Nice Guy, Wrong Job

More recently Lawrence's failure to satisfy his greedy corporate overlords prompted another round of brutal cost-cutting, and contributed to his decision to resign. This latest crisis, now being managed by Lawrence successor Alberto IbargYen, appears to have chewed through the fat and into the muscle. The December shuttering of Tropic magazine was only the most visible example. More insidious has been the loss of talent. Amid plummeting morale and in the face of looming cuts and an uncertain commitment to the funding of high-caliber journalism, many seasoned staffers are fleeing 1 Herald Plaza for more stable newspapers. And as word of the Herald's woes spreads through the gossipy world of journalism, it will inevitably complicate the job of attracting gifted young reporters to Miami.

But is it fair to blame Lawrence for this pitiful retrenchment and its accompanying brain drain? Should it be rightly considered part of his legacy? Yes. If the operating margins demanded by his bosses were realistic, then he should be held accountable for the dire consequences of not having realized them. (And don't forget this: Lawrence was handed a company that enjoyed a monopoly in its core market.) If the margins were unrealistic, then he should have made a persuasive case to Knight Ridder in order to protect his publications from being gutted. Personally I think the Herald's recent margins, around eighteen percent, have been perfectly respectable. Tony "Squeeze Till It Bleeds" Ridder obviously would disagree.

Other components of Lawrence's newspaper legacy are his and his alone. Did his tireless efforts as goodwill ambassador lead to greater interest in and respect for the Herald and El Nuevo? I've seen no indication of that whatsoever.

Was he able to boost circulation? Just the opposite. According to the authoritative Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), Herald weekday circulation as of July 1, 1989 (eight weeks before Lawrence arrived) was 424,563. The most recent figure, again from ABC, shows a weekday circulation of 331,199 at September 27, 1998. That's a 22 percent plunge. Imagine: More than one of every five subscribers dropped the paper after Lawrence became publisher. (Some of that loss can be attributed to those who opted for El Nuevo when it became available last year independent of the Herald.)

Gone now is the chest-thumping slogan across the daily masthead: "The Foremost Daily Newspaper of Florida." Lawrence couldn't continue to claim that after the St. Petersburg Times (owned, interestingly enough, by a nonprofit corporation) edged ahead in circulation for a period during the 1997-98 winter season, according to ABC. In addition St. Pete clobbers the Herald in the percentage of homes receiving the paper in their respective counties: 76.6 percent to 31.7 percent (sources: Standard Rate and Data Service; Columbia Journalism Review).

Did Lawrence embolden his newsrooms to pursue the truth no matter how ugly it might be and no matter where it might take them in volatile Miami? Until very recently many reporters working in those newsrooms would have answered with something like this: Hot pursuit was fine as long as the trail didn't head in the direction of one of Dave's pet issues or favored people. (Lawrence's self-proclaimed "studied, pragmatic naivete about people" led him to write flattering columns about benign characters such as terrorist Orlando Bosch, exile strongman Jorge Mas Canosa, felonious banker David Paul, Watergate burglar "Eugenio" Martinez, disgraced U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, disgraced former Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello, disgraced former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, despotic Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, and obnoxious German financier Thomas Kramer, among many others. No wonder his reporters were constantly looking over their shoulders.)

In this collision of Lawrence's personal interests and the newsrooms' reportorial interests lies the most troubling element of his legacy as publisher. And perhaps in this also lies a cautionary tale for his successors.

Lawrence could have avoided creating conflicts for his news people (or at least the perception of conflicts) if he had spent more time on the business of publishing and less time on public relations. Linking his success as an executive to his success as a civic messiah was a risky gamble at best. In this particular town it proved to be foolhardy, and it damaged his newsrooms in two important ways.

First, Lawrence's relentless efforts to fashion for himself the highest of profiles led the public to believe he was the Herald incarnate. No problem -- big or small, trivial or significant -- escaped his attention or was beyond his ability to solve. Unfortunately for the journalists laboring in his shadow, that belief in Lawrence's omniscience extended to other high-profile people who may not have been so pleased to have snoopy reporters poking around in sensitive areas. Why haggle with a lowly scribe or even an editor when Lawrence's door was always open? And everyone knew, of course, he would listen earnestly, compassionately, and with the implicit understanding that the message in some form would trickle down and just might have the intended effect. The unintended effect, however, was the subtle undermining of the news side's independence.

Second, Lawrence's constant proselytizing for sweetness and light didn't exactly foster a newsroom ethos that honored, encouraged, and rewarded aggressive journalism. Reporters and editors who might otherwise have been happy to tear the town apart in search of crooked pols and boardroom scammers instead beheld a management team led by Lawrence merrily promoting something called the nine "Pillars of Excellence," reportorial subject areas that a 1995 study determined were of interest to readers. Investigative reporting, however, was not among them, a fact noted (and ridiculed) by media watchers nationwide.

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