Bad News

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

The budget cuts, Markowitz believes, will definitely affect the Herald's news operations. "Journalistically the Herald is not going to be able to do what it used to do," he says. "The average reader will probably not notice much difference day to day. The careful reader will, and certainly the insider, who knows what the paper is missing, will. The Herald will still do great journalism when events arise, but the day-to-day stuff will be affected."

Herald executives often cite the recent Pulitzers as evidence that it is still one of the nation's best papers. Markowitz's point regarding day-to-day coverage, however, is more telling. One example critics point to: If the paper had done a better job covering Miami government in the early Nineties, it might have detected problems with the city's finances, brought them to light, and goaded officials into addressing them, thereby avoiding Miami's financial collapse and the imposition of state oversight. Instead the Herald had a reporter assigned to the city only part-time.

The same criticism could be made today regarding the City of Homestead, Miami International Airport, and the Miami-Dade County Public Schools.The pattern seems to be that the Herald becomes interested in a subject only when a crisis develops. Then, ironically, the paper prides itself on winning awards for "exposing" the very crisis that might have been prevented had it been more diligent earlier.

Marty Baron has been careful not to attribute his departure to disagreement with Knight Ridder's problem-solving methods. Privately, his friends say, he has been disappointed but chose not to voice his concerns for fear that would throw the newsroom into another destructive bout of self-doubt. "I think the Herald is positioned to do some excellent journalism," he says diplomatically. "While the buyouts were painful, I think they were managed as well as could be and with the least possible damage to the newsroom. Not that I was thrilled with them by any means, but I still think the newsroom can do some excellent journalism and does. And I think that will be true for a long time to come."

Knight Ridder is not the only newspaper chain to embark on a cost-cutting spree in response to a slowing economy and a dramatic decline in advertising revenues. Baron's new paper, the Boston Globe, owned by the New York Times Company, recently went through a series of buyouts and budget cuts. The difference, though, is that Knight Ridder is perceived to be a company that will continue making cuts even if it endangers its journalistic mission. Baron acknowledges he is troubled by the trend throughout the industry. "I'm concerned about anything that would lead to a degradation in the quality of news coverage," he says. "But these have been businesses for a long while. It's not that all of a sudden MBAs have taken over newspapers. There were MBAs running newspapers twenty years ago, no question about it."

Today, however, the expectations are different. Stockholders in newspaper companies demand higher and higher returns on their investment. The problem, as Baron recognizes, is that newspapers aren't like other commercial enterprises. "It is a different kind of business, and it does have a moral purpose, a social purpose, and it should be viewed in a different light, in a different perspective," he says. "The community obligations of a newspaper, the First Amendment obligations of a newspaper, should come into play." Stockholders, he adds, must realize it isn't just about profits and increased stock values.

Does Tony Ridder understand that newspapers aren't just about profits and shareholder value? Baron ponders the question. "Yes, I think he does," he responds. The Miami Herald, he offers by way of example, was the only newspaper in the nation willing to fund its own ballot review following the presidential election. "Knight Ridder made the commitment; Tony Ridder made the commitment to pay for it," he says. "No other news organization was willing to bear that kind of cost on its own." The initial estimate for the project was $250,000, but the actual cost was closer to $725,000. "When the bills finally came in and were all added up, I never heard one word of protest from Knight Ridder or Tony Ridder," Baron relates. "In that instance I don't think Tony Ridder was thinking about profits. He was thinking about the social purpose of a newspaper."

But are the budget cuts and their effect on the Herald's coverage of Miami consistent with someone who truly believes in the social purpose of a newspaper? Will the Herald be able to meet its obligations to the community? "I think there are things as a paper we want to do and probably ought to do that we're not able to do," Baron concedes. "There is a whole range of coverage in just about every area of the paper that we would like to add that would fall under the rubric of providing more comprehensive, thorough coverage of the community, that would allow for more enterprise, more investigations, and more day-to-day coverage. And I would hope that a day will come in the future when the Heraldwill be able to restore some of the things that have been cut recently." Those hopes may not be realistic. In May, Ridder promised a group of Wall Street analysts that the cuts imposed on Knight Ridder newspapers were permanent. Even if the economy improves, Ridder explained, staffing levels will be kept down. "We're going to operate with a lower number of people," he pledged.

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