Buying Time

Can the Miami Herald polish up its old luster by importing a columnist from an "edgy" free weekly?

Former Miami New Times columnist Jim DeFede tells me that the main difference to his opining on the foibles of this wicked town from his considerably more comfortable ($$) seat down the street at the Miami Herald is that he won't be able to use the word "fuck" in a column anymore. Not that it was a hallmark of his writing over here, either.

But, he argues, that doesn't mean working for the daily paper he has consistently criticized over the years as being more concerned with profits than journalistic quality, will subvert his hard-hitting Brooklyn style. It's an interesting choice for the Herald, especially combined with the paper's other moves to, in effect, demote two other prominent columnists and significantly reduce the tri-ethnic look of the daily's most public faces.

Ironically, the first problem DeFede's run into on this front is a rumor making the rounds of media gossips (fueled by Jim Romenesko's Media News Website) that his last story on the Herald (see "Bad News," New Times,August 9, 2001) was a little too complimentary to the new executive editor, Tom Fiedler. DeFede takes umbrage at the suggestion that there's a link between that story and his hiring months later. "It was by no means a puff piece," he responds. "I pointed out that people were saying Tom was too weak [to stand up to corporate budget cuts affecting the newsroom]."

Nevertheless, Heraldnewsroom staffers privately hope DeFede's knife-twisting political insightfulness may help inject a bit of vim into the often anemic (some prefer the term "deadly boring") local section, which also suffered severely from staff cuts over the past few years. "I think the intent is to put some bite back in the metro section," he acknowledges. "[Herald publisher Alberto Ibargüen and Fiedler] told me, 'We're not bringing you over to do something different.' It's an indication they want to move in that direction and turning me loose is one way to do that."

(In the interest of fairness, New Times itself has been battered by the slow economy of the last year, losing a total of seven writers to attrition of various kinds. However, after DeFede resigned, the paper lured back one of its best, Tris Korten, who spent a year working as an investigator with the county's Office of Inspector General.)

Bringing in a star player to attract fan support for a mediocre team is an old trick used by sports management and government agencies alike. Merrett Stierheim was that guy for the county when Alex Penelas needed a boost. He was that guy again for the school district when it needed to buy credibility.

Current and former Herald journalists, including one who describes DeFede's hiring as a "brilliant move" by management, hope this will turn out to be true in the long run. "People are interested to see how he fits in," says one news reporter who asked to remain anonymous, adding that people are also wondering whether Herald management will attempt to tone DeFede down. Bill Cooke, a veteran photojournalist based in Miami, puts it more bluntly. "Come on, there's no way he's going to be doing the same stuff for the Herald that he did for New Times," Cooke spouts. "He's going to become [Carl] Hiaasen-ized -- you know, quirky and funny, but not too outrageous, and taking on the easy targets. The Herald tones down coverage because it's afraid to offend advertisers." Jim Mullin, editor of New Times, also weighed in: "He'll improve the Herald -- if they give him the freedom he deserves."

Needless to say, Fiedler doesn't agree with the bleak prediction that DeFede's harder edges will be dulled by corporate queasiness. "We want him to do for the Herald basically what he did for New Times," he affirms. "I have every expectation that he will continue to bring his journalistic vision and edgy style -- within, of course, the context of the Herald's standards and traditions."

But bringing in a talented bomb thrower with aspirations to be Miami's Jimmy Breslin is not the only significant change the Herald has made. In the same column two weeks ago in which Fiedler announced DeFede's signing on to the daily, he breezily revealed that several of the paper's long-time columnists would be shifted around, with two of them basically busted back to reporter ranks. That's not how he presented it, of course. No, this was, for Robert Steinback and Liz Balmaseda, an "opportunity," he believed, for them to "break out of the box."

The consensus among several Herald staffers to whom New Times spoke was that it was time for a change. "This is about washing out old, tired columnists," remarks one reporter. Another writer thinks Steinback, who had been writing his column for twelve years, was feeling "a little burned out," and it showed. Balmaseda, who showed early promise with her columns and even won a Pulitzer for commentary in 1993, had degenerated over the years to passing off occasionally sappy heartstring melodramas as relevant columns. She was stung badly in October 2001 when she wrote about a Cuban-American man who told her a sob story of discovering just before September 11 that he had a 34-year-old son, only to lose him in the rubble of the World Trade Center. The story turned out not to be true.

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