Nice Guy, Wrong Job

Eventually Lawrence's good-vibes atmosphere lulled the Herald into a complacency so soporific that nearly everyone was shocked and amazed to wake up and discover rampant corruption at Miami City Hall -- then at the seaport, then at the airport, then on the county commission dais, then just about everywhere.

When the paper finally snapped out of it (the City of Miami beat went from one part-timer to swarms of reporters bumping into each other), a new sense of this town began to emerge, a sense that proved -- to me at least -- just how badly Dave Lawrence had misjudged the place.

What Miami needed much more than Lawrence's compassion was his papers' attack dogs turned loose on a community in which cronyism, graft, and corruption were so deeply entrenched they'd become institutionalized. Had he done so, and had he ferociously shielded his newsrooms from all untoward outside influences, I'll bet both the Herald and El Nuevo by now would have earned the respect that has proved so elusive, especially from those people who caused Lawrence such grief over the years: the conservative wing of Miami's Cuban population.

But respect is not all Lawrence could have gained if he had taken care of business at 1 Herald Plaza instead of roaming the countryside in his missionary's robes. For one thing, he might have laid the groundwork for circulation gains and increased reader interest by taking a radical new look at a Herald institution he inherited: the twice-weekly "Neighbors" sections.

As venues for smaller advertisers who can't afford to buy the full Herald press run, the "Neighbors" sections are probably as close to cash cows as the paper has had in recent years. But as traditional training grounds for young reporters, they leave a lot to be desired, particularly when it comes to instilling basic journalistic values, such as printing the news and raising hell. Not at a "Neighbors" office you don't. There's no reason I could ever see why those outposts shouldn't be as enterprising and pugnacious as the metro desk downtown.

At least as harmful, though, is the manner in which these supplements have exacerbated the Balkanized nature of the county, a fragmentation Lawrence deplored. They have had the effect of screening one neighborhood from another, and this being Miami, one culture from another. In doing so they have contributed to the ignorance that abets prejudice. Just because you live in Little Haiti doesn't mean it should be virtually impossible to learn about life in Little Managua. And the more you learn, the more invested you become, both in the medium and the message.

Lawrence needn't have scrapped the existing "Neighbors" concept to compensate for its inherent flaws, but even recognizing its defects would have required a different mindset, one that placed a higher premium on seeking solutions within the paper rather than outside it. Could Lawrence have aided in Miami's healing while also helping the Herald? We'll never know.

One other missed opportunity from Lawrence's tenure won't remain a question mark for long: El Nuevo Herald has finally been given a chance to spread its wings and fly. Long a publishing stepchild, undervalued, underfunded, and distrusted by Lawrence and others at the Herald, the Spanish-language daily is in the first stages of an experiment Lawrence once rejected.

Four years ago he asked the young editor of El Nuevo's opinion pages, Alvaro Vargas Llosa (son of acclaimed Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa), to propose a new course for the paper, which at the time was not available separate from the Herald. In October 1994 Vargas Llosa submitted to Lawrence a memo outlining an ambitious plan designed to transform El Nuevo into a Miami powerhouse as well as the Spanish-language paper-of-record for the entire Western Hemisphere.

In his memo Vargas Llosa asserted, "We are not looking for news aggressively, digging into stories, producing our own material. We are, [on] the whole, mere recipients of news that falls onto us from the sky and translators of the Miami Herald. We have a poor, small section on Latin America, a half-baked section on local news, which has very few initiatives in a town where local news should be making the front page almost every day...." Vargas Llosa went on to admonish the paper for concentrating so intensely on Cuba "in a market which is more diverse and pluralistic by the day, [and] we are not even covering Cuban news with as much imagination and tenacity as we should."

The editor strongly argued that El Nuevo should be given the resources to publish independent of the Herald. As he later told New Times: "Basically what I was proposing to do was to let the paper grow in a way that it would compete with the English paper, and then let the market decide which paper was strongest. I think that got [Dave Lawrence] very scared."

Lawrence spiked the idea and in April 1995 Vargas Llosa quit.
Dramatically upgrading El Nuevo made so much sense to me that I couldn't understand why everyone up the chain of command didn't embrace it and hail Vargas Llosa as a genius. Instead of pandering to Miami's Hispanics by offering a token publication, why not give them a serious and professional newspaper they could actually respect? Creating real competition for the Herald would only have sharpened it and all other publications in town (this one included). Narrowly focused audiences are all the rage in publishing these days, and Lawrence could have used to his advantage the fact that his company operated two papers with distinctly different readerships.

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