Bad News

Battered by severe budget cuts, staff reductions, and sudden management changes, the Miami Heraldconfronts its uncertain future

No one is more surprised by Tom Fiedler's appointment as the new executive editor of the Miami Herald than Tom Fiedler. The paper's publisher, Alberto Ibargüen, first approached him in June, as Fiedler was preparing for a trip to South America. Ibargüen told Fiedler the Herald's executive editor, Martin Baron, was considering a job offer to become the editor of the Boston Globe. "We sort of kicked that around," says Fiedler, who worked at the time as editor of the Herald's editorial pages. "And I pretty well came to the conclusion that there was no way Marty would take the job in Boston."

Ibargüen hoped Fiedler's analysis was correct, but in the meantime he had to begin looking for a replacement in case Baron headed north. Ibargüen then asked if Fiedler would be interested in the position. "I was dumbfounded by the question," Fiedler admits. "Truly I was astonished. My first reaction was: “Alberto, you just can't be serious, because there are all of these gaps in my background that are obvious to everyone, primarily that I have never had newsroom-management responsibility higher than an assistant city editor.'"

A week later Fiedler was in São Paulo, Brazil, at a phone booth, when he heard from Ibargüen that Baron had accepted the job in Boston. He then offered the post to Fiedler. "It may have taken Marty three weeks to decide," he says, "but it took me three seconds before I said yes."

Alberto IbargĂĽen says readers will barely notice that the HeraldÂ’s staff has been reduced
Steve Satterwhite
Alberto IbargĂĽen says readers will barely notice that the HeraldÂ’s staff has been reduced

Fiedler is still shocked that Baron, Herald executive editor for only eighteen months, decided to leave. "I was sure Marty wouldn't do this," he offers. "He had such great success in such a short time at the Herald that I felt the glow of that would be enough for him to want to commit here. And also, frankly, I thought there would be a little bit of guilt associated with leaving so soon."

The selection of Fiedler stands in sharp contrast to the process Ibargüen used two years ago in selecting Baron. Back then Ibargüen conducted a national search before luring Baron from the New York Times. This time around he said it wasn't necessary. "I didn't feel that I was going to find a whole crop of editor candidates out there," Ibargüen notes. The Herald also is a different place than it was two years ago, he contends. Baron was hired to convince a demoralized staff that it still was capable of doing great journalism, and he accomplished that, Ibargüen argues, citing as proof the paper's coverage of the Elian Gonzalez raid that won a Pulitzer Prize and, more recently, its recount of Florida's disputed presidential ballots.

Now that the staff's confidence has been resurrected, Ibargüen says, he needs an editor who would nurture it. As far as he's concerned, Fiedler is the perfect choice: "He is someone whose judgment I trust and whose values I share."

Fiedler believes he understands the attributes Ibargüen found desirable. "To a great degree people are comfortable with me," he says, adding that Ibargüen will never have to worry about him leaving the Herald. "I'm there for good or worse. This is my newspaper, and I'm there to stay."

Fiedler's appointment was greeted with approval by many of his colleagues. "I think it is a great, great decision," gushes Kathleen Krog, an editorial writer and columnist. "I think it is a really sharp appointment by Alberto. Tom's heart has always been in the newsroom."

Former Herald publisher David Lawrence, Jr., also applauds the selection. "A superb choice," he says. "Tom is a totally honest human being. He's earned his promotions through his strong journalism over many, many years. He knows Miami, knows the local community but is never provincial in the way he looks at things." Losing Baron was "very significant," Lawrence concedes, but "having Tom take over instantly was the best news you could get out of that."

The rush to appoint Fiedler obviously was intended to blunt the damage to the delicate psyche of the Herald newsroom. Ibargüen wanted to convey a sense of stability at the paper. Appointing the popular Fiedler was sure to do that.

Ibargüen, however, may have had another reason for immediately replacing Baron: to squelch speculation that the highly regarded editor may have dumped the Herald in protest of recent budget cuts imposed by the paper's parent company, Knight Ridder. This past March, Jay Harris, publisher of Knight Ridder's San Jose Mercury News, staged just such a protest over cutbacks by unexpectedly resigning. Since then Harris has drawn national attention with his complaints, accusing Knight Ridder of placing profits ahead of journalism.

In a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Harris described one meeting with executives from Knight Ridder who were demanding staff reductions and budgets cuts. "What troubled me most about the meeting was its myopic focus on numbers," Harris said. "It wasn't the cutting so much. I have cut and forced others to over many years. I was taught how to do so by the best on both sides of the table. What troubled me -- something that had never happened before in all my years in the company -- was that little or no attention was paid to the consequences of achieving “the number.'"

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