And the Survey Says . . .

First there was Moses and his Ten Commandments. Then David Letterman and his Top Ten List. And now Miami Herald publisher Dave Lawrence introduces his Nine Pillars of Excellence.

Faced with a newspaper in decline and staff morale at an all-time low, Lawrence and Herald president Joe Natoli issued a memo last month outlining the newspaper's latest strategy in dealing with decreasing circulation, rising newsprint costs, and its dwindling news staff.

In addition to noting $32 million in cuts and the elimination of 300 jobs by the end of 1996, the memo announced a series of changes, including scrapping the state edition of the newspaper, a plan to fold the business section into the local section two or three days a week, and the decision to scrap the Sunday "Living" section. The memo also stated cryptically that the twice weekly "Neighbors" sections "are being rethought."

Amid the doom and gloom, Lawrence and Natoli had what they thought was a bit of good news, the results of an eighteen-month study of the type of news the Herald should be covering. "The Miami Herald will focus its newsroom resources on nine subject areas that readers have told us are especially important and useful," the duo wrote, and listed the following:

Local government
Consumer news
Florida news
Latin America

They even coined a term to describe the paper's rebirth. "To emphasize our commitment to high quality coverage of these topics," they wrote, "we have described them as 'pillars of excellence.'"

Within the Herald newsroom, some question the notion that Lawrence and Natoli are committed to any sort of excellence at all. Reporters and editors alike argue that the paper's true intentions can be seen through its actions, not through sloganeering: If Lawrence and Natoli are committed to nurturing "journalistic excellence as the heart of [the Herald's] enterprise," as their memo states, then why have they allowed dozens of reporters and editors to leave and not be replaced? Why are they laying off approximately 100 people this year (with more to follow next year) when the Herald remains the most profitable newspaper in the Knight-Ridder chain?

No longer, however, is the disintegration of the Herald purely a topic of parochial debate. Twice in the past month, national publications have lambasted Miami's major daily. In September The New Yorker described the Herald as a newspaper "in retreat," noting, "The Miami Herald, which used to be a vigorous daily even while constantly losing young talent to the [New York] Times and the Washington Post, has shut down bureaus, and whacked away at its staff, and is now thin and anemic, a booster sheet."

Last week New York Times media critic William Glaberson, who had obtained a copy of the Lawrence/Natoli memo, openly ridiculed the pillar principle. "You used to sit down with your morning newspaper and say, 'Let's see what's happening in the world,'" Glaberson wrote in the October 23 edition. "But in Miami, that is being updated: Get your morning coffee, settle back with the Miami Herald and read all about what is happening in nine subject areas."

Reporting that Lawrence and Natoli's memo "has drawn bemusement in newsrooms across the country," Glaberson referred to it as Miami's "Top Nine List." He also pointed out several subjects that didn't make the Herald's list of crucial areas to be covered: national politics, religion, economics, investigative reporting, and world affairs. (Not to mention social services, the elderly, business, the arts, minority affairs, and race relations.)

Herald executive editor Doug Clifton calls Glaberson's column "a major, major cheap shot." It's something, he adds, that he would "expect from New Times, not the New York Times." Clifton says the Herald will continue to cover a full range of subjects and that it is absurd to assume the newspaper would limit its scope to the nine pillars. "The Miami Herald is now, and has been for some time, a very goddamn good newspaper," Clifton huffs. "And it will continue to be a very goddamn good newspaper."

He says the memo from Lawrence and Natoli may have been "poorly worded," and that it merely reflects a set of priorities to which the Herald will devote its limited resources in the future.

How did the Herald arrive at these nine pillars as the newspaper's new heart and soul?

Via market research and telephone surveys.
"Circulation growth in both Dade and Broward is fundamental to our future," Lawrence and Natoli wrote. In an interesting interpretation of the fundamentals of journalism, the Herald is relying on those who answer their surveys to help dictate the priorities of the newspaper. One survey, obtained by New Times, shows how the Herald broke down the community along simple lines, identifying four market groups that the paper needs to target: Broward, Dade Anglos, Dade blacks, and Dade Hispanics.

The survey then lists the types of news each group is most and least interested in reading about. For instance, according to the survey, Broward residents are least interested in reading "news about Dade Hispanics," "news about Haiti," "news about Cuba," and "news about Dade County."

Like their Broward neighbors, Dade Hispanics are not interested in "news about Haiti." Which apparently suits Dade blacks just fine; the survey shows they aren't interested in "news about Dade Hispanics" or "news about Central America." (No one, it appears, is interested in "news about Dade Hispanics" besides Dade Hispanics.)

One of the few things Dade blacks, Anglos, and Hispanics all agreed upon was that none has much interest in "news about Broward."

The survey also asked whether those responding were "very interested," "somewhat interested," or "not interested" in a series of general topics. When asked, for example, to cite their interest level regarding crime in their neighborhood, 94 percent of the respondents were either "very interested" or "somewhat interested."

Though some might find such data predictable and unenlightening, it got Herald executive editor Doug Clifton's pulse racing. Clifton says he was shocked by the crime statistics. He often felt the Herald had too much crime reporting in the past, he explains, and he has tried to keep coverage of mayhem to a minimum. Now that readers have been surveyed, he notes, that will probably change.

Joseph Angotti, a communications professor at the University of Miami, says focus groups and surveys are an industrywide trend. "I'm concerned about the extensive use of research by all media, not just the Miami Herald," says Angotti. "I think it has gotten completely out of hand. There are a lot of stories people don't want to read about but should read about. I think the Herald continues to do some of the best in-depth reporting of any newspaper in the country. If this survey is going to reduce that kind of reporting, then I think that is unfortunate. But so far I haven't seen that."

As an example of what people should read about, Angotti cites the issue of race relations, which didn't make the Herald's top nine. "If you asked people, 'Do you want to see or hear more about race relations?' the chances are very slim it is going to rank high on people's lists," says the professor, a former NBC News executive. "But it may be one of the most important issues that need to be addressed in the country today."

Further insight into the role marketing plays in how the Herald covers the news was revealed last month during a panel discussion about the future of the City of Miami. Sponsored by the Coconut Grove Civic Club, the roundtable discussion included Miami City Manager Cesar Odio, New Times editor Jim Mullin, and Herald political editor Tom Fiedler.

Fiedler was asked why the Herald wasn't being more aggressive in covering the City of Miami. The newspaper, which used to have two reporters at city hall, now has only one. Fiedler hesitated at first, saying he wasn't sure it was appropriate to share this information with the crowd, but went on to say he had been told that since Miami residents make up only fourteen percent of Herald subscribers, it wasn't cost-effective to have a second reporter on that beat.

This, too, will change, argues Clifton: Coverage of local government is now excellence pillar number one.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede