By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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Grueskin's comments are echoed by executive features editor Steve Sonsky, who left Miami last week for a senior management position at TV Guide, a move he says was unrelated to the Herald's current problems. "Obviously the work force here is smaller than it was," says Sonsky. "Am I happy about that? No, I'm not. But I think there is in the newsroom right now an exaggerated panic. I think people are not keeping in perspective that the Don Van Nattas of the world have always left the Herald for the New York Times."
Few would disagree with that comment. "Certainly it is a credit to the newspaper when its writers are recruited by the New York Times and the Washington Post," says Beth Kaiser, the photographer who now works for the Associated Press in Chicago. "But it would be even more of a credit to the newspaper if not quite as many people left."
Television critic Hal Boedeker had been with the Herald for eleven years when he jumped to the Orlando Sentinel, a smaller newspaper with far less national stature. "I got a better offer," he explains simply, adding that his duties at the Sentinel are "much better defined." Though Boedeker speaks about the subject only reluctantly, he acknowledges that his decision was based in part on his concerns about the future of the Herald. "I loved that institution," he says. "It helped in my maturity as a journalist. But it really seems a lot is going wrong right now. They are losing a lot of talented people. Many of them left because they got better offers, but a lot of people left because of what is happening there. And a lot of other people have their resumes out right now, trying to get off the paper.
"There is this turmoil inside the newsroom that is undeniable," Boedeker continues. "I just hope management can put the brakes on it. It would be the best thing for the company, for the employees, and for the readers. The problem is, I don't know if the managers understand there is this turmoil or if they just don't care."
Current and former staffers complain that Herald executives too glibly assume that the paper's afflictions are simply part of an industry-wide problem, or a mere cycle in the natural ebb and flow of reporters and editors in a transient business. This crisis, they argue, is uniquely specific to Miami. That so many of them would speak candidly to a rival publication, they say, is an indication of the seriousness of the situation. Says one current editor: "A lot of people want for our bosses to read this. We want them to understand just how concerned we are."
Scott Higham was with the Herald for four years before moving on to the Baltimore Sun in early 1994. Based in the Broward office, his reporting and writing skills earned him recognition as a Pulitzer finalist for his coverage of the murder of Bobby Kent, who was beaten to death by his teenage friends. "I had a great time at the Herald," Higham says. "I left because I felt there wasn't much opportunity for me there. I had kind of reached a dead end. Plus I had reservations about the future of the paper." Higham worried over the Herald's inability to increase circulation in Broward County, but that was insignificant compared to its apparent trajectory: from a paper with national and international ambitions to something more closely resembling a small, hometown daily. "They've cut off the paths for a lot of reporters who would probably be willing to stay if there was some place for them to go inside the newspaper," Higham asserts. "The Herald used to be a bigger paper than it is today, and it can't sustain the types of jobs it used to have. I still think it's a kickass newspaper, but I think it hurts itself by losing too many people. The Herald is too quick to let people leave."
Late last year Herald executives told Mike Wilson, a twelve-year employee, they were going to transfer him from Tropic magazine to a beat on the city desk. Although his assignment to Tropic over the previous three years had always been seen as temporary, the change was prompted solely by financial considerations, rising newsprint costs being the demon culprit. Tropic would be dropping from four full-time writers to three, and he held the least seniority.
"Once that happened, I had to decide what to do professionally," Wilson recalls. Instead of being reassigned, he chose to leave this past January for a job at the St. Petersburg Times, where he now covers religion and ethics. "The Herald is operating in an industry struggling to get readers back, and they are experimenting," he notes. "Some of the experiments are working badly. To me, when you cut people, you cut quality. You can never prove to me that cutting a staff writer from Tropic improves the quality of Tropic. And it is the reader who ultimately will suffer."
Wilson's former boss, Tropic executive editor Tom Shroder, acknowledges the painful consequences of such cuts. "Obviously when you go down from four writers to three, that is going to have an effect," he says. "The business is changing and certainly the pressure is to be more efficient and productive with fewer bodies. This is a tough time for the newspaper business, and this is a particularly tough time for the Herald. We'll just have to work harder to maintain the quality we want for the magazine."