The Incredible Shrinking Herald

People are fleeing in record numbers and not being replaced. Morale has hit bottom. News coverage has been severely curtailed. Money is scarce. And the corporate bigshots love it.

Interviews with more than 50 current and former Herald newsroom employees reveal a consensus of opinion, and it is unwaveringly glum. Many say the paper is coasting on the glory of its past reputation, which is not to say there is a dearth of talented people. There are plenty of talented people, they insist, it's simply that the incentive A and the opportunity A to produce good work is rapidly diminishing. "A lot of people come to the Miami Herald thinking it is this Pulitzer Prize-winning paper that does great things all the time, and then when they get here, they realize this is not the paper it was in the Eighties," says Beth Kaiser, a photographer who left the Herald last August after five years. "There is a new management and a new direction."

The newspaper likely will continue to publish one or two major investigative projects each year for which it will receive national recognition, as it will this week when its "Crime and No Punishment" series is honored at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. The annual convention, being held this year in Miami, is a gathering of the nation's top investigative journalists. Playing host to this prestigious group is also likely to prompt the Herald to showcase another in-depth investigation this weekend. But whether its intended purpose is to serve the paper's readers or to impress its guests remains open to debate.

The real question for the Herald, however, concerns the level of quality it hopes to maintain the other 364 days of the year. And that question must be considered in light of a stark, irrefutable fact: The Miami Herald is shrinking. For example, when Terry Neal left the paper's Tallahassee bureau this past November for the Washington Post, his position at the state capital was eliminated. Closer to home, the Herald has been without a television critic since the beginning of the year, since Hal Boedeker left for the Orlando Sentinel. When Rene Rodriguez was named full-time film critic replacing the late Bill Cosford, his former position A arts feature writer A was simply dropped. Religion writer Peggy Landers is leaving later this summer, and her job will likely be kept closed under the current hiring freeze. Other positions have been killed outright from the "Living" section and from Tropic, the Herald's Sunday magazine. The paper also has lost staff in the sports and business sections, and in the photo department.

Specially zoned editions of the Herald (known as "Hometown Herald") in Fort Lauderdale and northern Broward County were scrapped in December. And the once-vaunted Palm Beach bureau is now down to a single reporter. These recent moves A dubbed "retrenching" by Herald executives A have followed other cutbacks over the past several years, including loss of the paper's New York and Atlanta bureaus, as well as the closing of smaller satellite offices around the state, which the Herald once drew on in its efforts to be considered the state's pre-eminent newspaper.

Three assistant managing editors had their positions phased out this year; and Bill Greer, one of the paper's most respected senior editors, left at the end of last year for a job at the Palm Beach Post. Senior managing editor Pete Weitzel, who had accumulated more than 30 years' experience, recently accepted the paper's financial incentives for early retirement.

Shrinkage has also occurred among those reporters assigned to cover local news. For instance, the Herald has had no full-time environmental reporter since Heather Dewar left the paper last year. And Miami city government has operated without the scrutiny of a full-time reporter since the reassignment of Charles Strouse more than a year ago. (The city hall beat has been covered only part-time by "Neighbors" reporter Joanne Cavanaugh.)

One of the most revealing examples of pared-down local coverage, however, was the departure two months ago of the paper's social services reporter, Charisse Grant, who left the Herald to take a job with the Dade Community Foundation. Her reporting position has remained vacant since then. (Medical writer Peggy Rogers fills in during crises, such as the ongoing controversy over the county's plans for dealing with the homeless.) According to many Herald staffers, such an improvised arrangement is wholly inadequate. "To not have a social services reporter in Miami is obscene," mutters one reporter.

Don Van Natta A who along with Jeff Leen wrote the "Crime and No Punishment" series about the county's court system A is leaving his post on the Herald's investigative team this week for a job at the New York Times. Accompanying him to the Times will be his wife, Lizette Alvarez, who only recently was appointed to the paper's high-profile Cuba beat. Those positions will most likely be filled by in-house transfers, thus avoiding the need to hire any additional staff.

City editor Bill Grueskin says he currently has "a handful" of positions unfilled and frozen on the city desk, and "a slightly larger handful in 'Neighbors,'" the Herald's twice-weekly community-news inserts. "Every city editor in the country wants to have as many people as possible," Grueskin says, "but I think we are able to do the job that's expected of the city desk." He does acknowledge, however, that the unrest on his staff has escalated beyond the normal griping of a typically cynical press corps. "Certainly it is different," he admits. "You'd be dishonest or you'd be a fool not to say that."

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