Bad Press

Times are tough over at One Herald Plaza, home to both the Miami Herald and its corporate parent, Knight-Ridder, Inc. A sense of gloom pervades the Bunker on the Bay, as the obsession to increase profits has led to layoffs and an unprecedented exodus of some of the paper's best writers and editors.

But while one tends to think of the Herald's decline as a purely parochial concern, the paper has received an amazing amount of national press attention recently -- all of it bad. Indeed, so many blows have landed that if this were a prizefight, the referee would have stopped it by now.

In September The New Yorker took the first jab, deriding the Herald as "thin and anemic, a booster sheet." In October New York Times media columnist William Glaberson delivered a veritable roundhouse, ridiculing the Herald's attempts to redefine its editorial mission through market surveys and focus groups. That effort by the Herald, which resulted in what publisher Dave Lawrence describes as the paper's new "nine pillars of excellence" -- which include consumer reporting and news about health and medicine but exclude business reporting, national politics, the economy, and world affairs -- has, according to Glaberson, "drawn bemusement in news rooms across the country."

In the December issue of American Journalism Review, Reese Cleghorn, the highly respected dean of the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and president of AJR, wrote an extraordinary column lambasting the Herald and Knight-Ridder in particular, and newspapers in general, for placing profit ahead of quality and for pandering to readers by using polls and surveys to help determine content.

"The Miami Herald, of all places, is paying serious attention to advice that it put national and international news at the bottom of a long list of priorities," writes Cleghorn. "Miami: a newly arrived national city. Miami: a truly international city. Miami: where the Knights won the franchise with guts and moxie."

In the current issue of AJR, the Herald takes yet another public stomping. A cover story by Susan Paterno entitled "Whither Knight-Ridder?" examines the many problems facing Knight-Ridder's new chairman Tony Ridder, not the least of which is a lack of confidence felt by many editors and reporters in the tack Ridder will take with the 41-newspaper chain. Ridder was appointed chairman and chief executive officer this past year, succeeding long-time Knight-Ridder chief Jim Batten, who died in June.

In Miami, AJR reported, the Herald recently received orders to increase the paper's profit margin from sixteen to eighteen percent, in part through layoffs and cutbacks in news-gathering resources. The article quoted Herald political editor Tom Fiedler, who commented that the announcement marked "the first time it became unmistakably clear that Knight-Ridder was a corporation interested in protecting profits first and a news organization interested in the ideals of journalism second. I know that sounds harsh and I don't mean it to be. A lot of people at the top care about quality journalism, Tony Ridder included. But it is as if we made a Faustian bargain when we went public. And we didn't realize the implications of that bargain until now."

While the AJR piece deals mostly with the corporate pitfalls Knight-Ridder faces, a story in the current Columbia Journalism Review homes in directly on Miami, as its headline suggests: "Has Knight-Ridder's Flagship Gone Adrift? Trouble at The Miami Herald." The article, written by local freelancer David Villano, chronicles internal troubles at the Herald, and is similar to "The Incredible Shrinking Herald," a New Times cover story published this past June.

"Just when you think morale can't get any worse," Florida International University journalism professor Kevin Hall is quoted as saying, "it gets worse."

And the battering isn't over yet.
The February Harper's, on newsstands now, pokes further fun at the newspaper, for a memo Herald executive editor Doug Clifton wrote last summer regarding the paper's coverage of Bosnia. He had not "really 'read'" a Bosnia story in two years, Clifton confessed in the memo, and wondered what the paper could do to liven up its coverage.


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