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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Forget the Miami Herald's efforts to whip the Sun-Sentinel on its own turf. That contest involves banal considerations such as market share, pass-along rates, and focus groups. If you're looking for a good old-fashioned newspaper war, full of vituperation, vengeance, and litigation, cast your gaze southward to Coconut Grove. Earlier this year, this hotbed of civic activity had one monthly newspaper, with a staff of two. Now it can boast two monthlies, each with a staff of one. The individuals in question, once allies, are now scrapping like the feral cats that inhabit the neighborhood.
Jack King's Coconut Grover is in its ninth year of publication. The first issue of the Coconut Grove Times, edited and published by Elena V. Carpenter, King's former partner at the Grover, came out last month.
How will Grove residents choose between these two journalistic endeavors? Will they even bother? Is there enough going on in the Grove to warrant two somewhat similar papers -- even if King's remains its pugnacious self and Carpenter's continues its more placid tone? Perhaps more important, are there enough advertising dollars to go around?
Interesting questions, but all are beside the point. The conflict between the Grover and the Times is less a clash of ideologies than a clash of egos; some maintain that the papers themselves are aimed not at target markets but at the owners' cliques. "Elena's paper will appeal to Elena's friends," says long-time Grove resident and Cocoanut Grove Village Council member Glenn Terry. "Jack's appeals to Jack's friends at the Taurus [restaurant]."
Since its inception, King's Coconut Grover has covered the Miami community on a mostly monthly basis. King has reported on local events, and he's also used the paper as a bully pulpit for his own acerbic take on life in the Grove. Frequent targets have included the Coconut Grove Civic Club, the management of the Goombay Festival, and basically anyone else who, for one reason or another, ended up on King's bad side.
King's journalistic approach was working well enough for him to keep publishing, but he realized that greater success would depend on his having a partner to manage the business side. Carpenter, a Miami public relations consultant with elite political and business connections, responded to his search for a sidekick. They formed a corporation called Grove Publishing in August 1995 to produce the newspaper. "The Grover was a little publication that, in my estimation, had a lot of potential that hadn't been tapped," Carpenter remembers.
In exchange for 50 percent ownership of the company, Carpenter paid $1000 up front and was to pay a remaining $24,000 incrementally. Some of her salary, instead of being paid in cash, could go directly toward paying for her stock.
At first it seemed that the deal would work out famously. The energetic Carpenter got the Grover on a strict monthly schedule, organized the office, and began drumming up ad sales. All in all, Grove observers agree, the paper began to look like a more professional publication.
But this marriage of convenience began to unravel after the first few months. According to King, Carpenter tried to influence the editorial content -- which, other than her control of the social pages, went beyond her agreed-upon role. "Elena has -- how should I put this -- always considered herself a political player," King says. "There was a lot of tugging about what stories should run, what stories shouldn't run. People in the community felt [the Grover] was being compromised editorially."
Much of this perception was rooted in Carpenter's involvement with Coconut Grove developer Bruno Carnesella, with whom she's had a relationship for seven years. In one instance, King says, he wrote an article critical of Carnesella and his partners for not going ahead with a planned development that King supported; Carpenter told him to back off. Another time, King was enthusiastically bashing a proposed film studio project on Dinner Key when Carpenter "came down like gangbusters" on him, King recalls. The proposal was put forth by a group that included Sylvester Stallone. Their public relations representative? Elena V. Carpenter.
"How can she handle PR for this group and make editorial decisions?" King asks.
Carpenter confirms that she was then and is now the publicist for the group, but she denies that she tried to influence King's coverage of the issue. "He stated that people within the [development] team were speaking against the project," she declares. "I told him, 'If you're going to print that, attribute it. Don't just throw it out there.'"
Despite such tiffs, King says he was not prepared for the way in which Carpenter parted ways with the paper. Returning home from a trip to Puerto Rico in March, King was served with a summons in his front yard; Carpenter had filed suit against him. When King arrived at the paper's McFarlane Road office, all of Carpenter's office equipment was gone.
Carpenter remembers these events differently. The day before he went on his trip, she says, King told her he had found a loophole in their contract and that she was no longer in a position to own 50 percent of the Grover. It was this announcement, Carpenter says, that prompted her to clear out of her offices and file suit.