Requiem for a Newspaper

The Miami Herald used fourteen reporters last week to cover the resignation of its publisher, David Lawrence, Jr.

Fourteen!
With so many people on the story, you might have thought Lawrence had made his announcement from the deck of the burning Ecstasy. Testimonials gushed forth from the governor, lieutenant governor, and Florida's two U.S. senators. Local politicians recalled his years of public service. And of course the local business and civic communities reverently laid laurels of tribute at Lawrence's feet.

Hell, there was even a picture of Dave with the Pope.
I became so overwhelmed by the emotional power of the stories that for a moment I actually thought Lawrence had died. I began feeling guilty recalling the derisive, sometimes vulgar, things I've said about him in the past. I was overcome with shame for my old habit of reading his Sunday column aloud -- in a mocking tone -- for family and friends. In my heart I certainly knew I had reason to despise those Lawrence columns, and not just because they were poorly written, maudlin tripe, but because they were also a sham. They gave readers the impression that Dave Lawrence was a profoundly sensitive fellow blessed with the sweetest of dispositions, when in fact he could be a mean-spirited, bitter individual who regularly tormented those around him. But still I realized that dwelling on Lawrence's dark side was not very charitable. And now, I thought, he's dead.

But as we all know, Lawrence didn't die; he merely resigned. So I can guiltlessly continue thinking ill of him. In announcing his resignation, Lawrence declared that he was leaving the paper in order to pursue other interests -- which is a polite way of saying that after failing as the publisher of the Herald, it was time for him to move on and be a flop at some other endeavor.

Truth be told, the stories announcing Lawrence's resignation were in fact obituaries of a sort. Read them carefully and you'll see they foretell the demise not of a man but of a newspaper. As an example, consider this rather oblique passage:

The move comes as the Herald faces significant challenges of its own. Circulation and advertising revenue have been under pressure, and the newspaper's owner -- Knight Ridder -- recently set ambitious goals for future profits.

Circulation and advertising revenue have been under pressure? Sounds like they need a vacation. Perhaps "circulation and advertising" should head down to the Keys and sip margaritas for a week.

Ambitious goals for future profits? That sounds like the title of a book you'd find on a shelf alongside Thinner Thighs in Thirty Days. Normally the job of a newspaper is to cut through corporate doublespeak and give its readers the straight dope. Since those fourteen writers couldn't do it, let me translate for you: The Herald is about to get screwed.

It was bad enough when Tony Ridder packed his bags and moved out of town, taking the corporate offices of Knight Ridder with him. Now he's decided to wring every possible nickel out of Miami as well.

In Ridder's opinion, the Herald simply isn't making enough profit. That's not to say the paper is losing money. Far from it. While the paper's financial figures are not public, industry analysts believe it operates with a margin of between eighteen and twenty percent, making it one of Knight Ridder's most profitable products.

But Tony Ridder wants even more. Perhaps the new house he's thinking of building in northern California is going to cost him more than he expected. Maybe he's decided to add a tennis court, or a Jacuzzi in the downstairs guest room. Whatever the case, a widely held belief at One Herald Plaza is that Ridder is now demanding that the Herald increase its profit margin to 25 percent over the next three years. Fear of a financial squeeze began spreading through the building on July 10, when Lawrence and Herald president Joe Natoli circulated a memo announcing that major change is in the offing. "That change will include expanded efforts to bring in new dollars, along with significant expense reductions," Lawrence and Natoli wrote.

The Lawrence-Natoli memo struck like a lightning bolt that was about to hit twice in the same place. Three years ago the Herald went through a similar cost-cutting purge that devastated morale and led to an exodus of reporters and editors. Having been through that nightmare once, many on staff read the memo with dread.

Apparently no one dreaded it more than Lawrence. Over years of budget cuts and staff reductions, he guided the paper to the brink of journalistic ruination. But he wasn't willing to give it that final shove off the cliff. And so he quit. The dirty work will now fall to the paper's new publisher, Alberto IbargYen, who many believe will do to the Herald what Don Smiley has done to the Florida Marlins.

When Lawrence announced his resignation before hundreds of employees last week, despair swept through the crowd, according to some in attendance. A few even cried. "People understood that he is the last news-oriented publisher this newspaper will have," says one long-time staffer. "Was he always a nice guy? No. Did he do things that hurt a lot of people? Yeah. But he did care about this place, and people here believe that he resigned rather than do the things that Knight Ridder was going to force him to do to increase profits."

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