Requiem for a Newspaper

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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."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede