Bad News

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

Harris's attacks have been hurtful both to Knight Ridder and its chief executive officer, Anthony P. Ridder. From 1988 to 1994, Harris had worked at Knight Ridder's corporate headquarters in Miami as vice president for operations directly under Ridder. And it was Ridder who installed Harris as San Jose's publisher in February 1994. Thanks in part to Harris's criticism, Ridder has been vilified by journalists nationwide, earning the sobriquet Darth Ridder for his zeal in slashing his papers' budgets.

Ibargüen wanted to make sure Baron's departure did not cause any additional embarrassment for Ridder or provoke another round of critical newspaper articles about the company. When he announced Baron's resignation and Fiedler's appointment during a hastily called July 2 meeting with the Herald's newsroom staff, he invoked the name of the former San Jose publisher. "This is not a Jay Harris situation," Ibargüen declared, an assertion that became something of a mantra in the ensuing days.

Despite the glowing tributes, the new editor will still have to prove himself, particularly in light of his acknowledged lack of newsroom-management experience. Some Herald staffers believe that in choosing Fiedler, Ibargüen bypassed more experienced in-house candidates in favor of someone he could easily control and who would not be an obstacle in the event that additional budget cuts are ordered by Knight Ridder. Everyone at the paper may like and respect Fiedler, but eventually he will have to confront the perception that he is too sympathetic toward the corporate side of the business. And at a time when Knight Ridder has been driving up profits at the expense of personnel, many fear Fiedler will not be tough enough, or capable enough, in defending the newsroom's budget. "He is a decent, kind, even-tempered, sweet, self-effacing guy," says one long-time reporter. "But right now is there anyone who can be in that job who will be anything other than the shit-catcher for Knight Ridder?"

Jay Harris accuses Knight Ridder of placing profits ahead of journalism
AP/Wide World Photo
Jay Harris accuses Knight Ridder of placing profits ahead of journalism
After leading the Herald to a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year, Martin Baron (wearing necktie) left for a job at the Boston Globe
AP/Wide World Photo
After leading the Herald to a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year, Martin Baron (wearing necktie) left for a job at the Boston Globe

On his last day at the Herald, Marty Baron sounds like a man in pain. "I like Miami, I like South Florida, I like my colleagues at the Herald," he laments. "I wasn't looking to leave. This just came along."

In the end he chose Boston because it presents a greater opportunity. "The Globe is a bigger newspaper and as a result has more resources," he says. "It has a Washington bureau, it has more foreign bureaus, probably more specialists than the Herald does. The range of the newspaper is greater, so it presents new and interesting challenges."

One challenge Baron had not anticipated when he came to Miami was Knight Ridder's determination to cut costs by reducing its workforce. Earlier this year the company vowed to eliminate nearly 2100 jobs at its 32 newspapers. For the Miami Herald that meant losing 180 full-time employees, including 42 in the newsroom. When Ibargüen announced the cuts in May, he said he would try to accomplish them by offering senior employees a financial incentive to retire early. If enough people didn't accept the offered buyout, then -- under orders from Knight Ridder -- he would begin firing people.

Employees who were eligible for early retirement were given 45 days to decide, which left everyone else anxiously waiting to see if the buyouts would be successful. "During that 45-day window, it was really difficult for people to concentrate on the news business," Fiedler reports, "because they knew that if, on July 5, the targets weren't met, then along comes step two -- involuntary separation."

Some good news also arrived during that period: Knight Ridder agreed to reduce from 42 to 27 the number of editorial positions that would be eliminated. Nine of those ended up being vacancies that would be left unfilled; the remaining eighteen were spread around the department. Among those who agreed to take early retirement were editorial writers Martha Musgrove and Wingate Payne, sports columnist Gary Long, copy editor Bill Robertson, photographer Jonathan Kral, religion writer D. Aileen Dodd, Broward reporter Shari Rudavsky, home-furnishings writer Jo Werne, and Miami-Dade reporter Arnold Markowitz.

"I couldn't afford not to take it," says the 64-year-old Markowitz, who joined the Herald 34 years ago. He says Knight Ridder was extremely generous in its offer, which varied depending on the number of years a person worked at the paper. Markowitz received a payout worth more than two years' salary. "There is probably never going to be another buyout offer at the Herald like that," he says. "And look, the handwriting is on the wall. The company is going to continue to solve its problems in this fashion, through buyouts and reducing staff and cutting budgets."

Journalists across the nation may bemoan that approach, but Wall Street has rewarded it. As a result of the cuts imposed by Tony Ridder, the company's stock soared this month to a 52-week high of more than $60 per share, in spite of the fact that advertising revenues were down and Knight Ridder was unable to meet its quarterly profit projections. No one benefits more from rising stock prices than Ridder himself. He owns or has options to buy more than $20 million of Knight Ridder stock. "The people who run the company in San Jose just have a huge financial stake in keeping the price of the stock high," says Markowitz.

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