More than a few El Nuevo Herald staff members were impatient. Publisher Roberto Suarez, accompanied by editor Carlos Verdecia and Herald publisher Dave Lawrence, had called together about 60 staffers for a hastily arranged meeting.
Granted the news was significant: After more than five years at the editorial helm, Verdecia would be leaving El Nuevo. But why take this particular moment to make the dramatic announcement? It was the evening of Tuesday, November 9. Election day. And people were busy. "This was just laid down on us at 6:00 p.m. on an election night," says one employee who was present at the meeting. "If they wanted to prevent any questioning or reflection by the staff, they couldn't have picked a better time. We could only listen and then go right back to work."
The next day El Nuevo and the Herald published identical notices of Verdecia's departure: He was leaving immediately on "sabbatical" through the end of the year. Then he would seek "new career opportunities."
After the crush of the elections, when editors and reporters had a chance to mull over that explanation, at least some of them decided it was lame at best. As everyone knew, Verdecia's grip on El Nuevo had weakened substantially in late September, when the results of an internal survey showed that a substantial majority of the editorial staff did not approve of his job performance. Following that embarrassing revelation, staffers say they began to hear rumors of Verdecia's impending demise. (Reached by telephone, Verdecia declined to discuss his departure from El Nuevo. His replacement has yet to be named.)
Besides, the sabbatical explanation already was suspect. Just three months earlier El Nuevo's managing editor, Fabiola Santiago, left the paper on a sabbatical in order to teach the fall semester at University of Florida in Gainesville. Santiago, a close Verdecia ally who reportedly encouraged the cliquish favoritism plaguing El Nuevo, will not return to her management job. (She has been replaced by Barbara Gutierrez.) The Miami Herald has hired Santiago as a writer on the paper's enterprise team. "At El Nuevo Herald people don't get fired," quips one employee. "They just go on leave forever."
Most of us think of the Miami Herald Publishing Company as the folks who produce our chock-full-of-news daily paper. But like any large corporation whose primary product suffers an anemic growth curve, MHPC is quickly learning to diversify. Or as the suits like to put it, to generate new revenue centers.
The most intriguing of these new money magnets is a twelve-page monthly newsletter devoted exclusively to Cuba. Advance rumors of the publication provoked a few snickers, especially from the Herald's avowed enemies at the Cuban American National Foundation, who predicted it would be nothing more than a shrewdly marketed Herald rehash. No such luck.
Launched in September, the innovatively titled CubaNews is actually a compendium of info-snippets so arcane they'd never make it into the Herald's news sections: hotel management agreements, specialized economic indicators, demographic profiles. In fact, CubaNews operates independent of the Herald, with its own stable of freelance writers and its own offices, says editor Mark Seibel.
At a subscription rate of $350 per year the newsletter is being marketed to the corporate elite. "It's intended for CEOs and strategic planners who do business with Cuba," notes Seibel. He says subscribers already number "in the hundreds," most outside Miami, with an eventual goal of a thousand.
Formerly the Herald's respected foreign editor, Seibel says the newsletter concept had been kicking around for years. But only recently, as Castro's teetering regime flails about for capitalist supports, has the idea come to fruition. Though CubaNews reads, quite unabashedly, like a primer for would-be imperialists (general manager Guillermo Cueto is a former CIA intelligence officer), Seibel says the publication will eschew political coverage.
That may sound odd coming from Seibel, who just a few years ago helped the Herald win a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the politically charged Iran-contra affair. But since returning from a Harvard Neiman Fellowship in July 1992, he has been kicked upstairs. Aside from editing CubaNews, Seibel now serves as MHPC's director of international operations.
Thus, while he once led the charge to expose Ronald Reagan's foreign adventures, Seibel now spends his days overseeing MHPC's own expansionist visions. In recent months, he has revamped the Herald's international edition, adding staff and expanding its circulation. He has also helped in the start-up of an El Nuevo Herald fax edition, which is transmitted to cruise ships and upper-crust hotels, and a shopping flyer called Florida Marketplace, which is distributed to Miami-bound consumers in Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil.
Seibel admits he misses working in the trenches, but he says he is also enjoying the prospect of building the Herald's international presence. "If someone had told me five years ago that I was going to be worrying about revenue, I would have thought they were crazy," he muses. "But revenue is not a bad thing to worry about. It's important to have people who worry about those things, but who also worry about the journalism."
Could it be? Rick and Sally -- Channel 7's glamour 'n' gore twins -- are actually skipping town? Sadly, yes. As reported by journalists with far more integrity than we could ever hope to possess, Sally Fitz has already made plans to head off to Chicago, and Sanchez seems determined to find a station (any station) that will hire him away.
Fortunately there is one South Florida media source poised to fill the blood-spattered void Rick and Sally will leave behind, a publication dedicated to giving its readers what it sincerely believes they want: the most sensational and horrifying tragedies the world has to offer.
Discerning readers of the Herald might have noticed the subtle shift, particularly among those stories chosen for display on the front page, in that precious viewing area "above the fold." A recent sampling:
November 30: "Gunfight Erupts Between Arafat Loyalists, Israeli Soldiers" (featuring a color photo of terrified Palestinians fleeing gunfire).
December 1: "The Wreck of the Silver Meteor: 70 hurt as Amtrak train smashes into truck" (color photo of the wreck).
December 3: "The End of the Cocaine King: Police kill Escobar during gun battle atop Medellin roof."
December 4: "Notorious Drug Baron Laid to Rest" (color photo of Escobar's funeral).
December 5: "Flying Date Ends in Tragedy" (color photo of the victim accompanied by this caption: "Courtney Hillman, 18, was found strapped to plane seat").
December 8: "Terror Aboard N.Y. Train: Gunman kills 4, wounds 17" (color photo of a tearful relative).
December 9: (Train follow-up) "Racial Hatred Drove Massacre Suspect." (Next to this report was a story about a 48 Hours broadcast spotlighting Florida crime. The headline teaser: "Dade leaders called Wednesday's network program negative, one-dimensional, and sensationalistic.")
Nothing could ever replace the Rick and Sally show, of course. But it's comforting to know that the Miami Herald is trying.
Special bonus item! A challenging test of your cryptographic skills. See if you can untangle this coded message from Herald sports editor Edwin "The" Pope. The sly master of obfuscation wrote this as the opening two paragraphs of his December 9 column:
"Mickey Mantle grinned that slow grin, the same kind a screen ape grinned, before he hit 536 home runs and made 20 American League all-star teams.
"No offense to baseball's mightiest Mick. So-called screen apes were idolized in northeast Oklahoma, where Mantle grew into one in the same mine his father worked. Screen apes were the only miners who could handle 16-pound sledgehammers and break rocks into small enough pieces to go through screens."
You Read It Here Second
New Times headline: "Free Wheelin'" (about Metro's shuttle service called "The Breeze," which runs a loop from downtown Miami through South Beach). Publication date: October 14, 1992. Herald headline: "Easy Riders." Publication date: September 26, 1993. Elapsed time: 347 days.
New Times headline: "Lessons of a Lounge Lizard" (about South Beach nightclub promoter Michael Capponi). Publication date: March 10, 1993. Herald headline: "SoBe Prince, 21, Already Veteran of the Club Scene." Publication date: September 12, 1993. Elapsed time: 186 days.
New Times headline: "Move Over, Morris" (about cat trainer Hector Castaner and his talented feline, Buster). Publication date: April 21, 1993. Herald headline: "Can You Teach an Old Cat New Tricks?" Publication date: October 29, 1993. Elapsed time: 191 days.
New Times headline: "Kids Just Wanna Have Fun" (about the growing popularity of amusement parks for kids). Publication date: August 4, 1993. Herald headline: "Kids Can Romp, Rock and Roll at Area Fun Parlors." Publication date: November 12, 1993. Elapsed time: 100 days.
New Times headline: "Rubber Match" (about a store called Condomania and its battle to advertise in the Southern Bell Yellow Pages). Publication date: August 11, 1993. Herald headline: "Condom Store Owner Fights for Directory Ad." Publication date: August 19, 1993. Elapsed time: 8 days.
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New Times headline: "Man of Letters" (about the American AIDS Alert Association and its controversial leader, Bruce Gorcyca). Publication date: September 15, 1993. Herald headline: "Group's AIDS Literature, Letters Stirring Controversy." Publication date: October 6, 1993. Elapsed time: 21 days.
New Times headline: "Temple Tantrum" (about the conflict over the future of Temple Beth El in North Bay Village). Publication date: November 24, 1993. Herald headline: "As Battle Rages, Temple Struggles Along." Publication date: December 5, 1993. Elapsed time: 11 days.
"1 Herald Plaza" is open for business and is accepting all tips, rumors, internal memos, confidential documents, et cetera. Anonymity guaranteed! Call the editors or a staff writer at 372-0004. Fax: 372-3446.
MHPC's CubaNews reads, quite unabashedly, like a primer for would-be imperialists.