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]."

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

Nevertheless, Herald newsroom 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.

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."

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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