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.

The Herald's dwindling presence north of Broward prompted Judy Plunkett Evans to jump ship earlier this year. She has since signed on with the Daily Business Review, a respected weekday newspaper covering legal and commercial affairs. Back in the Eighties, the Herald launched a significant expansion campaign in Palm Beach County, but the effort never took root, and staffing levels at the northern bureau were steadily reduced. By the beginning of 1994, the office had been trimmed to three reporters, a photographer, and a part-time clerk. "They were lying to their readers by saying they were putting out a Palm Beach edition," says Plunkett Evans, who was among those stationed in Palm Beach. "I always felt either you do it and you make the commitment, or you don't."

Late last year Herald managers decided to abandon the pretense; they slashed the Palm Beach bureau to just a single reporter. Plunkett Evans, who had been at the paper three years, was told she was being transferred to the North Dade "Neighbors" office, a position normally occupied by fledgling reporters. Rather than acquiesce, she quit, largely because her husband is a teacher in Stuart and the couple didn't want to move to Dade. "I think people at the Herald have a bad taste in their mouths about the direction the paper is taking," she says. "They've lost respect for the people they work for after seeing the way others have been treated. There are a lot of people who have been treated very badly."

Perhaps the strongest expression of that sentiment was provoked late last year, when Curtis Morgan and Patty Shillington, highly regarded feature writers based in Broward, were informed that their positions were being eliminated. Morgan, who had been with the Herald for eight years, was made a copy editor, a job not designed to take full advantage of his reporting and writing talents. Shillington, with fourteen years' experience, was told she was now a business writer. (Both were transferred to fill vacancies in lieu of hiring new employees.)

The abrupt and unexpected moves shocked the writers' associates to such a degree that a petition of protest was circulated and signed by nearly the entire Broward editorial office. "We are writing to protest the treatment of two of our colleagues, Patty Shillington and Curtis Morgan," the petition began. "Both Patty and Curtis have years of excellent service to the Miami Herald. They are talented and loyal employees who deserve respect and consideration. Apparently at this newspaper, length and quality of service have no bearing on how employees are treated. On top of losing their jobs they have been offered positions not in line with their career paths. The handling of this situation has affected the morale of everyone in this office. What incentive is there to do good work when that seems to be irrelevant to job security?"

The petition had little effect, though Herald editors reportedly hope to find a slot for Morgan that won't waste his writing skills. "What was so scary to many of us was that they didn't seem to care that these moves impoverished the 'Living' section," says one staffer. "They don't care that it hurts the readers." Adds another: "They now expect loyalty from people they have no loyalty to. It makes me very sad. We all want this paper to be something that it was A and apparently never will be again."

The recent departure of Susan Olds, assistant managing editor for news, has also contributed to rising staff anxiety. An accomplished journalist brought to Miami six years ago after working at the New York Post and Newsday, Olds arrived with a mandate: Re-energize the Herald. "She came in with guts and attitude and a journalist's heart, and this paper beat the life out of her," says one mature Herald writer. "She was exactly what this newspaper needed because she took chances."

Last fall executive editor Doug Clifton announced that her position, along with those of two other assistant managing editors, was being eliminated in order save money. Clifton posted a notice explaining that the three would continue to earn their regular salaries for the next year, but they would be transferred and their responsibilities reassigned.

It was a thoroughly embarrassing moment for all three editors. Olds in particular couldn't believe what had happened, and she told Clifton the decision didn't make sense. Why force them to scramble for some sort of job within the newspaper? They were going to be paid the same amount regardless, so why not show them some respect and allow them to continue at their jobs with the understanding that they had one year to search for new employment if they decided to leave the Herald?

Clifton agreed. He issued a new memorandum announcing that Olds and Sue Reisinger had been reinstated. "Sometimes, the more you think about a thing the more complicated it gets," he wrote. "Other times it's the other way around. This time it was both, first complicated, then simple." He went on to add, "It's obvious now that we could have done this whole thing better from the start." (Steve Rice, the third assistant managing editor, responsible for photography and graphics, had already transferred to a

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