By Ryan Yousefi
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In late August the news staff of El Nuevo Herald filled out an employee survey, conducted every three years by Knight-Ridder, Inc., at each of its 29 dailies. The poll is designed to measure employee satisfaction and to seek solutions to problems. Results gathered from El Nuevo's news staff of more than 90 people were presented at a September 22 staff meeting. Top brass apparently thought better of putting anything in writing for distribution (and possible leakage) and instead opted for fleeting glimpses on a projection screen. The numbers as reported by several staffers: low on satisfaction and high on problems, in particular with editor Carlos Verdecia.
Verdecia initially agreed to verify those figures but then changed his mind. "I've been reflecting on this question of numbers," he said, "and I've decided that I'm not going to confirm [the survey results] because this is not a question of numbers. This is about a company trying to measure employees' feelings about it and to make things better." To that end a series of departmental meetings began the following week, led by Verdecia and Miami Herald publisher Dave Lawrence. Among the major gripes: low pay and alleged favoritism.
Although the Herald uses a list of job descriptions and wage scales to calculate employee salaries, El Nuevo does not. The result, say El Nuevo sources, is that many of them receive pay substantially lower than that of their Herald counterparts.
Favoritism by management is obviously harder to prove, but Verdecia says he is determined to address what he calls a perceived problem. "If you ask me if I have practiced favoritism, I would say absolutely not," he asserts. "If you ask me if there is a perception of favoritism among some of the staff, I would say yeah, sure. And we are going to work very hard to change that perception through better communication."
An example of that improved communication was provided this past Wednesday during another meeting of the news staff -- by none other than Dave Lawrence himself. Three sources at the gathering independently confirm that Lawrence announced to the crowd that New Times had been calling Verdecia regarding the survey. "As you know, New Times wants to destroy this paper," the publisher reportedly warned, "and we're just not going to allow that to happen."
In an interview the following day, Lawrence gruffly denied making the comment. "If you're in the journalism business," he intoned without irony, "you should know that just because two people tell you I said it doesn't mean I did."
Lawrence's contention that you can't believe what El Nuevo staffers say raises some interesting questions. Among them: Can you believe what they write? A September 20 article appearing in both El Nuevo and the Herald offers a clue.
The Herald's version of the story appeared in the left-hand column of the paper's front page. Written by Herald reporters Christopher Marquis and Alfonso Chardy, it described the Cuban American National Foundation's loss of influence at the White House. The headline accurately captured the story's essence: "Foundation Loses Clout in Washington." Marquis and Chardy wrote: "Today, eight months into the Democratic administration of President Clinton, and amid deepening turmoil in Cuba, the Foundation has lost its breezy access in Washington."
As often happens with Herald articles concerning Miami's Cuban community, the story was published that same day in El Nuevo. The headline, however, lost something in translation. Bannered across the top of El Nuevo's front page was this: "Clinton mantiene relaci centsn cordial con la Fundaci centsn" ("Clinton maintains cordial relations with the Foundation").
The paper's headline writer, digging frantically for a pro-Foundation nugget, didn't hit pay dirt until the eighteenth paragraph, following a section about presidential slights endured by Foundation chairman Jorge Mas Canosa. "Nevertheless," began the precious passage, "Clinton maintains cordial relations with the Foundation." Eureka!
Knight-Ridder has won plaudits nationwide for hiring practices that emphasize opportunities for women and racial minorities. But that hasn't immunized the company from lawsuits, as witnessed by two former employees whose discrimination suits -- after two years of waiting and maneuvering -- are scheduled for trial next month.
Charles Greggs had worked in the Herald mailroom for sixteen years when, in the fall of 1989, he applied for a supervisory position. Another mailroom employee was promoted instead, and Greggs was convinced he'd been passed over because he is black. In November 1989, he filed a charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Three months later, according to court records, the mailroom manager fired Greggs for "gross misconduct." The motivating incident was a confrontation with a female co-worker, in which Greggs allegedly threatened and grabbed her. (She later testified he neither touched nor threatened her.)
Though the mailroom manager and other mailroom supervisors deny the firing was prompted by Greggs's complaint to the EEOC, the commission concluded otherwise, and in October 1991 it filed suit in federal court against Knight-Ridder, claiming Greggs's termination was an act of retaliation.
Paul Isenbergh was 60 years old when Knight-Ridder Newspaper Sales, a corporate advertising sales group, was merged with another ad organization, Newspapers First. At that time, 1990, Isenbergh had been a vice president and Miami branch manager of Knight-Ridder Newspaper Sales. He had worked for the corporation for 33 years. After the merger, however, he learned he was being replaced as the Miami branch manager by a 44-year-old man. Isenbergh's attorney claims company executives determined that the younger man had more "long-term potential."
Isenbergh filed an age-discrimination complaint with the EEOC in early 1991 and several months later took his case to federal court. His attorney, William R. Amlong, says Knight-Ridder never offered him the chance to apply for another sales management job within the corporation at similar pay, in accordance with Knight-Ridder policy. Instead he was offered a position under the supervision of the man who replaced him, suffering an earnings loss of some 30 percent in the process. Worried that he would lose his health benefits (he suffers from congestive heart failure), Isenbergh took early retirement.
"What I love about Knight-Ridder," says attorney Amlong, himself a Herald reporter for eighteen years, "is we have this unbelievable feigned sincerity with all these humanitarian awards, but when you work there and you get old, they throw you on the trash heap."
It's not every day that Herald executive editor Doug Clifton meets with the entire Broward editorial team. So when Clifton visited the Hollywood bureau to announce a personnel change in August, staffers pelted him with questions aimed at making the northern edition more competitive with the hometown daily, the Sun-Sentinel. For more than an hour they discussed possible improvements, from installing new equipment to adding staff. But when the discussion turned to marketing the paper, Clifton grew a bit impatient. So impatient, he admits, that he dismissed reporter Scott Higham as "an asshole" for deigning to address the promotion end of the business.
Though Clifton insists he made the comment in jest, word of the verbal spanking spread quickly; Clifton himself knew he was in Dutch before he even made it back to Miami. "I called the office on my car phone, and they told me messages were already buzzing back and forth," recalls the editor, who quickly made amends with Higham and sent out a formal apology to all staffers on the Broward edition's computer newsletter system.
Higham swears the slight was no big deal. "Doug's remark was intended as a joke to break up the debate," the investigative reporter says. "Doug and I have put it behind us. So should everyone else."
But other staffers say one sure reason the comment was received so poorly is the widely held feeling that the Broward staff A who, unlike their Dade brethren, compete with another daily A are treated like second-class citizens by Herald management. "That may be a sentiment in some people," reflects Clifton, who began his career with the Herald in Broward. "But that's a phenomenon wherever you have a satellite office. Some people feel not whole unless they work in the main office."
Good news for Hulkaholics! The major growth industry at the Herald is professional wrestling. Certainly it's been good news for Alex Marvez, the paper's pro-wrestling-beat writer. Marvez, 22 years old, penned his first pro wrestling feature back in 1989. The response was so great he began a biweekly column. Within months the column was running weekly. Now Marvez is the first Herald writer with his very own 900 telephone line dedicated to...you guessed it.
The service is the newest of several caller-paid phone lines the paper has launched in an attempt to tap the lucrative 900 market. "There was a market for information we couldn't provide in the column," notes executive sports editor Paul Anger. "Some people's appetite for wrestling news is virtually insatiable."
That's fortunate for Marvez, an industrious reporter who started with the Herald as a high school intern. He'll be sharing with the paper proceeds from the line, which costs $2.85 for a three-minute call. Although the phone company will take a bite out of the gross revenue, Marvez expects to pick up a cool couple of hundred bucks extra every month, minimum. (The service received 90 calls the first week alone.) "With my contacts, it only takes me ten minutes of calling to update the line," chirps Marvez, who owns a personal library of 300 wrestling tapes. "But to tell you the truth, I'm not in this for the money. It's a service for wrestling fans."
And just what can fans expect for their three bucks? Here's a sampling from a recent message:
"The biggest news this week comes from the World Wrestling Federation. Intercontinental champion Shawn Michaels has left the promotion for undisclosed reasons. The WWF also has suspended several wrestlers. Matt Borne, who plays Doink the Clown, was suspended from wrestling in live shows for two months, also for undisclosed reasons. Borne will still appear on WWF television tapings. However, Steve Lombardi is taking Borne's place as Doink on live WWF shows.
"The highlight of this week's Monday Night Raw show saw Scott Steiner defeat Pierre of the Quebecers with a Frankensteiner. That victory was supposed to give the Steiners a rematch with the Quebecers for the WWF tag-team title, but with the Steiners' status uncertain, that match may never take place.
"And finally, Jim Cornette has become the new commissioner of Smoky Mountain Wrestling. Cornette brought in Terry Funk to wrestle Bob Armstrong to see who becomes the new SMW commissioner. Funk won the match after hitting Armstrong three times with his branding iron."
"1 Herald Plaza" is open for business and is accepting all tips, rumors, internal memos, confidential documents, et cetera. Anonymity guaranteed! Call the editors or a staff writer at 372-0004. Fax: 372-3446.