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.

It was only fourteen years ago that he entered journalism, after a career in corporate and business law. For his first eleven years in newspapers IbargYen worked exclusively on the business side of the industry. Former colleagues, including professional adversaries from those days, speak well of him. "He certainly is a class guy," says John McDonald, who is now with the daily Orange County Register in California but who faced him as an editorial union representative in labor negotiations at New York Newsday, where IbargYen worked before coming to Miami.

Characterized by those who know him as a strong and independent personality, IbargYen joined El Nuevo as the paper floundered in the throes of an identity crisis. During his tenure, approximately one-third of El Nuevo's staff departed. "The newspaper has changed," he says by way of explaining the turnover. "Change doesn't happen without a lot of turbulence."

In 1976 Knight Ridder launched El Herald, a Spanish-language pullout section that was primarily a translation of the Miami Herald designed to attract the area's burgeoning Hispanic population. Eleven years later Knight Ridder revamped the paper, changed its name to El Nuevo Herald, and added staff and local coverage in a tentative step toward independence. Still, it depended for much of its news on stories lifted from the Herald and remained an insert within the English-language paper.

By the time IbargYen arrived, staffers at El Nuevo say, it had been adrift, without even a publisher, for months. "There was a climate of general discontent," says a current editor. The new publisher set out to give the paper focus. He launched a weekly business supplement similar to the Miami Herald's "Business Monday." He had the Friday entertainment supplement "Viernes" distributed separately and for free. Latin American coverage intensified. Cuba news largely moved off the front page and into a special section inside the paper. Blaring headlines began lending a tabloid tone to lead stories. All the while, IbargYen's compass stayed fixed on the bottom line, a concern forged from his painful experience as a participant in the premature death of New York Newsday.

IbargYen's greatest achievement came on January 5 of this year, when El Nuevo hit the racks as a separate newspaper. Five months later he introduced home delivery. The changes came after years of debate that pitted IbargYen against his predecessor, 56-year-old Lawrence, who had argued that a separate paper would divide the community. "The whole Dave Lawrence shtick has always been 'We are one big happy family,'" says Jay Ducassi, a former Herald editor who is now with the Miami Daily Business Review. "If you try to be everything to everybody, you end up being nothing to nobody."

It would seem, on the face of it, that if anyone could navigate the diverse, often contentious, ethnic and cultural waters of Miami, it would be IbargYen. His appointment in August as Miami Herald publisher was hailed by many Hispanics as long-overdue recognition of their numbers and economic strength. IbargYen is the first Hispanic publisher in the Herald's 95-year history. (Knight Ridder's only other Hispanic publisher was IbargYen's predecessor at El Nuevo, Roberto Suarez.)

Part of IbargYen's success, friends say, is his ability to move easily between both worlds. "He put on the camouflage of the adversary, the New York WASP establishment," recalls a friend from New York.

His heritage is all Hispanic: IbargYen's father is Cuban; his mother is Puerto Rican. In fact, his background closely mirrors that of Miami-Dade's, where the largest cultural group within the Hispanic community is Cuban and the third largest is Puerto Rican.

IbargYen's Cuban paternal grandmother was widowed young. With four children to raise, she left the western city Pinar del Rio for Depression-era Philadelphia, where she had friends. "She really didn't speak English when she came, but she made a go of it," IbargYen recalls. "She was soft and caring, absolutely devoted, but also determined. She was a cubanaza [extremely Cuban], that's what she was."

IbargYen's father was working in Puerto Rico for a U.S. pharmaceutical company when he met his future wife, who was from Ponce de Leon. Alberto, the first of five children, was born on the island, though the family left when he was eight years old. The rest of his boyhood was spent in South Orange, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City. After finishing college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, IbargYen joined the Peace Corps. He spent two years in the jungles of Venezuela, then another three as program and training director for Peace Corps programs in Colombia. He abandoned a plan to join the Foreign Service in favor of returning to the United States to obtain a law degree.

After completing law school in 1974, he helped establish a legal aid center in Hartford, Connecticut, where for a time, he says, he was the only Hispanic lawyer. He named the agency ("rather grandly," he concedes today) the Puerto Rican Center for Justice; it was part legal clinic, part social-service agency, part community outreach center.

Three years later IbargYen left the center to serve as a deputy general counsel of Connecticut National Bank in Hartford; he then started a commercial law practice. Recognized for his legal work, he was invited to sit on the board of a charitable foundation run by the city's newspaper, the Hartford Courant.

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