Bad News

No one is more surprised by Tom Fiedler's appointment as the new executive editor of the Miami Herald than Tom Fiedler. The paper's publisher, Alberto Ibargüen, first approached him in June, as Fiedler was preparing for a trip to South America. Ibargüen told Fiedler the Herald's executive editor, Martin Baron, was considering a job offer to become the editor of the Boston Globe. "We sort of kicked that around," says Fiedler, who worked at the time as editor of the Herald's editorial pages. "And I pretty well came to the conclusion that there was no way Marty would take the job in Boston."

Ibargüen hoped Fiedler's analysis was correct, but in the meantime he had to begin looking for a replacement in case Baron headed north. Ibargüen then asked if Fiedler would be interested in the position. "I was dumbfounded by the question," Fiedler admits. "Truly I was astonished. My first reaction was: “Alberto, you just can't be serious, because there are all of these gaps in my background that are obvious to everyone, primarily that I have never had newsroom-management responsibility higher than an assistant city editor.'"

A week later Fiedler was in São Paulo, Brazil, at a phone booth, when he heard from Ibargüen that Baron had accepted the job in Boston. He then offered the post to Fiedler. "It may have taken Marty three weeks to decide," he says, "but it took me three seconds before I said yes."

Fiedler is still shocked that Baron, Herald executive editor for only eighteen months, decided to leave. "I was sure Marty wouldn't do this," he offers. "He had such great success in such a short time at the Herald that I felt the glow of that would be enough for him to want to commit here. And also, frankly, I thought there would be a little bit of guilt associated with leaving so soon."

The selection of Fiedler stands in sharp contrast to the process Ibargüen used two years ago in selecting Baron. Back then Ibargüen conducted a national search before luring Baron from the New York Times. This time around he said it wasn't necessary. "I didn't feel that I was going to find a whole crop of editor candidates out there," Ibargüen notes. The Herald also is a different place than it was two years ago, he contends. Baron was hired to convince a demoralized staff that it still was capable of doing great journalism, and he accomplished that, Ibargüen argues, citing as proof the paper's coverage of the Elian Gonzalez raid that won a Pulitzer Prize and, more recently, its recount of Florida's disputed presidential ballots.

Now that the staff's confidence has been resurrected, Ibargüen says, he needs an editor who would nurture it. As far as he's concerned, Fiedler is the perfect choice: "He is someone whose judgment I trust and whose values I share."

Fiedler believes he understands the attributes Ibargüen found desirable. "To a great degree people are comfortable with me," he says, adding that Ibargüen will never have to worry about him leaving the Herald. "I'm there for good or worse. This is my newspaper, and I'm there to stay."

Fiedler's appointment was greeted with approval by many of his colleagues. "I think it is a great, great decision," gushes Kathleen Krog, an editorial writer and columnist. "I think it is a really sharp appointment by Alberto. Tom's heart has always been in the newsroom."

Former Herald publisher David Lawrence, Jr., also applauds the selection. "A superb choice," he says. "Tom is a totally honest human being. He's earned his promotions through his strong journalism over many, many years. He knows Miami, knows the local community but is never provincial in the way he looks at things." Losing Baron was "very significant," Lawrence concedes, but "having Tom take over instantly was the best news you could get out of that."

The rush to appoint Fiedler obviously was intended to blunt the damage to the delicate psyche of the Herald newsroom. Ibargüen wanted to convey a sense of stability at the paper. Appointing the popular Fiedler was sure to do that.

Ibargüen, however, may have had another reason for immediately replacing Baron: to squelch speculation that the highly regarded editor may have dumped the Herald in protest of recent budget cuts imposed by the paper's parent company, Knight Ridder. This past March, Jay Harris, publisher of Knight Ridder's San Jose Mercury News, staged just such a protest over cutbacks by unexpectedly resigning. Since then Harris has drawn national attention with his complaints, accusing Knight Ridder of placing profits ahead of journalism.

In a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Harris described one meeting with executives from Knight Ridder who were demanding staff reductions and budgets cuts. "What troubled me most about the meeting was its myopic focus on numbers," Harris said. "It wasn't the cutting so much. I have cut and forced others to over many years. I was taught how to do so by the best on both sides of the table. What troubled me -- something that had never happened before in all my years in the company -- was that little or no attention was paid to the consequences of achieving “the number.'"

Harris's attacks have been hurtful both to Knight Ridder and its chief executive officer, Anthony P. Ridder. From 1988 to 1994, Harris had worked at Knight Ridder's corporate headquarters in Miami as vice president for operations directly under Ridder. And it was Ridder who installed Harris as San Jose's publisher in February 1994. Thanks in part to Harris's criticism, Ridder has been vilified by journalists nationwide, earning the sobriquet Darth Ridder for his zeal in slashing his papers' budgets.

Ibargüen wanted to make sure Baron's departure did not cause any additional embarrassment for Ridder or provoke another round of critical newspaper articles about the company. When he announced Baron's resignation and Fiedler's appointment during a hastily called July 2 meeting with the Herald's newsroom staff, he invoked the name of the former San Jose publisher. "This is not a Jay Harris situation," Ibargüen declared, an assertion that became something of a mantra in the ensuing days.

Despite the glowing tributes, the new editor will still have to prove himself, particularly in light of his acknowledged lack of newsroom-management experience. Some Herald staffers believe that in choosing Fiedler, Ibargüen bypassed more experienced in-house candidates in favor of someone he could easily control and who would not be an obstacle in the event that additional budget cuts are ordered by Knight Ridder. Everyone at the paper may like and respect Fiedler, but eventually he will have to confront the perception that he is too sympathetic toward the corporate side of the business. And at a time when Knight Ridder has been driving up profits at the expense of personnel, many fear Fiedler will not be tough enough, or capable enough, in defending the newsroom's budget. "He is a decent, kind, even-tempered, sweet, self-effacing guy," says one long-time reporter. "But right now is there anyone who can be in that job who will be anything other than the shit-catcher for Knight Ridder?"

On his last day at the Herald, Marty Baron sounds like a man in pain. "I like Miami, I like South Florida, I like my colleagues at the Herald," he laments. "I wasn't looking to leave. This just came along."

In the end he chose Boston because it presents a greater opportunity. "The Globe is a bigger newspaper and as a result has more resources," he says. "It has a Washington bureau, it has more foreign bureaus, probably more specialists than the Herald does. The range of the newspaper is greater, so it presents new and interesting challenges."

One challenge Baron had not anticipated when he came to Miami was Knight Ridder's determination to cut costs by reducing its workforce. Earlier this year the company vowed to eliminate nearly 2100 jobs at its 32 newspapers. For the Miami Herald that meant losing 180 full-time employees, including 42 in the newsroom. When Ibargüen announced the cuts in May, he said he would try to accomplish them by offering senior employees a financial incentive to retire early. If enough people didn't accept the offered buyout, then -- under orders from Knight Ridder -- he would begin firing people.

Employees who were eligible for early retirement were given 45 days to decide, which left everyone else anxiously waiting to see if the buyouts would be successful. "During that 45-day window, it was really difficult for people to concentrate on the news business," Fiedler reports, "because they knew that if, on July 5, the targets weren't met, then along comes step two -- involuntary separation."

Some good news also arrived during that period: Knight Ridder agreed to reduce from 42 to 27 the number of editorial positions that would be eliminated. Nine of those ended up being vacancies that would be left unfilled; the remaining eighteen were spread around the department. Among those who agreed to take early retirement were editorial writers Martha Musgrove and Wingate Payne, sports columnist Gary Long, copy editor Bill Robertson, photographer Jonathan Kral, religion writer D. Aileen Dodd, Broward reporter Shari Rudavsky, home-furnishings writer Jo Werne, and Miami-Dade reporter Arnold Markowitz.

"I couldn't afford not to take it," says the 64-year-old Markowitz, who joined the Herald 34 years ago. He says Knight Ridder was extremely generous in its offer, which varied depending on the number of years a person worked at the paper. Markowitz received a payout worth more than two years' salary. "There is probably never going to be another buyout offer at the Herald like that," he says. "And look, the handwriting is on the wall. The company is going to continue to solve its problems in this fashion, through buyouts and reducing staff and cutting budgets."

Journalists across the nation may bemoan that approach, but Wall Street has rewarded it. As a result of the cuts imposed by Tony Ridder, the company's stock soared this month to a 52-week high of more than $60 per share, in spite of the fact that advertising revenues were down and Knight Ridder was unable to meet its quarterly profit projections. No one benefits more from rising stock prices than Ridder himself. He owns or has options to buy more than $20 million of Knight Ridder stock. "The people who run the company in San Jose just have a huge financial stake in keeping the price of the stock high," says Markowitz.

The budget cuts, Markowitz believes, will definitely affect the Herald's news operations. "Journalistically the Herald is not going to be able to do what it used to do," he says. "The average reader will probably not notice much difference day to day. The careful reader will, and certainly the insider, who knows what the paper is missing, will. The Herald will still do great journalism when events arise, but the day-to-day stuff will be affected."

Herald executives often cite the recent Pulitzers as evidence that it is still one of the nation's best papers. Markowitz's point regarding day-to-day coverage, however, is more telling. One example critics point to: If the paper had done a better job covering Miami government in the early Nineties, it might have detected problems with the city's finances, brought them to light, and goaded officials into addressing them, thereby avoiding Miami's financial collapse and the imposition of state oversight. Instead the Herald had a reporter assigned to the city only part-time.

The same criticism could be made today regarding the City of Homestead, Miami International Airport, and the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. The pattern seems to be that the Herald becomes interested in a subject only when a crisis develops. Then, ironically, the paper prides itself on winning awards for "exposing" the very crisis that might have been prevented had it been more diligent earlier.

Marty Baron has been careful not to attribute his departure to disagreement with Knight Ridder's problem-solving methods. Privately, his friends say, he has been disappointed but chose not to voice his concerns for fear that would throw the newsroom into another destructive bout of self-doubt. "I think the Herald is positioned to do some excellent journalism," he says diplomatically. "While the buyouts were painful, I think they were managed as well as could be and with the least possible damage to the newsroom. Not that I was thrilled with them by any means, but I still think the newsroom can do some excellent journalism and does. And I think that will be true for a long time to come."

Knight Ridder is not the only newspaper chain to embark on a cost-cutting spree in response to a slowing economy and a dramatic decline in advertising revenues. Baron's new paper, the Boston Globe, owned by the New York Times Company, recently went through a series of buyouts and budget cuts. The difference, though, is that Knight Ridder is perceived to be a company that will continue making cuts even if it endangers its journalistic mission. Baron acknowledges he is troubled by the trend throughout the industry. "I'm concerned about anything that would lead to a degradation in the quality of news coverage," he says. "But these have been businesses for a long while. It's not that all of a sudden MBAs have taken over newspapers. There were MBAs running newspapers twenty years ago, no question about it."

Today, however, the expectations are different. Stockholders in newspaper companies demand higher and higher returns on their investment. The problem, as Baron recognizes, is that newspapers aren't like other commercial enterprises. "It is a different kind of business, and it does have a moral purpose, a social purpose, and it should be viewed in a different light, in a different perspective," he says. "The community obligations of a newspaper, the First Amendment obligations of a newspaper, should come into play." Stockholders, he adds, must realize it isn't just about profits and increased stock values.

Does Tony Ridder understand that newspapers aren't just about profits and shareholder value? Baron ponders the question. "Yes, I think he does," he responds. The Miami Herald, he offers by way of example, was the only newspaper in the nation willing to fund its own ballot review following the presidential election. "Knight Ridder made the commitment; Tony Ridder made the commitment to pay for it," he says. "No other news organization was willing to bear that kind of cost on its own." The initial estimate for the project was $250,000, but the actual cost was closer to $725,000. "When the bills finally came in and were all added up, I never heard one word of protest from Knight Ridder or Tony Ridder," Baron relates. "In that instance I don't think Tony Ridder was thinking about profits. He was thinking about the social purpose of a newspaper."

But are the budget cuts and their effect on the Herald's coverage of Miami consistent with someone who truly believes in the social purpose of a newspaper? Will the Herald be able to meet its obligations to the community? "I think there are things as a paper we want to do and probably ought to do that we're not able to do," Baron concedes. "There is a whole range of coverage in just about every area of the paper that we would like to add that would fall under the rubric of providing more comprehensive, thorough coverage of the community, that would allow for more enterprise, more investigations, and more day-to-day coverage. And I would hope that a day will come in the future when the Herald will be able to restore some of the things that have been cut recently." Those hopes may not be realistic. In May, Ridder promised a group of Wall Street analysts that the cuts imposed on Knight Ridder newspapers were permanent. Even if the economy improves, Ridder explained, staffing levels will be kept down. "We're going to operate with a lower number of people," he pledged.

(Miami New Times also has been affected by the economic downturn. The newspaper is owned by New Times, a privately held, Phoenix-based company operating thirteen weekly papers around the nation. In April the company's principal owners, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, announced a salary freeze at all their papers. Earlier this year the company, citing budget constraints, fired three newsroom employees at the Fort Worth Weekly. No layoffs are expected at Miami New Times, though two writing positions will remain vacant for the foreseeable future.)

The newspaper Tom Fiedler inherits may have been re-energized under Baron, but it is still a much different place than it was ten to fifteen years ago. Despite a population boom in South Florida, weekday circulation has plummeted from 425,000 in 1989 to just 326,000 this year. The amount of space devoted to news has decreased. Even the physical dimensions of the paper, the width and length of each page, have shrunk. The number of people in the newsroom has dropped from about 500 in the late Eighties to approximately 375 today. And the journalistic scope has been curtailed. Not long ago the Herald operated bureaus in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; national bureaus in New York and Atlanta; and reporters posted throughout the state to cover Florida news. All that is now gone. In 1998 the Herald also shuttered its respected Sunday magazine, Tropic.

Fiedler knows there is a tendency within the Herald to romanticize the Eighties as the paper's glory days, but he disagrees. "There are a lot of people who believe there was a golden era," he says. "And there were some fantastic people back then. I think we did a lot of things very well. But I also think there were some things we didn't do very well. I don't know that we were as connected to parts of this community that we should have been. We were big and boisterous and in a lot of ways arrogant. We had a lot of money. Nobody that I can remember back then told me not to spend money, so we tend to look back on it as a terrific period.

"We've become more honest with what we need to be," he says of the Herald's narrower editorial focus. "We're different. I don't want to say that in some ways we are better or not as good. We are a different paper, and our goal is different."

One of his own goals is to play a much more public role than his predecessors. He says he wants "to be the newsroom's face to the community at large, and hopefully to project to the community what I believe the Herald is: That we are important to the community, that we care about the community, that we are the watchdog, and that we take that role seriously and that we want to do it both aggressively and fairly."

Before his recent discussion with New Times, Fiedler had been busy preparing a small farewell party he was hosting for Martha Musgrove, one of the writers who agreed to take the buyout. He realizes that many people on his staff are worried about the departure of so many veterans. In addition to the individuals who took buyouts, the paper has lost some of its best reporters in recent months. Steve Bousquet, the paper's Tallahassee bureau chief, left to join the St. Petersburg Times; Mark Silva, the Herald's political editor, accepted a job at the Orlando Sentinel; investigative reporter Tom Dubocq is now at the Palm Beach Post; political writer Karen Branch is at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; veteran county hall reporter Don Finefrock recently took a job with the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust; business writer James McNair is at the Cincinnati Enquirer; architecture writer Peter Whoriskey went to the Washington Post; and Ana Acle left to write for Hispanic Magazine. "We are going through turbulent times, no secret," Fiedler admits.

But was the turbulence caused by Knight Ridder's severe cuts really justified? "I don't know that they had a choice, I really don't," Fiedler says.

Couldn't they have chosen to have a profit margin of only 18 or 20 percent this year instead of 22 percent? "I wish it were that easy," he counters. "It is something I wrestle with myself. The Herald is an extremely successful newspaper. There is no doubt about it. We made [a profit margin of] 22 percent last year. Every newspaper is making a little bit less this year, but we are doing fine. The problem that we are facing here, not of our own choosing, is that Wall Street doesn't think that's fine. Wall Street thinks we are underperforming because USA Today makes 29 percent and other newspapers make more. So they look at the Herald and all the 32 Knight Ridder papers as underperforming. They say that newspapers should be at 25 or 26 percent, whatever the level is, and Knight Ridder is down here, so the Knight Ridder stock is devalued. Well, I don't have to worry about that, but people like Tony Ridder do because Tony Ridder is in that situation where he's got people who own these millions of shares of Knight Ridder stock."

Ridder himself included? "Well, he might. He's also got his name on the company," Fiedler responds. "But there are also a lot of people who are retirees, the typical little old lady in Dubuque, for instance, and she's got it in her portfolio. And if Tony Ridder is not doing what he needs to do to see to it that this stock has a value that Wall Street says it should, then Tony Ridder is not fulfilling his responsibility.

"And I can't second-guess Tony Ridder and say that he should stand up and say to the market: “Screw you guys. We think that twenty percent is fine.' Because then the market will turn around and say, “Okay, we're going to dump Knight Ridder stock.' And Knight Ridder stock drops, and along comes Fox or somebody and they decide to buy up the company. Then what happens to journalism and what we believe our legacy should be?"

Recognizing the company's predicament, Fiedler says he must be realistic about the newsroom's budgets. "All I can do is say, “Okay these are the resources I have,'" he recites fatalistically. "I can argue all I want to get more, and maybe I'll get some, but ultimately I'll get what I get. And then what I've got to do is turn around and say, “Now I want to do the best journalism I can with what I have.'"

Is he surprised by concerns over his willingness to fight on the newsroom's behalf, even if it means challenging Ibargüen and the corporate officers in San Jose? "I have no problem taking those issues forward," he says. "There comes a time when we can carry the argument so far, and then you either win or you lose. And if you lose, what are you going to do, quit?"

San Jose publisher Jay Harris, of course, did exactly that. "I don't know if that ultimately will be looked on as being brave or self-indulgent," Fiedler muses. "I'm not sure. It didn't make any difference. It didn't keep Knight Ridder from doing the cuts it felt it had to do. I don't want to second-guess Jay. I think Jay was a first-class journalist. And I'm frustrated by the same things that Jay Harris is frustrated by."

One of those frustrations, according to Fiedler, is the notion that "there are no goalposts" when it comes to Wall Street's desire for higher and higher newspaper profits. This year analysts might demand a 25 percent profit margin, but next year they might raise it to 28 percent, 30 the year after that. Nobody knows where it will end, or if it will end. "You feel like your gut is constantly turning," he says.

So has Tony Ridder been unfairly maligned by journalists? "There's no way I can answer that without sounding like either a suckup or a fool," Fiedler replies. "But I'll tell you this at whatever risk that comes: I think that Tony is unfairly vilified. I don't think that Tony wants to go down in newspaper history as Darth Ridder. His name is on this corporation, and I don't think he wants it to be associated with profits over journalism."

As an advocate for the editorial department, though, shouldn't Fiedler stop worrying about Ridder's perspective and view matters solely in terms of how they affect his newsroom and this community? Is he simply too nice a guy to be a warrior for the newsroom? "I can't tell people that if I pounded the table and yelled more it would make a difference," he answers.

"I may be a nice guy, but I don't think people who know me really well think I'm a soft person" he continues, slightly annoyed. "People who know me realize I am very competitive and always have been competitive. Competitive in the newsroom and competitive in my life. My outside interests are all competitive things. I don't like to be second."


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