Nice Guy, Wrong Job

January 1, 1999, brought with it a noteworthy change in Miami's civic landscape: David Lawrence, Jr., took leave of 1 Herald Plaza. In his nine years as boss man at the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, he held an exalted position of influence in this town, and as we know, he was not at all shy about exerting it. Now that he's stepped down, it seems fitting to ponder the legacy of this man who has cared so deeply about our community and tried so assiduously to improve it. Besides that, it's been way too long since I last stuck my nose in Dave Lawrence's business.

From what I can tell, Lawrence left behind not one but two distinct legacies: one admirable, the other abominable. And different as they may be, both seem to have sprung from the same sources: his elemental urge to do good and his complete misreading of Miami.

Following the announcement this past summer that Lawrence was resigning as publisher, many prominent community members were inspired to publicly praise him. In those heartfelt expressions of gratitude are revealed the admirable part of Lawrence's divided legacy.

From Florida's governor and two U.S. senators to schools superintendent Roger Cuevas and MDCC president Eduardo Padron, from black activist-attorney H.T. Smith to publicist Gerald Schwartz, the sentiment was the same: With Lawrence's resignation, Miami will have lost a valuable and trusted community leader, a man widely known for his personal integrity, his commitment to fairness, and his boundless energy.

This was not just hype, either. From the day he landed in Miami, Lawrence set about meeting every mover and shaker he could, then vigorously plunged into the formidable task of mending all that wasn't right in this irascible town. He took a quick look around and concluded that Miami had been driven to dysfunction by bitter racial and ethnic rivalries, and that the only hope for the community's survival (and not coincidentally the survival of his newspapers) was to heal the wounds caused by suspicion and jealousy, which had been fueled by ignorance and misunderstanding.

Anyone who worked with him on his various projects (United Way, the former Center for the Fine Arts, the drive to save Overtown's St. Francis Xavier Catholic School), or for that matter anyone who simply read his Sunday columns, quickly came to see that this was a man with a purpose. Even I took note, describing him in these pages seven years ago as a wide-eyed missionary plopped down among jungle heathens.

I, of course, was being sarcastic. And who could blame me? Mockery was the only sensible response to a journalist whose entreaties for tolerance (expressed with embarrassing inarticulateness in his columns) gave new meaning to the word maudlin. (In his first dizzying year on the job he repeatedly implored us to "... reach out to each other for better understanding ... [and] work harder to be understood," while he ardently promised to be "sensitive and compassionate, to serve all the people of the community ..., [to] contribute to healing and not to divisiveness.")

Countless others, however, sincerely appreciated the zeal Lawrence brought to this thankless job of social reconciliation. In a letter to the Herald published shortly after the August 4 resignation announcement, businessman Teo Babun conveyed the feelings of many Miamians. "Dave Lawrence," he wrote, "masterfully took the time to understand this community and then proceeded to take a leadership role on everything important and meaningful. He leaves a legacy of care, understanding, and concern for everything that stood for good in our community." Renowned fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco put it more succinctly: Lawrence, he wrote, was a South Florida rarity, "an honest man in a public place."

That sort of fawning adulation of a powerful man (never without his own agenda) tends to make me shudder, but in the minds of many others, it simply reflects a well-earned legacy of Lawrence's impassioned commitment to social harmony. At the very least, it speaks volumes about the quality of leadership this town has produced in the last decade.

It does not, however, address Lawrence's day job.
Which takes us to the other facet of his legacy, the abominable part. I don't really expect someone like Ferdie Pacheco to analyze Lawrence's accomplishments as helmsman of the Herald and El Nuevo, even though Pacheco is likely to be affected far longer and more profoundly by the mess Lawrence left behind at 1 Herald Plaza than by anything he may have accomplished as a civic do-gooder. I, on the other hand, can claim a long history of evaluating Dave Lawrence and his newspapers. (No, no one appointed me to the job. I simply saw an opening and jumped in.)

Some may disagree with my contention that Lawrence badly flubbed it as a publishing executive, even though the evidence is overwhelming that he did. One aspect of his tenure, however, is indisputable: He was never able to achieve the kind of financial performance demanded by his Knight Ridder bosses. Regardless of whether those demands were realistic, they twice led to crises under Lawrence's watch. Four years ago severe cutbacks resulted in, among other things, the Herald abandoning its global ambitions and retreating to its current status as a regional paper. (That sorry episode was chronicled by New Times staff writer Jim DeFede in "The Incredible Shrinking Herald," June 8, 1995.) Overall during Lawrence's reign, the Herald closed bureaus in Beijing, Berlin, Atlanta, and New York City. Several satellite offices in Florida were also shut down. Now on the chopping block are the sole remaining foreign outposts, Managua and Bogota.

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.

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.

Made sense then, makes sense now. Needless to say, Vargas Llosa must feel vindicated seeing his plan adopted and implemented by Alberto IbargYen. Big changes are already under way: El Nuevo is now sold separately from the Herald at newsstands and via subscriptions, which began in April of last year and are already approaching 80,000; the widely respected Carlos Castaneda has been hired as publisher/editor; mundane Cuba news has moved off the front page and been balanced by more reports from elsewhere in Latin America; a fresh crop of writers and editors is being hired; an investigative team has been created.

It will take time to determine the success of the El Nuevo experiment, but at least something new is being attempted. At least someone is taking a few risks -- and not just at El Nuevo. Even as the Herald absorbs blow upon ignominious blow, staff shakeups there hold promise, especially the inspired decision to put former foreign editor Mark Seibel back in the newsroom as a top editor.

Watching the Miami Herald shrivel under Dave Lawrence's inept stewardship has given me no pleasure. Admittedly its decline has provided us grist for a few good stories. And it's true that a diminished, demoralized Herald staff allows us a short-term competitive edge. But in the long term, a moribund daily paper inflicts collateral damage on all publications around it. And of course, an enfeebled newspaper is a bad thing for any city.

Those of us who remain devoted to journalism will continue trying to strengthen it as an institution vital to the health of this community. Now that Dave Lawrence has left the field, perhaps he'll find even more time to devote himself to strengthening Miami's social institutions. He's good at it. And God knows they could use the help.

jim_mullin@miaminewtimes.com

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