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."

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.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede