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Pulp Friction

Forget the Miami Herald's efforts to whip the Sun-Sentinel on its own turf. That contest involves banal considerations such as market share, pass-along rates, and focus groups. If you're looking for a good old-fashioned newspaper war, full of vituperation, vengeance, and litigation, cast your gaze southward to Coconut Grove. Earlier this year, this hotbed of civic activity had one monthly newspaper, with a staff of two. Now it can boast two monthlies, each with a staff of one. The individuals in question, once allies, are now scrapping like the feral cats that inhabit the neighborhood.

Jack King's Coconut Grover is in its ninth year of publication. The first issue of the Coconut Grove Times, edited and published by Elena V. Carpenter, King's former partner at the Grover, came out last month.

How will Grove residents choose between these two journalistic endeavors? Will they even bother? Is there enough going on in the Grove to warrant two somewhat similar papers -- even if King's remains its pugnacious self and Carpenter's continues its more placid tone? Perhaps more important, are there enough advertising dollars to go around?

Interesting questions, but all are beside the point. The conflict between the Grover and the Times is less a clash of ideologies than a clash of egos; some maintain that the papers themselves are aimed not at target markets but at the owners' cliques. "Elena's paper will appeal to Elena's friends," says long-time Grove resident and Cocoanut Grove Village Council member Glenn Terry. "Jack's appeals to Jack's friends at the Taurus [restaurant]."

Since its inception, King's Coconut Grover has covered the Miami community on a mostly monthly basis. King has reported on local events, and he's also used the paper as a bully pulpit for his own acerbic take on life in the Grove. Frequent targets have included the Coconut Grove Civic Club, the management of the Goombay Festival, and basically anyone else who, for one reason or another, ended up on King's bad side.

King's journalistic approach was working well enough for him to keep publishing, but he realized that greater success would depend on his having a partner to manage the business side. Carpenter, a Miami public relations consultant with elite political and business connections, responded to his search for a sidekick. They formed a corporation called Grove Publishing in August 1995 to produce the newspaper. "The Grover was a little publication that, in my estimation, had a lot of potential that hadn't been tapped," Carpenter remembers.

In exchange for 50 percent ownership of the company, Carpenter paid $1000 up front and was to pay a remaining $24,000 incrementally. Some of her salary, instead of being paid in cash, could go directly toward paying for her stock.

At first it seemed that the deal would work out famously. The energetic Carpenter got the Grover on a strict monthly schedule, organized the office, and began drumming up ad sales. All in all, Grove observers agree, the paper began to look like a more professional publication.

But this marriage of convenience began to unravel after the first few months. According to King, Carpenter tried to influence the editorial content -- which, other than her control of the social pages, went beyond her agreed-upon role. "Elena has -- how should I put this -- always considered herself a political player," King says. "There was a lot of tugging about what stories should run, what stories shouldn't run. People in the community felt [the Grover] was being compromised editorially."

Much of this perception was rooted in Carpenter's involvement with Coconut Grove developer Bruno Carnesella, with whom she's had a relationship for seven years. In one instance, King says, he wrote an article critical of Carnesella and his partners for not going ahead with a planned development that King supported; Carpenter told him to back off. Another time, King was enthusiastically bashing a proposed film studio project on Dinner Key when Carpenter "came down like gangbusters" on him, King recalls. The proposal was put forth by a group that included Sylvester Stallone. Their public relations representative? Elena V. Carpenter.

"How can she handle PR for this group and make editorial decisions?" King asks.

Carpenter confirms that she was then and is now the publicist for the group, but she denies that she tried to influence King's coverage of the issue. "He stated that people within the [development] team were speaking against the project," she declares. "I told him, 'If you're going to print that, attribute it. Don't just throw it out there.'"

Despite such tiffs, King says he was not prepared for the way in which Carpenter parted ways with the paper. Returning home from a trip to Puerto Rico in March, King was served with a summons in his front yard; Carpenter had filed suit against him. When King arrived at the paper's McFarlane Road office, all of Carpenter's office equipment was gone.

 

Carpenter remembers these events differently. The day before he went on his trip, she says, King told her he had found a loophole in their contract and that she was no longer in a position to own 50 percent of the Grover. It was this announcement, Carpenter says, that prompted her to clear out of her offices and file suit.

She is suing King for unpaid wages, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duties, and dissolution of the company. Her grounds for these grievances are that King "acted with willful misconduct and in conscious disregard for the best interests of the Corporation." She also accuses King of "sexually harassing office staff," "appearing at the office obviously under the influence of alcohol," and "recklessly publishing materials under circumstances more likely than not to embroil the Corporation in needless and potentially costly litigation." She is requesting damages no less than $100,000.

King says he has "no idea what she's talking about" regarding the sexual harassment charge. As for the drinking, he says the two of them would sometimes sit around the office, drink wine, and brainstorm. "She's the one who brought the wine," he insists. "But did I come in plastered and start ordering people around at 3:00 p.m.? No."

In his formal response to the suit, King has denied all of these allegations. He countersued, averring that Carpenter, among other things, drove away advertisers and lured part-time Grover employees away -- to join the Coconut Grove Times, of course.

Neither Carpenter nor her attorney Paul Schwiep would comment on the pending suit. In the meantime Carpenter is putting the finishing touches on the June issue of her crisply designed publication and forging ahead with her vision of what a Coconut Grove newspaper should be all about.

"My goal is to have responsible journalism," Carpenter says. "There's a lot of controversy that can be found in the Grove. We're not going to shy away from it, but we'll be reporting both sides, speaking with both sides, getting the facts."

Her inaugural issue is a twenty-four-page affair on high-quality white paper with eight pages of color photography and slightly more than eleven pages of ads. The May issue of the Grover, on its customary newsprint, weighed in at forty pages, with six four-color pages and some nineteen pages of ads. The subject matter of the publications -- city news briefs, business stories, festival announcements -- overlaps quite a bit, though King's contains more opinion columns (including his own).

King's assessment of his competition? "If plagiarism is the highest form of flattery, I'm very flattered," he sneers. "I didn't know I was that good."

Though King has said he wants to preserve the greater efficiency Carpenter instituted, he continues to assert his own independent editorial voice in the Grover. When it comes to King's "Eye on the Grove" column, that voice is as strident as ever. In the current issue, King lashes out at an off-duty cop at Johnny Rockets who "hits on girls all night," refers to the recently resigned Port of Miami chief Carmen Lunetta as "our personal mobster," and states that Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez has three distinct identities: He's Humberto to Hispanic voters, Bert to Anglo voters, and "Big Jive Bert" to black voters.

And, of course, there's the Bruno photo.
Once Carpenter and King joined forces at the Grover, King granted Carpenter control over the paper's social pages. Her influence showed most tellingly in the prevalence of pictures of her boyfriend. "You'd see Bruno shaking hands, Bruno smiling, Bruno passing a check or something, Bruno, Bruno, Bruno," Glenn Terry recites.

That trend has continued in her own publication. The "Social Life" column of the May issue contains a photo of Carnesella blowing out the candles on his birthday cake; the accompanying text cooingly refers to him as "my favorite Italian."

Even with Carpenter gone, Carnesella still appears in the May issue of the Grover, but in a far less flattering light. A picture -- snapped by King himself -- shows a disheveled Bruno staring blankly into the camera with a cigarette dangling from his lips, his shirt open, and a woman who isn't Carpenter snuggling up beside him.

King bristles at the suggestion that the photo is a stab at his former partner. "If I wanted to go out there and take unflattering pictures, there is no one in this community I couldn't do that to," King huffs. "It wasn't set up. It was a party I was invited to, and he sat there and looked like that."

 

Carpenter frostily asserts that the photo is indeed a personal attack on her. "I think that was his intent, and that's how it was perceived by the community," she murmurs. "It's indicative of his style."

While these two are locked in legal and editorial combat, the Grove looks on with a mixture of bemusement and rue.

Cocoanut Grove Village Council chairman Tucker Gibbs, a perennial punching bag for King, is circumspect about the duel. "To me, it shows there's a lot of room for discussion of issues that affect the Grove," he says. (Gibbs's wife Mary Ann wrote several articles and an opinion column for the first issue of the Times and is listed as a staff writer.)

Billy Rolle, executive director of the annual Goombay Festival and another frequent King target, sees the papers as two sides of the same coin: forums for those who want to develop the West Grove without regard to its current residents. "They all come through here -- judges, lawyers, corporate folk, academia," Rolle says, referring to Grand Avenue between McDonald Street and Douglas Road. "They want to fix it up for the people who are coming through."

King doesn't speculate about how the competition for advertising dollars will play out. Carpenter maintains that coexistence for the two papers -- if not their editors -- might be possible. "Key West has three or four papers," she says. "Competition is healthy for the spirit and can make both papers better."

Glenn Terry doubts that the two papers can thrive while covering the same small neighborhood with the same basic editorial format. "I'm afraid they're going to kill each other off," he offers. Terry further laments that neither paper seems truly in touch with what the Grove is about. "The newspaper that appeals to the broadest base will recognize that Coconut Grove is more than shopping, yuppies, and crusty old white people comparing sailboats," Terry says.


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