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Exhaling, Hiaasen slumps back in his chair. "But to be fair, I don't know what the options are. I don't blame the Herald. I blame Knight Ridder. There's plenty of good talent there, plenty of good editors, all the ingredients. But when you're not in charge of the money, when you're getting memos that say öcut here, cut there,' you're screwed. Short of quitting, what do you do? It's amazing what they still do given how the budget has shrunk, the staff has shrunk, the news hole has shrunk. But it's really silly pretending it's the same paper it used to be."
While its metropolitan news-gathering has certainly suffered from staff reductions, the Herald's recent redesign has helped to spotlight arts and cultural coverage, which now rivals that of any weekly paper. But such arguments leave Hiaasen unmoved.
"It's been redesigned in such a way that you get more graphics than copy," he scoffs. "Since I've been at the paper, almost 29 years, I can't tell you how many redesigns there have been. But I can tell you how many actually improved the circulation figures: zero.You can blame the Internet, but if you're not putting out a product people feel they have to have, why the hell would they buy the paper? What they don't get anywhere else are the investigations, the really good writing -- Dave Barry, Leonard Pitts, the people you can't find anywhere else. If you're going to recycle the same old stuff, of course your circulation is going to go flat."
The only way to reverse this decline in readership, Hiaasen stresses, is to turn the industry's conventional thinking on its head and realize that "readers are more sophisticated than we give them credit for." His own moment of clarity came in 1988, with a series of scandals surrounding then-county manager Sergio Pereira, whose appointment had been seen as a watershed for the ascension of Miami's Cuban Americans into the city's power elite.
Yet while Pereira was being hailed in some quarters as a local boy made good, his actions soon progressed from the merely controversial (spending $31,000 in public funds to redecorate his office, commandeering a police helicopter for private flying lessons) to the outright criminal (a 1987 indictment for buying fifteen stolen designer suits; the case was dismissed on a technicality). In 1988 Heraldreporters uncovered a secret land deal Pereira had been cut in on, earning him a cool $128,000 after the property was rezoned by the very county commissioners who'd hired him just months before. Pereira's response? The Herald was pursuing an anti-Cuban vendetta.
"I wrote a column saying, öFire the guy!'" Hiaasen recalls angrily, which immediately prompted a tense meeting with the Herald's managing editor: "He came to me and asked if there was another way to say it. What do you mean, another way? Fire the guy! Time's up, three strikes you're out! He's an embarrassment, he shouldn't be county manager. Our own paper had documented all these things -- goodbye! öWell, we're a little worried about the reaction of the Cuban community.' You think the Cuban community wants a guy like this in office? Are they all going to cancel their subscriptions to the paper?
"This is an insult to the Cuban community by suggesting they're going to put up with this, that they're any happier about this kind of behavior than we are. öOkay, but can we just take out the line about firing him?' I can't believe we're having this discussion! Under no circumstances. If you do that, I'll be gone. I'll leave. They were so afraid there would be a mass of people marching on the building. Well, nothing happened. I didn't get a single letter from a Cuban reader saying they're offended. Then five days later the editorial board screwed up their courage and wrote an editorial saying he ought to be fired. Shortly after that, he resigned."
Hiaasen rolls his eyes, visibly distressed at the memory of the incident. "In those days, they were so afraid of offending a single Cuban American," he says. "Well, you're offending them more by thinking like this. They're smart enough to know what's honest and dishonest, what's right and wrong."
Call it a sign of the times: Hiaasen's current newsroom tangles are a bit less politically tinged. "I described the state legislature in Tallahassee as a festival of whores," he remembers of one back-and-forth rewrite. Not that his editor necessarily disagreed with the characterization. He just wasn't sure if Hiaasen's language was going to spark a protest from the decency brigade. "I had to sit there while a copy editor did a word search and found that I had used öwhorishly' in an earlier column -- so they could point to a precedent if they received any letters of complaint." Not one letter arrived.
"It all comes down to what we think of our readers. Can they handle it? They get HBO, for Christ's sake. I think they can deal with öfestival of whores.' Look, I read the letters in New Times. You've got a lot of latitude style-wise, which is great to read. And I don't get the impression that you're swamped by angry letters from people who object to seeing the word shit in the newspaper. We've got a vice president who told somebody to go fuck himself on the floor of the U.S. Senate. I don't get the sense that erasing shit from somebody's direct quote is a priority in America.