Farewell to a Weekly

Carlos Suarez de Jesus was thrilled his article about Miami's money-inflamed art world was appearing on the cover of Street Weekly's January 7 issue. It was the freelance writer's first feature-length story, on a subject the paper prided itself in covering. But any hopes the assignment would lead to more work for Suarez died the day Street hit the stands. An editor called to tell him the paper was closing.

"It totally caught me off guard," says Suarez, whose work often appears in New Times. "There are few places for writers in this town to express their voice. And when you lose one outlet, it's a terrible thing for the community. It leaves a void."

High hopes and disappointing realities are the bookends of Street's brief biography.

As trucks distributed the paper this past Thursday, Alberto Ibargüen, the chairman of the Miami Herald Publishing Company, which owns the paper along with corporate parent Knight Ridder, met with Street's staff to announce the bad news. The paper, launched in 1999, simply wasn't making money. Ibargüen promised to find jobs within the Herald's daily operation for most full-time employees, seven in editorial and eight in advertising. If not, or if an employee chose to leave, they would receive a three-month severance package.

"Well, we were losing money, and had been losing money for a while," says Street's editor, 28-year-old Brett O'Bourke, one of the first to land a job at the Herald. "Businesses that lose money don't stay in business very long."

Street was the Herald's research-and-development experiment in attracting the elusive 18 to 34-year-old reader. For more than a decade daily newspapers nationwide have been grappling with declining circulation figures, especially among younger readers. But after five years Street failed to convince clients their advertisements were being seen by enough people, young or old.

From the outset Street promised it would be fun and entertaining and that it would stay away from local news and long investigative pieces. Its original staff included Herald reporter Damarys Ocaña, former New Times music editor Greg Baker, and Herald reporter Jim Murphy. But its editorial content was inconsistent as it struggled to find a voice. In 2003 the paper retooled. Ibargüen hired O'Bourke, Street's former nightlife writer with no previous editing experience, to replace Murphy in managing the staff. Former New Times writer Gaspar Gonzalez was hired as associate editor.

Even then its attempts at humor sometimes ran afoul of the corporate bosses. In July 2003 an entire press run, about 70,000 copies, was yanked off the streets because of a cutting and irreverent reference to Miami businessman Stuart Miller. Citing unspecified legal reasons, Herald Publishing officials excised the reference to Miller (an article mocking Miami City Commissioner Arthur Teele was also sanitized), then reprinted the paper.

Six months later Street dismissed Baker and Ocaña, and hired, over a period of time, former New Times music writer Judy Cantor and Ocean Drivemagazine columnist Tom Austin, also a New Times alumnus.

But revenues continued to slip, and the paper increasingly relied on the Herald to carry it. Advertisers bought bundled ads that ran in both the Herald and Street, often at discounts. Meanwhile the paper maintained only a part-time publisher. Also the competition with a seventeen-year-old weekly continued to be a challenge.

"To be the number-two weekly in the market is basically considered a death sentence," O'Bourke says.

O'Bourke laments that his paper's unique content, which he describes as trying to "define Miami right now," would be lost. He doesn't think any local publication is doing that now.

A daily newspaper creating a free weekly is nothing new. There are at least fourteen such papers around the country owned by companies such as Gannett (publisher of USA Today), Cox, and Tribune Publishing Company, which owns the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and its weekly City Link. Many in the weekly newspaper industry, however, view these endeavors as cynical grabs at a market that eludes the dailies, not as outlets offering a true alternative to the mainstream press. For that reason, with very few exceptions, weeklies owned by daily papers are not allowed to join the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), which has 125 members.

"Knight Ridder throwing in the towel is a pretty big deal," says Richard Karpel, executive director of AAN. "If you're hoping for good journalism, this is good news. Most of these papers are not about journalism. They are business models. And I've always felt they would fail. Good newspapers are not marketing-oriented. They are editorially driven."

A Herald business story recently paraphrased Ibargüen as saying that he envisioned a future in which older, more sophisticated readers would pay up to a $1.50 for in-depth news reports, while a free tabloid news digest would be available to others. Newspapers in Washington, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia have been publishing free daily tabloids featuring condensed news reports, aimed at commuters and young people.

But O'Bourke dismissed any notion the Herald was folding Street in order to start up a daily tabloid. "A free daily as far as the Miami Herald is concerned does not appear to be imminent," he says, "and had nothing to do with us folding."

 
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