Bad News

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

(Miami New Times also has been affected by the economic downturn. The newspaper is owned by New Times, a privately held, Phoenix-based company operating thirteen weekly papers around the nation. In April the company's principal owners, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, announced a salary freeze at all their papers. Earlier this year the company, citing budget constraints, fired three newsroom employees at the Fort Worth Weekly. No layoffs are expected at Miami New Times, though two writing positions will remain vacant for the foreseeable future.)

The newspaper Tom Fiedler inherits may have been re-energized under Baron, but it is still a much different place than it was ten to fifteen years ago. Despite a population boom in South Florida, weekday circulation has plummeted from 425,000 in 1989 to just 326,000 this year. The amount of space devoted to news has decreased. Even the physical dimensions of the paper, the width and length of each page, have shrunk. The number of people in the newsroom has dropped from about 500 in the late Eighties to approximately 375 today. And the journalistic scope has been curtailed. Not long ago the Herald operated bureaus in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; national bureaus in New York and Atlanta; and reporters posted throughout the state to cover Florida news. All that is now gone. In 1998 the Herald also shuttered its respected Sunday magazine, Tropic.

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

Fiedler knows there is a tendency within the Herald to romanticize the Eighties as the paper's glory days, but he disagrees. "There are a lot of people who believe there was a golden era," he says. "And there were some fantastic people back then. I think we did a lot of things very well. But I also think there were some things we didn't do very well. I don't know that we were as connected to parts of this community that we should have been. We were big and boisterous and in a lot of ways arrogant. We had a lot of money. Nobody that I can remember back then told me not to spend money, so we tend to look back on it as a terrific period.

"We've become more honest with what we need to be," he says of the Herald's narrower editorial focus. "We're different. I don't want to say that in some ways we are better or not as good. We are a different paper, and our goal is different."

One of his own goals is to play a much more public role than his predecessors. He says he wants "to be the newsroom's face to the community at large, and hopefully to project to the community what I believe the Herald is: That we are important to the community, that we care about the community, that we are the watchdog, and that we take that role seriously and that we want to do it both aggressively and fairly."

Before his recent discussion with New Times, Fiedler had been busy preparing a small farewell party he was hosting for Martha Musgrove, one of the writers who agreed to take the buyout. He realizes that many people on his staff are worried about the departure of so many veterans. In addition to the individuals who took buyouts, the paper has lost some of its best reporters in recent months. Steve Bousquet, the paper's Tallahassee bureau chief, left to join the St. Petersburg Times; Mark Silva, the Herald's political editor, accepted a job at the Orlando Sentinel; investigative reporter Tom Dubocq is now at the Palm Beach Post; political writer Karen Branch is at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; veteran county hall reporter Don Finefrock recently took a job with the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust; business writer James McNair is at the Cincinnati Enquirer; architecture writer Peter Whoriskey went to the Washington Post; and Ana Acle left to write for Hispanic Magazine. "We are going through turbulent times, no secret," Fiedler admits.

But was the turbulence caused by Knight Ridder's severe cuts really justified? "I don't know that they had a choice, I really don't," Fiedler says.

Couldn't they have chosen to have a profit margin of only 18 or 20 percent this year instead of 22 percent? "I wish it were that easy," he counters. "It is something I wrestle with myself. The Herald is an extremely successful newspaper. There is no doubt about it. We made [a profit margin of] 22 percent last year. Every newspaper is making a little bit less this year, but we are doing fine. The problem that we are facing here, not of our own choosing, is that Wall Street doesn't think that's fine. Wall Street thinks we are underperforming because USA Today makes 29 percent and other newspapers make more. So they look at the Herald and all the 32 Knight Ridder papers as underperforming. They say that newspapers should be at 25 or 26 percent, whatever the level is, and Knight Ridder is down here, so the Knight Ridder stock is devalued. Well, I don't have to worry about that, but people like Tony Ridder do because Tony Ridder is in that situation where he's got people who own these millions of shares of Knight Ridder stock."

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