It's Money That Matters

Tropic gets axed after31 years and countless awards. Watch for the last issue: A gift guide.

Biting operating losses, the Miami Herald will close its award-winning and much-loved Sunday magazine, Tropic, after 31 years. For the final issue next month, executive editor Tom Shroder chose a simple but classy idea: Commission some of the stars of Tropic-past like Carl Hiaasen, Madeleine Blais, and Gene Weingarten to write reminiscences. The resulting prose would be a final gift to faithful readers.

In October Shroder contacted more than ten writers and editors, many of whom had departed the Herald. The majority agreed to make a submission. Shroder added only this caveat: Don't harp on the Herald's decision to shutter the magazine and focus on the positive. He then approached Herald executive editor Doug Clifton with the idea.

Clifton's response: No way.
"I didn't think it was an appropriate thing for the last edition," Clifton asserts gruffly. "We decided the closing would be the gift guide." (Dave Barry's gift guide is a humorous take on Christmas shopping.)

But why?
"I thought it ought to be the gift guide edition, that was it."
Not entirely satisfied with Clifton's response, and frankly a little saddened by this missed opportunity to hear from some of journalism's brightest stars, New Times decided to ask Tropic veterans what they might have written. We also solicited their opinions of the magazine's demise.

The consensus: Tropic is unique. Today's newspaper industry does not seem to allow for Tropic-style innovation. And, by closing the magazine, the Herald is shafting its readership.

"Initially I was going to write a calm and reasoned analysis about how journalistic pygmies who made a decision like this are betraying hundreds of thousands of smart and loyal readers by stealing from them the one last great section of their newspaper," says former Tropic editor Gene Weingarten. "I was going to point out that running a newspaper should be a public trust with decisions made by journalists in the interest of truth, not beady-eyed accountants in pursuit of profits. I was going to say all that kind of stuff and then [Shroder] told me we couldn't be bitter or vituperative and I thought, Ahh fuck."

Weingarten, now a Washington Post Style section editor and writer, served at Tropic from 1985 to 1990. "We won three Pulitzers," he says. "This is unheard of for a tiny afterthought of a magazine in a corner of the country.

"I think this was a magazine that for years and years challenged easy assumptions about journalism and life. In doing so, it was respecting the reader in a way that many parts of the newspaper don't."

Weingarten understands the economic forces at work. The Herald's parent company, Knight Ridder, claims the newspaper is losing two million dollars per year on the magazine. (Meanwhile, CEO Tony Ridder says profit margins for Knight Ridder will be about 17.3 percent this year and could rise to 20 percent by the year 2000. "I wish I could get eighteen percent on my bank account," cracks one former Tropic editor.)

Closing Tropic seems to follow an industry pattern. Several other newspaper magazines have closed in recent years, and Weingarten believes executives may pay dearly for their decision. "I think there was a kind of cynical computation in their minds," he says. "They can do this, and it's not that the readers won't notice. The readers will notice, but they won't [immediately] flee the paper. They won't stop buying it because it no longer has Tropic. They may even be right about that, but in a larger sense, they are dead wrong. What happens is that, if you keep nibbling away at the quality and the soul of a newspaper, eventually one day even your best readers look at this negligible product and say, 'I can do without my hometown daily paper.'"

Kevin Hall, Tropic editor from 1980 to 1984 and now editor-in-residence at Florida International University, would have written something bittersweet. "We didn't have any formulas," he remembers of his days at the magazine. "We were just scouring the world, turning over rocks, and trying to find stories. That kind of product is inherently unique."

Hall says he would have tempered his reminiscences with a dose of realism. The economic reality cannot be ignored. He believes Knight Ridder made the only decision possible. "It is an intrinsic conflict between journalism and profit," he reflects. "It's not a matter of choice any more. Some little old lady in Dubuque owns shares of Knight Ridder. She never sees the paper and could care less. All she sees is her stock price. Well hell, she owns the thing. They sold it to her and now they can't ignore her. So between the advertisers and the public ownership of these newspapers, I don't know how they can produce good journalism except randomly and occasionally. We have created a world where the [readers] don't matter."

To former staff writer Madeleine Blais, Tropic writers and editors invented a personality for the magazine. Its loss is akin to the demise of a trusted friend. "I think it had a distinct identity," says Blais, a writer with the magazine from 1979 to 1987 and now a University of Massachusetts journalism professor. "You could count on them to be serious when they should be and also antic when they should be. They just created a sense of honesty and vitality about what they did."

Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen, who worked for Tropic in the late Seventies, believes both the newspaper and its readership will suffer. "As a part of a newspaper, you take pride in having a magazine, and so it hurts when it dies," he says. "But the more important issue is always the cost to the readers. I'm not naive. Certainly I can do math. I have no reason to disbelieve the accountants when they say it was losing money. On the other hand, there are certain things you do for readers because it is right."

The magazine's loss leaves Miami a little poorer, says Hiaasen. "The reality is that they couldn't make it profitable and that's sad, but the reality is also that everyone who lives down here, including the people who used to work on it, are going to have less to look forward to on Sundays. And that's a fact."

The outrage and passion expressed by former Tropic staffers indicate that Clifton may been right in deciding not to run the reminiscences. They might have reflected poorly on the Herald. Hall understands the motivation, but it nonetheless depresses him: "That's a business decision. We don't want our readers thinking more about how good Tropic is and the fact they are losing it. What's sad about that decision is how petty it is. If you are going to censor something, censor the news. Don't censor non-news. [A memorial issue] is not even news! It's just a bunch of guys writing as well as they can about something that mattered."

Ultimately it was the magazine's close relationship with its readers that the writers and editors remembered most. Several cited the Tropic Hunt, an annual puzzle/scavenger quest, as an example of the magazine's dedication to its audience. "We were always looking for ways to make people feel more alive, to give them a chance to cry, to laugh, to get them thinking," says Hall.

Weingarten traveled from Washington, D.C., to Hollywood without pay, to help with the November 1 hunt. He has aided the effort every year since leaving the magazine. Before the ceremony, Herald president Joe Natoli asked Weingarten and Shroder to return for future hunts. Weingarten says he not only refused, but exploded. "I like Joe Natoli, but this seemed like colossal gall to me," he remembers. "The Miami Herald asking this question is like a wife beater standing there with a baseball bat over the bloody corpse of his wife, suddenly realizing what he had done, and saying: 'Sweetie can we have one last quickie?'"

jacob_bernstein@miaminewtimes.com

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