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.

Through his contacts on the board, IbargYen in 1984 joined the paper, owned by the Times Mirror Company, as senior vice president for finance and administration. In 1986 he accepted a position as vice president for human resources, legal, and labor relations for New York Newsday, which Times Mirror had recently launched as a spinoff of its Long Island paper, Newsday. "It was an incredibly exciting thing to invent a newspaper," he remembers, "to go into the most competitive [media] market in the country."

The paper pulled together an ethnically diverse staff, including many award-winning journalists, to cover one of the great cities of the world. Newsday's efforts to combine the quality of the New York Times with the accessibility of the more proletarian New York Post won it the sobriquet "tabloid in a tutu."

Times Mirror seemed committed to conquering New York, and IbargYen revels in recounting how the paper would throw dozens of staffers at a big story. The camaraderie and shared sense of mission at Newsday united the editorial and the business sides of the paper, he says. And while he had no responsibility for editorial decisions, he did have a hand in hiring reporters and counted several as friends. But despite winning journalistic accolades, New York Newsday hemorrhaged nearly $100 million in a ten-year battle for readership.

Just as it finally seemed to be on the verge of profitability, a new CEO took the helm of Times Mirror. Mark Willes had come from General Mills, determined to boost profits for the sprawling media conglomerate. Many at New York Newsday braced for cutbacks, reporters and editors recall. But no one suspected that Willes had already decided to kill the paper. "We did not believe -- we, being the managers of New York Newsday -- that Times Mirror would shut us down," recalls IbargYen.

Suddenly he found himself a reluctant executioner, forced to lay off hundreds of employees. "It was 876 people, not that the number is burned into my mind," he says dryly. "To say that we were going to shut it down was almost impossible." To his credit, former Newsday staffers say, IbargYen invited recruiters from other papers into the newsroom and also helped negotiate generous severance packages. Looking back, the new publisher of the Miami Herald admits to a grudging respect for Willes as a businessman. Times Mirror's moribund stock began to rise almost immediately in response to the new CEO's slash-and-burn tactics, which also included layoffs at other papers. More than 2000 Times Mirror newspaper jobs had been sacrificed by the end of 1995.

"I am realistic enough to realize that the market says he was right," IbargYen observes. "It was hugely important symbolically that he was willing to make the tough decisions."

It was also clear, he says, that New York Newsday was unlikely to reach the rate of return the market demanded. "That's the reality of the business," he says, switching to the present. "Knight Ridder has to be competitive with other newspaper companies."

IbargYen moved over to Newsday, the parent of New York Newsday, for five months, until November 1995. A month later he came to El Nuevo Herald. But the impact of the experience lingered as he and others struggled to imagine how they could have saved the paper. "Had we believed Times Mirror might shut us down, I think we would have driven the paper harder," he says today. "And had we driven it harder, the paper might still exist."

Watching a newspaper die to satisfy Wall Street analysts influenced his actions at El Nuevo. "I run this newspaper," he said from the confines of his old El Nuevo office, "as if we are desperate for additional readers. As if we are desperate for additional revenue."

There will be no subsidies under IbargYen. If a department isn't making money for the company, it won't survive. "Any large part of an operation has to be a net significant contributor to the bottom line," he says.

El Nuevo staffers say that toward the end of IbargYen's employ, a joke circulated around the newsroom: A reporter visits human resources to ask for a job at the paper. He's told there are no positions available but that if he wants to take a seat, one should open up momentarily. In all, some 30 people, out of a staff of about 95, left the paper during those years. Most resigned, and at least one was fired. The list includes managers, editors, reporters, and secretaries. Even one of IbargYen's own secretaries.

In interviews with more than a dozen of those who left El Nuevo while IbargYen was publisher, a portrait emerges of a paper where few felt they had a chance to advance, where experience appeared not to be an important factor in hiring, and where the publisher had a temper he wasn't shy about inflicting on the staff. Despite such complaints, almost no one who spoke to New Times would agree to do so on the record.

According to opinion page editor Ramon Mestre, who was previously an editorial writer for the Miami Herald, IbargYen inherited a paper that suffered from the mentality of a colonized state. Staff members constantly worried about what the Miami Herald thought of them. "'What do people on the fifth floor think? Those are the real journalists,'" Mestre mimics. "The opinion page seemed to be published on an asteroid. They just redistributed the same bloody column on Cuban issues, and it became tiresome."

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