Changing Times

For more than 80 years the Miami Times has been the voice of the black community, but fewer and fewer people are listening

Sixteen years ago Miami closed out its most turbulent decade with one final spasm of violence. The last major race riot erupted in Overtown in January 1989, after Miami police officer William Lozano put a bullet in the brain of Clement Lloyd, who was fleeing another officer on his motorcycle. The dying man crashed into a car. His passenger, Allan Blanchard, was also killed. Four days of looting, fires, and general mayhem were unleashed as a result. In those moments, it seemed as if nothing had been learned in the near decade since Miami first burned in America's living rooms. Crazy town is at it again.

But if America, or indeed most of Miami, had been reading the Miami Times, the explosion would have seemed less surprising than inevitable. As the county's only major black newspaper, the Times had its ear finely tuned to the community it had served since 1923. As in the years preceding the McDuffie riots of 1980, the pent-up frustrations of a marginalized populace were well tallied in its pages. New Times published a cover story about the Miami Times a couple of months after the shooting in 1989. It was likely the first peek many Anglo and Hispanic residents had into an insular community poorly understood by outsiders.

In 1989 the Miami Times was a vibrant advocate for blacks, due in no small measure to the long-term partnership of Bahamian-born publisher Garth Reeves and his Indo-Guyanese managing editor, Mohamed Hamaludin. The mind-meld of the charming, financially savvy Reeves and the iconoclast Hamaludin produced a paper that generally lived up to the axiom about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Editorial positions were strong and often ran head-on into Miami's white and Cuban establishment. For instance, both men termed the riots "rebellions" against injustice. Asked his opinion of the request by some Hispanic officers to be pulled off patrols in Overtown and Liberty City, Reeves was unequivocal: "That's just part of the bullshit to get this officer [Lozano] freed. You are not going to have any real peace in this town as long as black people feel Hispanic officers have hunters' rights on their lives."

The racial tension just under the glittery surface of 
paradise became 
evident during the 1980 riots sparked by the acquittal 
of Miami police in 
the beating death of black motorist Arthur McDuffie
MIAMI HERALD
The racial tension just under the glittery surface of paradise became evident during the 1980 riots sparked by the acquittal of Miami police in the beating death of black motorist Arthur McDuffie
MIAMI HERALD

National and international black-oriented news was also featured alongside tales of the city. Yet the heart of the paper was social news -- weddings and funerals, graduations and church affairs -- the lifelines of a community. At the time, the Times claimed a circulation of 27,000 and a cool million dollars a year in revenue. Not bad for an enterprise that began its life as a sidebar to the Reeves family's successful printing business and that was largely subsidized by it for decades. But the years have altered the landscape for both black Miami and its newspaper. The community is rapidly diversifying with immigration, and dispersing with gentrification and upward mobility. The core of the old community, from which the most loyal readership has traditionally been drawn, is aging fast.

Meanwhile the Miami Times itself appears to be withering from the inside. Interviews with more than a dozen former employees of the paper indicate the problem is Rachel Reeves, the 55-year-old daughter to whom Garth Reeves handed over publishing duties in 1994. Staff turnover is constant, to the noticeable detriment of editorial quality. Common criticisms New Times heard while reporting this story centered on reporting inaccuracies, stale news, and careless spelling mistakes. "The way [Reeves] sees her readers is she's the only game in town, so that's the way it is," says Hansen Sinclair, who reported for the paper for six months in 2004. "It really could be something significant to the black community if it were run by someone else. It could be a force to be reckoned with because it's the only dominant black voice in Miami. But after I left, I took that off my resumé."

The majority of advertising comes from the public sector rather than black businesses. For instance, the county spent a jaw-dropping $400,000 on the weekly paper in 2003-2004 alone. "If it weren't for grants the government gave them, they wouldn't have any ads at all, aside from the obituaries and church ads," asserts Walter White, who sold ads for the Miami Times in 2003.

Luis M. Gomez, a former reporter, lasted only four months, which seems to be about average. "People either quit or they were forced out," he relates. "I was forced out. One day I came in on a payday and there was less than half of what should be there in my check. The business manager said, 'Well, Miss Reeves has decided to make you a part-time employee and so you're being paid per story.' I filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor based on the fact I worked many hours of overtime and didn't receive payment. The labor department agreed with me. She wound up having to pay out to a lot of people."

In 1999 Hamaludin left to become an editor at the Miami Herald, and his former position has been a revolving door ever since. This is a developing crisis for the Times. The decisions made by Rachel Reeves in the near future will determine if the paper survives or becomes merely another historical footnote.

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