Hatchet Man

Q: What's a nice guy like Alberto Ibargen doing at a place like the Miami Herald? A: Exactly what his money-grubbing bosses want him to do.

The electronic message that flashed across staff computers at the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald on the morning of Tuesday, August 4, created an instant stir throughout the papers' bayside headquarters. The tersely worded missive announced a meeting for all employees of the Miami Herald Publishing Company, set for 2:00 p.m. in the third-floor cafeteria. "I don't recall ever having a building-wide staff meeting," says reporter Martin Merzer, an eighteen-year veteran at the Herald. But it wasn't only the unprecedented gathering that generated intense interest. The reason for the meeting was left unstated, and the directive came from company president Joe Natoli, not publisher Dave Lawrence. "The fact that it was Natoli who sent the message, and not Dave, told us something was up," recalls another long-time Herald journalist.

And there was context. In recent years respected publications such as Time magazine and the New York Times have described the Miami Herald as a newspaper in decline. And in the months leading up to the meeting, the paper had been beset by signs of poor financial health; troubling rumors -- including the purported imminent sale of the Herald and El Nuevo -- had become common currency in both newsrooms. For many staffers the question wasn't whether the Herald was flagging, but if the downward trend could be reversed.

"It has felt like a roller-coaster ride for the past couple of years, and everyone is yearning for stability," says fifteen-year reporter Andres Viglucci. "For a long time [parent company] Knight Ridder has trained us to think we're a bad child." In light of recent investigative successes, he contends, that's a bum rap. But uncovering voter fraud and corruption in county contracts has seemed to count for little. What has concerned Knight Ridder executives and company shareholders were the numbers, and they didn't look good.

According to Michael Beebe, a financial analyst with Goldman Sachs in New York, the Herald's advertising revenue has trailed several percentage points behind the industry average, which itself has been sluggish. Though it ranks among the top 25 dailies in the nation in circulation, those numbers have dropped as well. Sunday circulation totaled 492,235 at the end of March 1997. At the same date this year, that number had fallen by more than 10,000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Staffers were also aware of a Knight Ridder mandate for new financial goals at the Herald. Not satisfied with a profit margin that industry analysts estimated to be 19 percent (such figures for Knight Ridder's 31 daily papers are not public), corporation executives demanded an increase to 25 percent in three years. (Knowledgeable sources say that target has since been reduced to 22 percent.)

Then this past April corporate chairman and CEO Tony Ridder made a surprise announcement: Knight Ridder would leave Miami, its headquarters for 24 years, and relocate to California's Silicon Valley. (Ridder spent 22 years working in the region at Knight Ridder's San Jose Mercury News.) Miami civic leaders begged Knight Ridder to reconsider, but to no avail.

By 2:00 p.m. that Tuesday, more than 300 employees packed the cafeteria and spilled out into a hallway. At a podium stood Frank McComas, senior vice president of operations for Knight Ridder; Clark Hoyt, Knight Ridder vice president for news; Herald publisher David Lawrence; and El Nuevo publisher Alberto IbargYen. After a brief introduction Lawrence approached the podium and, before a stunned crowd, calmly announced his resignation. "The economic choices are painful," he said, "but good people will make the decisions." The employees rose and applauded when he finished speaking.

Lawrence then turned to introduce the man who would immediately succeed him, 54-year-old Alberto IbargYen, a relative newcomer to Miami who had been publisher of El Nuevo Herald for just three years. To most of the crowd, he was a complete stranger. The two papers are on adjacent floors, but little communication passes between them.

IbargYen (pronounced ee-bar-gwen), tall and solidly built, tried to reassure his new employees. He pledged fealty to revered journalistic canons. "I believe ... in journalism that makes a difference," he said, "journalism that is fair and balanced, thorough and unflinching." But he alluded to the need to boost revenues, and fast. "This business has to grow," he stressed.

As staffers filed out of the cafeteria, many wondered what pain might accompany such growth.

A visitor to El Nuevo Herald's newsroom during the past three years would most likely have seen Alberto IbargYen behind a glass wall, pacing his office while talking into a telephone headset. The publisher's energy is legendary.

One typical weekday evening shortly before IbargYen moved from his El Nuevo office to the Herald, his assistant poked her head in the door to say she was calling it a day. It was after 6:00 p.m., but the publisher couldn't resist teasing her. "What, another half-day?" he asked. For IbargYen it probably was.

Since his arrival from New York in December 1995, he has managed to find time not only for the demands of El Nuevo Herald but also for a full life outside the office. In addition to having attracted media attention (from Miami Today and Miami Business to the Wall Street Journal and the Columbia Journalism Review), IbargYen seems to have effortlessly inserted himself into Miami's cultural and business milieu. He is chairman of the Florida Philharmonic Governing Council and a member of the elite Hispanic business group Mesa Redonda. Those who know him well say he is intelligent and charming. They also agree he is not afraid to make controversial decisions.

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