Requiem for a Newspaper

The Miami Herald used fourteen reporters last week to cover the resignation of its publisher, David Lawrence, Jr.

With so many people on the story, you might have thought Lawrence had made his announcement from the deck of the burning Ecstasy. Testimonials gushed forth from the governor, lieutenant governor, and Florida's two U.S. senators. Local politicians recalled his years of public service. And of course the local business and civic communities reverently laid laurels of tribute at Lawrence's feet.

Hell, there was even a picture of Dave with the Pope.
I became so overwhelmed by the emotional power of the stories that for a moment I actually thought Lawrence had died. I began feeling guilty recalling the derisive, sometimes vulgar, things I've said about him in the past. I was overcome with shame for my old habit of reading his Sunday column aloud -- in a mocking tone -- for family and friends. In my heart I certainly knew I had reason to despise those Lawrence columns, and not just because they were poorly written, maudlin tripe, but because they were also a sham. They gave readers the impression that Dave Lawrence was a profoundly sensitive fellow blessed with the sweetest of dispositions, when in fact he could be a mean-spirited, bitter individual who regularly tormented those around him. But still I realized that dwelling on Lawrence's dark side was not very charitable. And now, I thought, he's dead.

But as we all know, Lawrence didn't die; he merely resigned. So I can guiltlessly continue thinking ill of him. In announcing his resignation, Lawrence declared that he was leaving the paper in order to pursue other interests -- which is a polite way of saying that after failing as the publisher of the Herald, it was time for him to move on and be a flop at some other endeavor.

Truth be told, the stories announcing Lawrence's resignation were in fact obituaries of a sort. Read them carefully and you'll see they foretell the demise not of a man but of a newspaper. As an example, consider this rather oblique passage:

The move comes as the Herald faces significant challenges of its own. Circulation and advertising revenue have been under pressure, and the newspaper's owner -- Knight Ridder -- recently set ambitious goals for future profits.

Circulation and advertising revenue have been under pressure? Sounds like they need a vacation. Perhaps "circulation and advertising" should head down to the Keys and sip margaritas for a week.

Ambitious goals for future profits? That sounds like the title of a book you'd find on a shelf alongside Thinner Thighs in Thirty Days. Normally the job of a newspaper is to cut through corporate doublespeak and give its readers the straight dope. Since those fourteen writers couldn't do it, let me translate for you: The Herald is about to get screwed.

It was bad enough when Tony Ridder packed his bags and moved out of town, taking the corporate offices of Knight Ridder with him. Now he's decided to wring every possible nickel out of Miami as well.

In Ridder's opinion, the Herald simply isn't making enough profit. That's not to say the paper is losing money. Far from it. While the paper's financial figures are not public, industry analysts believe it operates with a margin of between eighteen and twenty percent, making it one of Knight Ridder's most profitable products.

But Tony Ridder wants even more. Perhaps the new house he's thinking of building in northern California is going to cost him more than he expected. Maybe he's decided to add a tennis court, or a Jacuzzi in the downstairs guest room. Whatever the case, a widely held belief at One Herald Plaza is that Ridder is now demanding that the Herald increase its profit margin to 25 percent over the next three years. Fear of a financial squeeze began spreading through the building on July 10, when Lawrence and Herald president Joe Natoli circulated a memo announcing that major change is in the offing. "That change will include expanded efforts to bring in new dollars, along with significant expense reductions," Lawrence and Natoli wrote.

The Lawrence-Natoli memo struck like a lightning bolt that was about to hit twice in the same place. Three years ago the Herald went through a similar cost-cutting purge that devastated morale and led to an exodus of reporters and editors. Having been through that nightmare once, many on staff read the memo with dread.

Apparently no one dreaded it more than Lawrence. Over years of budget cuts and staff reductions, he guided the paper to the brink of journalistic ruination. But he wasn't willing to give it that final shove off the cliff. And so he quit. The dirty work will now fall to the paper's new publisher, Alberto IbargYen, who many believe will do to the Herald what Don Smiley has done to the Florida Marlins.

When Lawrence announced his resignation before hundreds of employees last week, despair swept through the crowd, according to some in attendance. A few even cried. "People understood that he is the last news-oriented publisher this newspaper will have," says one long-time staffer. "Was he always a nice guy? No. Did he do things that hurt a lot of people? Yeah. But he did care about this place, and people here believe that he resigned rather than do the things that Knight Ridder was going to force him to do to increase profits."

In fact, they weren't really crying for Lawrence. They were crying for themselves. "The Herald that we have now is going to cease to exist," says the staffer. "Anything not viewed as essential is going to be gone."

"There is a lot of anxiety right now," says another newsroom veteran. "The new publisher is an unknown. And I think people are apprehensive because of what we went through just a few years ago. I think there is a certain weariness. And people feel dispirited."

Herald executive editor Doug Clifton says he understands why people are feeling weary. He feels it himself, he admits: "It gets tiring after a while."

Although there may be layoffs in other parts of the building, Clifton says there won't be any in the newsroom. But significant changes are in the works. For instance, Clifton says, the Herald may be forced to close its two foreign bureaus, in Nicaragua and Colombia. The paper would still cover Latin America, but its reporters would be based in Miami, he explains. The Palm Beach County bureau -- which is down to just one reporter -- is also a likely candidate for elimination.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Clifton claims, management has no plans to ax Tropic, its Sunday magazine. "I haven't spoken directly with Alberto about keeping Tropic magazine alive," says Clifton, "because it has not been an issue. It is not in our thinking [to close it]."

The biggest change, Clifton explains, will be in the paper's approach to local coverage. In hopes of attracting new readers, the Herald is planning to increase the number of twice-weekly Neighbors sections from seven to twelve. The goal is to have staffers report on communities that now go largely unnoticed in the Herald -- places such as Biscayne Park and Miami Shores. "We will be covering more intimate community news," Clifton says, adding that he envisions "news out of town hall or city hall for these various municipalities" winding up in the local section of the daily newspaper and reserving the tabloid Neighbors sections for lighter stories. "There would be a lot of education kind of news, there would be a lot of honor-roll kind of stuff, there would be sports things, recreational things. I think readers want that kind of news, among the many kinds of news that they want, and we're a newspaper that serves that wide range of needs." Clifton says he expects the new Neighbors sections to roll out by the middle of next year.

Clifton's comments, on their face, actually sound heartening. Who could argue against the merits of expanding community coverage (which Clifton refers to as "microscopic news")? The unanswered question, though, is this: At whose expense do you end up concentrating on minutiae? While busy covering softball leagues in Biscayne Park, what larger issues -- which might resonate with importance for all of South Florida -- are being missed?

As for staffing, Clifton could only vaguely describe who would be assigned to the new positions. "I don't think we are at that place yet in deciding just how that goes," he says. "But I think the reader of the Miami Herald in Miami or in Broward County is going to wind up having a newspaper that covers local news more aggressively and more comprehensively than it now does."

It is no secret, however, that reporters hired for Neighbors traditionally have the least experience and are the lowest-paid writers. So one possibility is that as experienced reporters leave the paper over the next year, editors will replace them with less expensive neophytes who can be plugged in to the new Neighbors sections. The net effect will be the continued dumbing down of the Herald.

Clifton disputes the notion that Knight Ridder's efforts to trim costs and increase profits will have a negative impact on the quality of the Herald's journalism. "I honestly don't see the production of high-quality, big-time, high-impact journalism as being a question of the size of our travel budget," he asserts. "I don't know if individuals within the newspaper believe that, but I believe it. I believe it is in the hands of the people who produce the newspaper every day."

Among those who remain behind, anyway.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede