.

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