Bombshell Blowback

The Miami Herald's shamelessly extravagant promotion of a lousy book sets the newsroom aflame

The Miami Herald, like most large dailies, relies heavily on market research when considering changes in content or format. Several months ago, after studying some of that research, Herald publisher Alberto Ibargüen and executive editor Tom Fiedler decided to resurrect a time-honored tradition in the newspaper business -- book serialization. Says Fiedler: "Newspapers that have done serials have had excellent responses to them, by and large."

Further research indicated the Herald could do a much better job attracting female readers, especially working single women.

A light went on.

Why not serialize a book that would attract working single women? If they found just the right book, the paper could promote the hell out of it, and with any luck they'd rake in a demographic mother lode.

Miraculously, the perfect book appeared at the perfect moment. Written by six local women of a certain age, Dish & Tell: Life, Love, and Secrets is a communal confessional that supposedly delivers hot sex in a cool way -- and of course much, much more. Dubbing themselves the Miami Bombshells, the women and their professional handlers had contrived the project with a sharp eye for the bottom line. This wasn't going to be just another tell-all book headed straight for the remainder table. It was going to be a multimedia extravaganza, the complete package, expertly stage-managed and ready-made for hyperpromotion on television, the Internet, and most definitely in print.

It didn't hurt that several of the Bombshells had excellent connections inside the Herald. One of them, Sara Rosenberg, had only recently left the paper as vice president of consumer marketing. Another, Patricia San Pedro, had been a Heraldmarketing executive. Liza Gross, the paper's current managing editor for presentations and operations, isn't a Bombshell but rather a long-time friend of San Pedro's. Gross participated in brainstorming sessions for the book back in December 2002, before she joined the Herald.

Recalls Fiedler: "We thought, 'Well, hey. This sounds kind of fun. It sounds like it might appeal to women readers. It has this Sex and the City kind of feel to it.'"

The fun began this past September when Herald columnist Joan Fleischman squeezed in a mention: "Bombshell of a book deal: Six South Florida professional women who call themselves The Miami Bombshells just inked a six-figure contract with a major New York publishing house." Soon enough Herald editors, marketers, and everyone in between began plotting a promotional blitz the likes of which hadn't been seen since the paper went over the top to hype its Hurricane Andrew book, The Big One. Rick Hirsch, managing editor of multimedia and new projects, and features editor Shelley Acoca began to cull excerpts from the book-project-in-progress, which had been successfully pitched to HarperCollins.

As Dish & Tell's May publishing date approached, a "Miami Bombshells" link was added to the Herald's Website, and in prime real estate -- halfway down the paper's home page in editorial territory. The link opened up a cornucopia of Bombshelliana: video clips of the authors, gushing promotional blurbs, and a link to the Bombshells' own Website, where visitors are invited to "create their own Bombshell Circle: a space for wine, chocolate, support, and decompression."

Then the Herald unleashed its print advertising campaign. The marketing department placed quarter-page ads in the paper's front section that plugged the editorial side's upcoming coverage: "Bombs Away! Meet the Miami Bombshells. Beginning Sunday, May 22. What makes a Bombshell? It's more about brass than bra size...."

Acoca assigned not one but two Bombshell feature articles. The first appeared Sunday, May 22, under the headline "'Bombshells' aim to be a franchise." Written by Kathryn Wexler without a trace of irony, it began: "Dish & Tell, the made-in-Miami book that hits store shelves Tuesday, is all about the hype."

The second feature, by Lydia Martin, ran the next day (along with a four-color half-page ad on page 18A). Wrote Martin: "You've gotta hand it to the authors of Dish & Tell, hitting bookstores Tuesday and already primed for a media blitz. The book never truly dishes and really doesn't tell. But never mind that. It's a testament to six midlife Miami career women and their selling savvy."

When the first of seven excerpts appeared Wednesday, May 25, the Herald's internal computer bulletin board lit up with grousing from incensed editorial staffers. "Why are we publishing this absolute drivel?" wrote one reporter. "There are plenty of local authors, of fiction and nonfiction, who really write for a living and really deserve and need this publicity. Or was publishing self-indulgent crap part of Sara Rosenberg's severance package?"

Two more days of internal bitching prompted executive editor Fiedler to call a staff meeting. Some 20 to 30 reporters and editors dropped in. According to one reporter who attended, Herald TV critic Glenn Garvin bashed the book and "could not have been more derisive. And [reporter] Doug Hanks, of all people, said, 'Well, I guess this is the perfect summer reading material for people in Miami because it's about shallow, selfish, self-absorbed' -- and he just strung together a bunch of words that perfectly described life down here." (Hanks declined comment; Garvin did not return calls.)

But there were other issues as well, journalism ethics among them. "The ethical concerns have to do with the appearance, and perhaps something more substantial, that these people who are very closely identified with the Herald have reaped a windfall of free publicity for a for-profit enterprise," says the reporter who attended the meeting and asked not to be named. "If it hadn't been written by people associated with the Herald, I don't think there's much, if any, chance it would have gotten this sort of treatment."

The reporter points to the Bombshell hype as a difference between Fiedler's editorial stewardship and that of his predecessor, Marty Baron, now editor of the Boston Globe. "If Marty Baron were still here, this never would have happened," the reporter asserts. "Marty was a much more vigilant guardian of the firewall [between the paper's newsroom and business operations]." (Several other Heraldreporters contacted by New Times agree with that assessment.)

At the meeting, Fiedler made no apologies, arguing the Bombshell project fit neatly into the paper's twin goals of serializing books and attracting female readers. And today he continues to insist he has no qualms of conscience: "Not only do I not see anything unethical about that, but the idea of newspapers using material written by their staffers that is also in a book is common." He points to the Washington Post publishing excerpts from Bob Woodward's books, or the Philadelphia Inquirer excerpting work by its former reporter Mark Bowden (Blackhawk Down, Killing Pablo). "The connection between the newspaper and the writer seems to me to be a perfectly natural one and mutually beneficial," says Fiedler, perhaps unaware none of the Bombshells ever worked in the Herald newsroom.

"We weren't going to benefit from what Pat San Pedro or Sara Rosenberg got out of this," he continues, "other than -- hey, we got to print a story that we kind of hoped would be kind of edgy and fun and so forth. It turned out that the book is pretty lousy."

So why publish excerpts from a lousy book, especially considering Fiedler's admission he reviewed and approved all seven excerpts? "This wasn't about literature," he replies, a touch of exasperation creeping into his voice. "The whole idea was to have a book that would be a beach read. I think Shelley [Acoca] described this as chick-lit. And this kind of seemed it would be appropriate for that.

"To some degree we were smitten by a concept," Fiedler concedes. "Were we perhaps seduced and manipulated and used? I don't know. I really think that's yet to be known for certain. I certainly haven't heard that people are throwing up all over the Miami Herald on Sundays."

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