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.

"An aside: I sense our newsroom people aren't listening or aren't being told enough about our situation A our challenges, the difficulty of our choices and our plans to address our future. Are we too concerned that they won't like what we have to tell them? My sense is that they are as ready as the rest of us to answer the question Dave [Lawrence] recently put forth: 'What do we want to be when we grow up?' Those in Broward are eager to know, 'What do we want to be in Broward when we grow up?' All of us are eager for a vision of our future."

That memo to Miami Herald publisher Dave Lawrence and general manager Joe Natoli was written three weeks ago by Chris Mobley, the associate publisher who heads Herald operations in Broward County. Mobley went on to critique the paper's recent efforts to define itself. He called on Lawrence and Natoli, along with Clifton "and perhaps [editorial page editor] Jim Hampton," to be more assertive in articulating the paper's future: "This is not the time for timidity or obfuscation. It is a time to be bold and clear."

In a recent interview, Mobley attempted to downplay the problems besetting the Herald. "People come and go all the time," he said dismissively from his car phone, adding that while a few employees might be unhappy at the moment, the situation was not at a crisis point. When asked to elaborate on his May 16 memorandum, Mobley reacted with anger. "That communication was private," he snapped. Pausing for a moment, he then intimated that the memo might have been a forgery. "I'm not going to comment on whether I wrote that or if I didn't write that. There are people inside the newspaper who would be willing to create false communications to embarrass me," he candidly asserted. (Dave Lawrence later confirmed that Mobley indeed had written the message.)

But was his essential analysis true? Were Herald newsroom employees demoralized? "I have no comment on that," Mobley replied. And what about his comments regarding the Herald's quest for vision? Does he in fact believe the paper lacks a clear sense of purpose and mission? "I have no response to that question," he answered. "The vision of our newspaper is not something I should discuss for publication."

Whether the Miami Herald's editorial vision is a private concern or a public manifesto matters little to some observers who follow the paper closely and have formed their own opinions about its direction. "The Herald is striving for an explicit compatibility with its readers," says Kevin Hall, a former editor of Tropic magazine who now directs the Journalism Writing Project at Florida International University. "It's trying to hard to be its own readers. They see that they are losing circulation, and what they do is a bunch of market surveys. And whatever the survey tells them, they do that because it's safe to do what your surveys say you should do. All of this has been driven by a desire to be 'user friendly.' A lot of people reading the Herald feel condescended to.

"The Herald has developed a great sensitivity, even a skittishness, about offending local leaders," Hall continues. "It's hard to even find a news picture on the front of the local page any more. There is just this steady stream of pictures of kids smiling or Smurfs on parade or something else like it. That has to be a conscious decision."

December 31, 1988 is a date frequently cited by those who believe the Herald has undergone a perceptible change in editorial direction. That was the day Knight-Ridder and Cox Newspapers shut down the venerable Miami News under an agreement by which both companies continue to share in the profits of the Herald's unfettered access to advertisers. "I don't think the Herald is as good as it was when the Miami News was around," says Mort Lucoff, a former reporter and columnist with the News who now works as communications director for the Dade County courthouse. "When competition goes, some of the edge is taken off. I don't think they drive as hard and as aggressively as they used to."

John McMullan, the Herald's highly respected former executive editor who retired in 1983, says the Herald's coverage of events clearly lost that "edge" after the News was killed. "I think every newspaper should have competition," he says. "It makes life more interesting for the people on the newspaper and it makes life more interesting and better for the people in the community."

Interviews with numerous Herald employees indicate widespread agreement with those statements, even if they are not expressed publicly. "This used to be one of the great crusading newspapers," says a long-time Herald staffer, "and what has happened has been the complete dumbing down of this newspaper."

"All of this is an indication of the problem here," laments another reporter. "We've lost sight of what a newspaper should be.

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