Buying Time

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

She also drew fire from fellow journalists during the Elian Gonzalez saga in 2000 when she injected herself into events by participating in a prayer vigil outside the home of the boy's Little Havana relatives. "She took a lot of heat during Elian," allows Arnold Markowitz, a 34-year Herald reporter who retired last year in a round of buyouts. "People [in the newsroom] didn't appreciate it when she was one-sided to the point of sitting in on some prayer vigils. But like it or not, Liz ... does what her guts tell her to do."

Even the columnists themselves seem to agree it was time to move on. Robert Steinback says he told Fiedler months ago he felt a little constrained by his column and wanted to branch out. Then just over a month ago, Fiedler came to him with his plan to move Steinback into a senior reporting position, with a column appearing every other week in the editorial section of the paper. "I wasn't thinking it would be this exactly, but I'll take this," Steinback admits. "This happened because I wanted it to happen. There was no element of 'We wanted to push him out of there.'"

Balmaseda also professes an amazing degree of contentment with her new assignment, essentially reporting "human interest" stories for Page Four (although some inside the paper say she wasn't quite so chipper at first). "I'm excited about the new moves," Balmaseda wrote in an e-mail response to a New Times inquiry. "I'm getting a chance to do what I've been wanting to for a long time, write more in-depth columns that wouldn't be limited to any one spot." Fiedler maintains that changing the columnists' roles was their idea, not his. "I certainly don't want to intimate that these changes came about because of dissatisfaction," he asserts. "Absolutely not."

Jim and Janet, back when "alternative" still meant weekly
Steve Satterwhite
Jim and Janet, back when "alternative" still meant weekly

But in a town as profoundly conscious of the ethnic divide as Miami is, the diminishing of the prominent roles of a female Cuban writer and a male African-American writer won't go unnoticed. Especially if it appears to the public that they are making room for an Anglo. Balmaseda said while she doesn't think this is the case, she is concerned about reader perception. "I'd certainly like to see more Latinos represented in columnist roles and in the newsroom's leadership ranks. Historically, we've lagged behind Miami's demographics -- that's the bigger struggle."

Fiedler acknowledges that the issue did come up when management was considering the changes. But he argues that, since both of them will continue to write stories and opinion pieces for the Herald, their voices won't truly be lost. "I think it is patronizing to Robert and to Liz to characterize them as the 'African-American writer' and the 'Cuban writer,' because they really did write on much broader themes."

Max Castro, a regular contributor to the Herald's Other Views page, says he understands the theory that the paper is trying to enliven the lineup of columnists, but he's not sure the overall effect was well thought out. "Here we are in 2002 and what are we ending up with?" he poses rhetorically. "They are ending up with no regular staff columnists who are Latino in a community that is 60 percent Latino. It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense." Castro's comments were echoed by others inside the paper's newsroom, who wondered what the usually image-conscious Herald was thinking of.

Many at the Herald would like to believe these moves portend a return to the Eighties-era glory days of the paper's old zeal for hard-nosed daily journalism, with a greater emphasis on investigative reporting. Jim DeFede is a symbol of that hope to these optimists. "We see it as the next step in this newspaper regaining its ballsiness," quips one reporter. "We were already on that path. This just helps." For example, the reporter cites the paper's doubling up coverage of county government, and the recently aggressive school board coverage, including a blowout special investigation in April.

But some long-time Herald observers doubt DeFede's addition will do more than make the front of the local section more readable three times a week. Venerable scribe Markowitz says the ultimate problem with the Herald is not that its writers and editors don't have talent, or a will to succeed. It's that, following years of brutal cuts in staffing made to appease stockholders of the Herald's parent company Knight Ridder, there just aren't enough of them. "The people who make the financial decisions at Knight Ridder know that the margin is greater for mediocrity than for excellence, and that's fine with them," Markowitz complains. "That's why the real glory days of the Herald, when it was among the greatest [papers] in the country, are probably gone."

Markowitz mused: "I think they will continue to do a really good job on the big story -- Elian, the presidential elections, terrorism, the Catholic church scandal -- because they pull people off [other beats] to do that. The most telling effect is in the day-to-day stuff, in what's not covered. The average reader may not notice it. I notice it, and it bothers the hell out of me."

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