The Incredible Shrinking Herald
In May 1993, on her last day of work at the Miami Herald, Tracie Cone's colleagues gathered to bid her farewell. During her six years at the Herald, Cone had become one of the paper's rising stars, her talents having led her to a coveted position as a feature writer for the "Living" section. All of which made her departure seem the more bizarre, as she was leaving the Herald to go to a smaller newspaper and take what was undeniably an inferior position.
As her friends wished her well, executive editor Doug Clifton stepped forward to offer a few words. He praised Cone's work, and then, in a jokingly smug tone, predicted that, like others before her, she would someday come back to the Herald. "People can't stay away," Clifton remarked.
"Yeah, sort of like the way an abused wife has trouble leaving her husband," Cone retorted, the words spilling out so quickly they startled even her. Everyone laughed, of course, but the basic truth underlying her quip prompted an awkward moment of reflection.
This certainly was not the way Cone had expected her career at the Miami Herald to end. Writing for the paper was to have been her storybook job, the summit of her professional aspirations. Unlike other reporters, she never had any intention of using the Herald as a stepping stone to the New York Times or the Washington Post. "It was my life's journalistic dream to work at the Miami Herald," she recalls. "I was in love with that paper. My goal was to get a job at the Herald and settle down in Miami."
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While she gives the paper credit for making her a much better writer, she says she found the work environment so debilitating she was forced to leave. The workload, she complains, became unbearably heavy, and quality was never adequately appreciated. Worse, though, was the verbal and mental abuse editors would direct against their staffs. "Even though I learned a lot about journalism, more than I imagined I would, at some point I realized the tradeoffs to my health and well-being were too great," she says, adding that publisher Dave Lawrence was one of the few people who took the time to commend writers. "At the Miami Herald it is management through intimidation."
The environment at her current newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News (like the Herald, owned by Knight-Ridder, Inc.), is completely different, she says. During the first six months or so she was there, she would cringe whenever anyone on staff complimented her on a story she'd written. She would find herself waiting for them to say, "But...," and then tear into her. That, however, didn't happen.
In only two years at the Mercury News, she has moved from working in a small bureau to a feature-writing position with the newspaper's Sunday magazine. And despite Clifton's prediction, she has no plans to return to Miami, although she still cares deeply about the Herald and the writers who work there. "That's why I'm talking about this," she explains. "I hate that I felt like I had to leave. I love that paper, and something has to change."
Cone is hardly alone in that assessment. "These are mean times," notes a long-time Herald writer who, like many current staffers, would discuss the subject only if their names were not used. "Morale is horribly low. People are trying their best and are not feeling valued. Not only are they not feeling valued, they are feeling picked on."
Adds another veteran staffer: "Every newspaper has malaise, but this goes far beyond that. At this point the message is clear: There is nothing to look forward to. It's only going to get worse."
These are indeed troubled times for the Miami Herald. For many months now, top executives have been warning employees of financial difficulties looming ahead. In particular, an anticipated rise in the cost of newsprint has been cited repeatedly as the principal cause for the need to cut costs. And cutting costs has meant trimming staff, mainly through attrition A at least thus far. The paper has imposed a hiring freeze in its editorial department and is leaving vacant numerous openings created as staffers leave in record numbers. At the same time, and in seeming contradiction to predictions of dire financial straits, Knight-Ridder boasts record profits and touts its flagship paper as a veritable cash cow. In addition, an institutional identity crisis has blossomed, causing people within and outside the Herald to raise questions about its fundamental journalistic mission.
As these issues are being debated and fretted over, the newspaper is experiencing one of the greatest flights of talent in its history. In the past twelve months, nearly 30 reporters and editors have left. And though the Herald will always expect to lose some of its top employees to the nation's great newspapers, an increasing number of staffers are opting for smaller, less distinguished papers A a trend that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. This movement indicates a growing disenchantment not only with the working conditions at the Herald but with the paper's quality as well.
Interviews with more than 50 current and former Herald newsroom employees reveal a consensus of opinion, and it is unwaveringly glum. Many say the paper is coasting on the glory of its past reputation, which is not to say there is a dearth of talented people. There are plenty of talented people, they insist, it's simply that the incentive A and the opportunity A to produce good work is rapidly diminishing. "A lot of people come to the Miami Herald thinking it is this Pulitzer Prize-winning paper that does great things all the time, and then when they get here, they realize this is not the paper it was in the Eighties," says Beth Kaiser, a photographer who left the Herald last August after five years. "There is a new management and a new direction."
The newspaper likely will continue to publish one or two major investigative projects each year for which it will receive national recognition, as it will this week when its "Crime and No Punishment" series is honored at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. The annual convention, being held this year in Miami, is a gathering of the nation's top investigative journalists. Playing host to this prestigious group is also likely to prompt the Herald to showcase another in-depth investigation this weekend. But whether its intended purpose is to serve the paper's readers or to impress its guests remains open to debate.
The real question for the Herald, however, concerns the level of quality it hopes to maintain the other 364 days of the year. And that question must be considered in light of a stark, irrefutable fact: The Miami Herald is shrinking. For example, when Terry Neal left the paper's Tallahassee bureau this past November for the Washington Post, his position at the state capital was eliminated. Closer to home, the Herald has been without a television critic since the beginning of the year, since Hal Boedeker left for the Orlando Sentinel. When Rene Rodriguez was named full-time film critic replacing the late Bill Cosford, his former position A arts feature writer A was simply dropped. Religion writer Peggy Landers is leaving later this summer, and her job will likely be kept closed under the current hiring freeze. Other positions have been killed outright from the "Living" section and from Tropic, the Herald's Sunday magazine. The paper also has lost staff in the sports and business sections, and in the photo department.
Specially zoned editions of the Herald (known as "Hometown Herald") in Fort Lauderdale and northern Broward County were scrapped in December. And the once-vaunted Palm Beach bureau is now down to a single reporter. These recent moves A dubbed "retrenching" by Herald executives A have followed other cutbacks over the past several years, including loss of the paper's New York and Atlanta bureaus, as well as the closing of smaller satellite offices around the state, which the Herald once drew on in its efforts to be considered the state's pre-eminent newspaper.
Three assistant managing editors had their positions phased out this year; and Bill Greer, one of the paper's most respected senior editors, left at the end of last year for a job at the Palm Beach Post. Senior managing editor Pete Weitzel, who had accumulated more than 30 years' experience, recently accepted the paper's financial incentives for early retirement.
Shrinkage has also occurred among those reporters assigned to cover local news. For instance, the Herald has had no full-time environmental reporter since Heather Dewar left the paper last year. And Miami city government has operated without the scrutiny of a full-time reporter since the reassignment of Charles Strouse more than a year ago. (The city hall beat has been covered only part-time by "Neighbors" reporter Joanne Cavanaugh.)
One of the most revealing examples of pared-down local coverage, however, was the departure two months ago of the paper's social services reporter, Charisse Grant, who left the Herald to take a job with the Dade Community Foundation. Her reporting position has remained vacant since then. (Medical writer Peggy Rogers fills in during crises, such as the ongoing controversy over the county's plans for dealing with the homeless.) According to many Herald staffers, such an improvised arrangement is wholly inadequate. "To not have a social services reporter in Miami is obscene," mutters one reporter.
Don Van Natta A who along with Jeff Leen wrote the "Crime and No Punishment" series about the county's court system A is leaving his post on the Herald's investigative team this week for a job at the New York Times. Accompanying him to the Times will be his wife, Lizette Alvarez, who only recently was appointed to the paper's high-profile Cuba beat. Those positions will most likely be filled by in-house transfers, thus avoiding the need to hire any additional staff.
City editor Bill Grueskin says he currently has "a handful" of positions unfilled and frozen on the city desk, and "a slightly larger handful in 'Neighbors,'" the Herald's twice-weekly community-news inserts. "Every city editor in the country wants to have as many people as possible," Grueskin says, "but I think we are able to do the job that's expected of the city desk." He does acknowledge, however, that the unrest on his staff has escalated beyond the normal griping of a typically cynical press corps. "Certainly it is different," he admits. "You'd be dishonest or you'd be a fool not to say that."
Grueskin's comments are echoed by executive features editor Steve Sonsky, who left Miami last week for a senior management position at TV Guide, a move he says was unrelated to the Herald's current problems. "Obviously the work force here is smaller than it was," says Sonsky. "Am I happy about that? No, I'm not. But I think there is in the newsroom right now an exaggerated panic. I think people are not keeping in perspective that the Don Van Nattas of the world have always left the Herald for the New York Times."
Few would disagree with that comment. "Certainly it is a credit to the newspaper when its writers are recruited by the New York Times and the Washington Post," says Beth Kaiser, the photographer who now works for the Associated Press in Chicago. "But it would be even more of a credit to the newspaper if not quite as many people left."
Television critic Hal Boedeker had been with the Herald for eleven years when he jumped to the Orlando Sentinel, a smaller newspaper with far less national stature. "I got a better offer," he explains simply, adding that his duties at the Sentinel are "much better defined." Though Boedeker speaks about the subject only reluctantly, he acknowledges that his decision was based in part on his concerns about the future of the Herald. "I loved that institution," he says. "It helped in my maturity as a journalist. But it really seems a lot is going wrong right now. They are losing a lot of talented people. Many of them left because they got better offers, but a lot of people left because of what is happening there. And a lot of other people have their resumes out right now, trying to get off the paper.
"There is this turmoil inside the newsroom that is undeniable," Boedeker continues. "I just hope management can put the brakes on it. It would be the best thing for the company, for the employees, and for the readers. The problem is, I don't know if the managers understand there is this turmoil or if they just don't care."
Current and former staffers complain that Herald executives too glibly assume that the paper's afflictions are simply part of an industry-wide problem, or a mere cycle in the natural ebb and flow of reporters and editors in a transient business. This crisis, they argue, is uniquely specific to Miami. That so many of them would speak candidly to a rival publication, they say, is an indication of the seriousness of the situation. Says one current editor: "A lot of people want for our bosses to read this. We want them to understand just how concerned we are."
Scott Higham was with the Herald for four years before moving on to the Baltimore Sun in early 1994. Based in the Broward office, his reporting and writing skills earned him recognition as a Pulitzer finalist for his coverage of the murder of Bobby Kent, who was beaten to death by his teenage friends. "I had a great time at the Herald," Higham says. "I left because I felt there wasn't much opportunity for me there. I had kind of reached a dead end. Plus I had reservations about the future of the paper." Higham worried over the Herald's inability to increase circulation in Broward County, but that was insignificant compared to its apparent trajectory: from a paper with national and international ambitions to something more closely resembling a small, hometown daily. "They've cut off the paths for a lot of reporters who would probably be willing to stay if there was some place for them to go inside the newspaper," Higham asserts. "The Herald used to be a bigger paper than it is today, and it can't sustain the types of jobs it used to have. I still think it's a kickass newspaper, but I think it hurts itself by losing too many people. The Herald is too quick to let people leave."
Late last year Herald executives told Mike Wilson, a twelve-year employee, they were going to transfer him from Tropic magazine to a beat on the city desk. Although his assignment to Tropic over the previous three years had always been seen as temporary, the change was prompted solely by financial considerations, rising newsprint costs being the demon culprit. Tropic would be dropping from four full-time writers to three, and he held the least seniority.
"Once that happened, I had to decide what to do professionally," Wilson recalls. Instead of being reassigned, he chose to leave this past January for a job at the St. Petersburg Times, where he now covers religion and ethics. "The Herald is operating in an industry struggling to get readers back, and they are experimenting," he notes. "Some of the experiments are working badly. To me, when you cut people, you cut quality. You can never prove to me that cutting a staff writer from Tropic improves the quality of Tropic. And it is the reader who ultimately will suffer."
Wilson's former boss, Tropic executive editor Tom Shroder, acknowledges the painful consequences of such cuts. "Obviously when you go down from four writers to three, that is going to have an effect," he says. "The business is changing and certainly the pressure is to be more efficient and productive with fewer bodies. This is a tough time for the newspaper business, and this is a particularly tough time for the Herald. We'll just have to work harder to maintain the quality we want for the magazine."
The Herald's dwindling presence north of Broward prompted Judy Plunkett Evans to jump ship earlier this year. She has since signed on with the Daily Business Review, a respected weekday newspaper covering legal and commercial affairs. Back in the Eighties, the Herald launched a significant expansion campaign in Palm Beach County, but the effort never took root, and staffing levels at the northern bureau were steadily reduced. By the beginning of 1994, the office had been trimmed to three reporters, a photographer, and a part-time clerk. "They were lying to their readers by saying they were putting out a Palm Beach edition," says Plunkett Evans, who was among those stationed in Palm Beach. "I always felt either you do it and you make the commitment, or you don't."
Late last year Herald managers decided to abandon the pretense; they slashed the Palm Beach bureau to just a single reporter. Plunkett Evans, who had been at the paper three years, was told she was being transferred to the North Dade "Neighbors" office, a position normally occupied by fledgling reporters. Rather than acquiesce, she quit, largely because her husband is a teacher in Stuart and the couple didn't want to move to Dade. "I think people at the Herald have a bad taste in their mouths about the direction the paper is taking," she says. "They've lost respect for the people they work for after seeing the way others have been treated. There are a lot of people who have been treated very badly."
Perhaps the strongest expression of that sentiment was provoked late last year, when Curtis Morgan and Patty Shillington, highly regarded feature writers based in Broward, were informed that their positions were being eliminated. Morgan, who had been with the Herald for eight years, was made a copy editor, a job not designed to take full advantage of his reporting and writing talents. Shillington, with fourteen years' experience, was told she was now a business writer. (Both were transferred to fill vacancies in lieu of hiring new employees.)
The abrupt and unexpected moves shocked the writers' associates to such a degree that a petition of protest was circulated and signed by nearly the entire Broward editorial office. "We are writing to protest the treatment of two of our colleagues, Patty Shillington and Curtis Morgan," the petition began. "Both Patty and Curtis have years of excellent service to the Miami Herald. They are talented and loyal employees who deserve respect and consideration. Apparently at this newspaper, length and quality of service have no bearing on how employees are treated. On top of losing their jobs they have been offered positions not in line with their career paths. The handling of this situation has affected the morale of everyone in this office. What incentive is there to do good work when that seems to be irrelevant to job security?"
The petition had little effect, though Herald editors reportedly hope to find a slot for Morgan that won't waste his writing skills. "What was so scary to many of us was that they didn't seem to care that these moves impoverished the 'Living' section," says one staffer. "They don't care that it hurts the readers." Adds another: "They now expect loyalty from people they have no loyalty to. It makes me very sad. We all want this paper to be something that it was A and apparently never will be again."
The recent departure of Susan Olds, assistant managing editor for news, has also contributed to rising staff anxiety. An accomplished journalist brought to Miami six years ago after working at the New York Post and Newsday, Olds arrived with a mandate: Re-energize the Herald. "She came in with guts and attitude and a journalist's heart, and this paper beat the life out of her," says one mature Herald writer. "She was exactly what this newspaper needed because she took chances."
Last fall executive editor Doug Clifton announced that her position, along with those of two other assistant managing editors, was being eliminated in order save money. Clifton posted a notice explaining that the three would continue to earn their regular salaries for the next year, but they would be transferred and their responsibilities reassigned.
It was a thoroughly embarrassing moment for all three editors. Olds in particular couldn't believe what had happened, and she told Clifton the decision didn't make sense. Why force them to scramble for some sort of job within the newspaper? They were going to be paid the same amount regardless, so why not show them some respect and allow them to continue at their jobs with the understanding that they had one year to search for new employment if they decided to leave the Herald?
Clifton agreed. He issued a new memorandum announcing that Olds and Sue Reisinger had been reinstated. "Sometimes, the more you think about a thing the more complicated it gets," he wrote. "Other times it's the other way around. This time it was both, first complicated, then simple." He went on to add, "It's obvious now that we could have done this whole thing better from the start." (Steve Rice, the third assistant managing editor, responsible for photography and graphics, had already transferred to a
job as a cub reporter for a South Dade "Neighbors" section. The former executive, who says he is thrilled at the opportunity to try his hand at writing, is now the highest-paid "Neighbors" reporter in the paper's history.)
Two months ago Olds left the newspaper (Reisinger remains), and is now working as an assistant managing editor for features at the Newark Star-Ledger. "To lose my job at the Miami Herald was heartbreaking for me," she recalls. "I was terribly disappointed, and that whole period was a frightening time. I don't think it was handled well, but I don't think it was handled maliciously, either. It was a case of handling something very awkwardly, and they made all of us feel bad." Olds stresses that she harbors no animosity toward Clifton, who helped her find her new job. "I consider Doug Clifton my friend," she says. "He's like everybody else A he's good at some things and not so good at others. I think he's a real smart guy who sometimes is real ham-handed, clumsy."
Olds acknowledges that she, too, is concerned by the number of people leaving the paper. "I think there is no doubt the Herald has lost a lot of quality people, and that can have an effect," she says. "I think they [Herald executives] had real tough decisions to make. It's easy to sit and say, 'This wasn't a good decision.' I don't know what I would cut. I just think the whole situation is rotten. And some things just don't have rosy solutions."
Managing editor Saundra Keyes notes that the worst scenario has been avoided. "Above all we wanted not to have layoffs, and we achieved that," she says. "And we've tried our best to be fair in the reassignments. I think we've handled this as fairly and as honorably as we know how."
Executive editor Clifton says he doesn't understand all the grousing, and contends (without providing details) that the editorial staff is actually larger now than it was five years ago. "Even when you shrink it, you grow it," he offers inscrutably.
"I don't think quality can necessarily be measured in numbers," adds Keyes. "I don't see a correlation between the number of people in a section and the quality of that section."
Both Keyes and Clifton say they realize they've become targets for attack since last year, when the Herald began scaling back in earnest. "I've got my detractors, I'm sure," Clifton allows. "Saundra has her detractors, I'm sure. Together we both have our detractors. And I know we have our supporters. But honest to God, I'm not in the business to win popularity contests. I'm not an easygoing guy. I'm an intense guy."
Clifton and Keyes may have established a sort of kinship in defending themselves against their mutual detractors, but their rapport otherwise has become the subject of comment and concern among many in the Herald newsroom. More than a dozen current and former employees interviewed for this article say they believe the two executives simply cannot get along with each other. That perception has led to a widespread rumor that publisher Dave Lawrence intervened by hiring a counselor to mediate the bickering. And that, in turn, has only heightened a sense that staffers' confidence in the Herald's top management is shrinking along with the paper itself. (In this case, the rumors were true. Lawrence confirms that he recently employed a "facilitator" to "help the two of them in team-building.")
In an atmosphere of such uncertainty, rumors of all sorts are bound to proliferate. Among those currently being circulated: The recent departure of the paper's food editor, Felicia Gressette, will spell the end of any food sections. Tropic magazine will soon be killed or folded into some revamped version of the "Living" section. Saundra Keyes was nearly fired three months ago but was spared at the last minute. A "Knight-Ridder grand jury" was impaneled to gather testimony regarding Doug Clifton's management style. And the newest buzzword making its way into the newsroom lexicon A "re-engineering" A is a euphemism for severe staff cuts. Current guesses put the figure at 45 jobs soon to be lost. "Even if most of these rumors aren't true," says one editor, "the point is that most people believe them. Reporters and editors who are supposed to be cynics and skeptical of everything they hear believe that just about anything could happen to this paper at this point. They just don't have faith in the management doing what is best for them any more."
Dave Lawrence says he's aware of the many rumors, and tries his best to sort fact from fiction. "No one has been peremptorily tossed into Biscayne Bay, and no one is going to be peremptorily tossed into Biscayne Bay," he points out. "This is not an easy year for us. This has been a very tough year. And there is no doubt that to reach our short-term goals, we are going to have to do something." Without being specific, Lawrence assures that "nothing significant" is in the offing.
Based on the measures Herald executives have taken recently, and on the memos they've written to employees by way of explanation, a reasonable person might believe that the paper is hemorrhaging red ink, if it isn't actually on the verge of financial ruin. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Knight-Ridder's annual report for 1994 describes the Miami Herald as "the company's largest profit center." More profitable, in fact, than any of the other 27 daily newspapers owned by Knight-Ridder nationwide.
But Miami certainly hasn't been the only profit center. As part of the annual corporate report, Knight-Ridder chairman and chief executive officer Jim Batten, and company president Tony Ridder together penned a lengthy letter outlining their achievements last year. "It is a pleasure to report that 1994 was a record year for the company A in revenue, net income, and earnings per share," the two men wrote. "Total company revenue grew 8.1 percent to $2.6 billion. Net income was $170.9 million, up 15.4 percent from 1993, and up substantially from any previous year in our history. Earnings per share of $3.15 increased 17.5 percent from $2.68 in the previous year.
"Operating income in our Newspaper Division rose 17.4 percent to $350.9 million, our best operating profit performance ever," the executives added. The only "cloud on the horizon," they warned, was a concern over rising newsprint prices. For the past five years newsprint costs had either remained stable or had actually dropped, but the company would no longer be able to reap the benefits of a depressed newsprint market, and was now bracing for a dramatic increase.
However, even this dark cloud had its proverbial silver lining. Because Knight-Ridder has an ownership interest in two of the major paper mills that are now jacking up prices, the corporation will likely enjoy a windfall profit. "As a result of the expected rise in newsprint prices, we anticipate strong earnings improvement from the company's investments in Southeast Paper Manufacturing Co. and Ponderay Newsprint Company," Batten and Ridder wrote. "Earnings from these investments will help offset newsprint costs."
To ensure against any shortfall, Batten and Ridder informed shareholders that steps were being taken to increase each paper's revenue, and that all publishers would be given financial incentives to make their operations as profitable as possible. "We have undertaken significant new revenue initiatives at each of our newspapers and have made publishers' bonuses in part dependent upon their success," they wrote. "We believe that these initiatives, the anticipated growth in ad revenue, and continued tight cost control will allow us to have another year of Newspaper Division profit growth despite an estimated increase of more than $100 million in newsprint costs." Not only will Knight-Ridder newspapers make a profit this year, the two men predicted, they will make an even greater profit than the record set in 1994.
The company's performance and outlook was so strong that both Batten and Ridder, as well as other top corporate executives, received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses last year. According to Knight-Ridder's proxy statement, released publicly on March 24, Batten received a $325,000 bonus on top of his base salary of $656,250. Ridder received a $315,000 bonus above his annual salary of $518,000. Both men were also awarded generous stock options. (Batten, who is suffering from brain cancer, recently stepped aside as chief executive officer, and was replaced by Ridder, though Batten retains his position as chairman.)
Among the challenges Tony Ridder faces is the continuing stagnation of the company's stock. During one of greatest bull markets in history, the price for shares of Knight-Ridder has remained flat. Since January 1992, the Dow Jones index has risen nearly 50 percent, yet Knight-Ridder, which was selling for $55 per share in January 1992, is now selling for only $54 per share. Analysts attribute the lack of growth to various factors, including investor wariness of companies whose profits are heavily dependent on newspaper publishing, an industry that has experienced a steady decline in readership and circulation. (More than 80 percent of Knight-Ridder's revenues derive from its newspapers, whereas the Tribune Company, which owns the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, and Gannett, which owns USA Today, are more diversified.)
"This stock has not done well at all, and there is tremendous pressure on Knight-Ridder executives to do something about it," says Doug Arthur, an analyst for the New York brokerage firm Morgan Stanley. "And with newsprint prices going higher and higher, and advertising momentum being only fair, it's putting a lot of pressure on management to look at staffing."
Mike Wilson, the former Tropic writer now at the St. Petersburg Times; Susan Olds, the former assistant managing editor who landed at the Newark Star-Ledger; and Bill Greer, the Herald's enterprise editor who moved on to the Palm Beach Post, all claim there is a noticeable difference in working for a publicly held company like Knight-Ridder and working for their current papers, which are privately owned. "The idea of working at an independent newspaper seemed real appealing after working at the Herald," Wilson says. "The Herald labors under the same constraints of any big corporation. It has to make a profit, and a big one. The paper I'm at now is also concerned about making a profit, but they aren't as obsessed."
Olds asserts that rather than make potentially destructive decisions based on short-term goals (improving quarterly earnings, offsetting newsprint costs), privately owned papers are more likely to take a longer view. "The paper I'm at now is adding staff," she says. "It's expanding."
"My sense of our people is that they are demoralized by the most recent cost cutting. They see only the short term. They are skeptical or unaware of our commitment to long-term strategic planning to shape our future and end this continuous cycle of cost cutting.
"An aside: I sense our newsroom people aren't listening or aren't being told enough about our situation A our challenges, the difficulty of our choices and our plans to address our future. Are we too concerned that they won't like what we have to tell them? My sense is that they are as ready as the rest of us to answer the question Dave [Lawrence] recently put forth: 'What do we want to be when we grow up?' Those in Broward are eager to know, 'What do we want to be in Broward when we grow up?' All of us are eager for a vision of our future."
That memo to Miami Herald publisher Dave Lawrence and general manager Joe Natoli was written three weeks ago by Chris Mobley, the associate publisher who heads Herald operations in Broward County. Mobley went on to critique the paper's recent efforts to define itself. He called on Lawrence and Natoli, along with Clifton "and perhaps [editorial page editor] Jim Hampton," to be more assertive in articulating the paper's future: "This is not the time for timidity or obfuscation. It is a time to be bold and clear."
In a recent interview, Mobley attempted to downplay the problems besetting the Herald. "People come and go all the time," he said dismissively from his car phone, adding that while a few employees might be unhappy at the moment, the situation was not at a crisis point. When asked to elaborate on his May 16 memorandum, Mobley reacted with anger. "That communication was private," he snapped. Pausing for a moment, he then intimated that the memo might have been a forgery. "I'm not going to comment on whether I wrote that or if I didn't write that. There are people inside the newspaper who would be willing to create false communications to embarrass me," he candidly asserted. (Dave Lawrence later confirmed that Mobley indeed had written the message.)
But was his essential analysis true? Were Herald newsroom employees demoralized? "I have no comment on that," Mobley replied. And what about his comments regarding the Herald's quest for vision? Does he in fact believe the paper lacks a clear sense of purpose and mission? "I have no response to that question," he answered. "The vision of our newspaper is not something I should discuss for publication."
Whether the Miami Herald's editorial vision is a private concern or a public manifesto matters little to some observers who follow the paper closely and have formed their own opinions about its direction. "The Herald is striving for an explicit compatibility with its readers," says Kevin Hall, a former editor of Tropic magazine who now directs the Journalism Writing Project at Florida International University. "It's trying to hard to be its own readers. They see that they are losing circulation, and what they do is a bunch of market surveys. And whatever the survey tells them, they do that because it's safe to do what your surveys say you should do. All of this has been driven by a desire to be 'user friendly.' A lot of people reading the Herald feel condescended to.
"The Herald has developed a great sensitivity, even a skittishness, about offending local leaders," Hall continues. "It's hard to even find a news picture on the front of the local page any more. There is just this steady stream of pictures of kids smiling or Smurfs on parade or something else like it. That has to be a conscious decision."
December 31, 1988 is a date frequently cited by those who believe the Herald has undergone a perceptible change in editorial direction. That was the day Knight-Ridder and Cox Newspapers shut down the venerable Miami News under an agreement by which both companies continue to share in the profits of the Herald's unfettered access to advertisers. "I don't think the Herald is as good as it was when the Miami News was around," says Mort Lucoff, a former reporter and columnist with the News who now works as communications director for the Dade County courthouse. "When competition goes, some of the edge is taken off. I don't think they drive as hard and as aggressively as they used to."
John McMullan, the Herald's highly respected former executive editor who retired in 1983, says the Herald's coverage of events clearly lost that "edge" after the News was killed. "I think every newspaper should have competition," he says. "It makes life more interesting for the people on the newspaper and it makes life more interesting and better for the people in the community."
Interviews with numerous Herald employees indicate widespread agreement with those statements, even if they are not expressed publicly. "This used to be one of the great crusading newspapers," says a long-time Herald staffer, "and what has happened has been the complete dumbing down of this newspaper."
"All of this is an indication of the problem here," laments another reporter. "We've lost sight of what a newspaper should be.
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