Jeffrey Loria and the Miami Herald should get together
By Michael Lewis
As rumors swirled, fans held their breaths until the July 31 baseball trading deadline, hoping the Marlins wouldn't swap pitcher A.J. Burnett and Miami-schooled third baseman Mike Lowell for outsiders. The widely reported deal was geared not to improve the team but to trim salaries.
When no deal occurred, owner Jeffrey Loria disingenuously said he vetoed a trade because the two were too vital in a championship drive. In fact, the deal wasn't made because no team would accept Mr. Lowell's costly contract.
Journalists have come to expect team owners to target profits, not pennants, and to unload fans' favorites for any old reason at all. Loyalty to a community comes in dead last in the baseball standings.
Cynical though we may be about sports, however, we've always figured that one institution can be counted on to put the hometown's interests first. That institution, of course, is the press. Who could be more loyal?
It turns out, based on events last week, that anyone could.
In a single day, a handful of newspaper companies made sports trades look purely minor league.
The Miami Herald's parent, Knight Ridder, sold its Detroit newspaper to rival giant Gannett, which in turn sold its own less-tenable Detroit newspaper to media mogul William Dean Singleton. At the same time, Knight Ridder swapped its Tallahassee paper and a bundle of cash to Gannett for a pair of newspapers in Washington State and one in Idaho.
Economics fueled all the moves. Knight Ridder had the bigger Detroit paper, but Gannett controlled an operating agreement between the papers. Both newspapers were buffeted by labor problems and declining circulation. Knight Ridder wanted out, Gannett wanted the bigger paper and Mr. Singleton's presence was needed to avoid the appearance of monopoly.
The other trade involved clustering of businesses. Gannett got the state-capital daily in Florida, where it already has three newspapers. Knight Ridder, which moved its headquarters from Miami to California a few years back, likes the West Coast and coveted three more papers in the West.
All of these swaps make business sense, true, but what about the cities to which these publishing giants have professed unswerving loyalty? Loyalty just swerved.
Newspaper chains, it turns out, are no more committed to their hometowns than are teams like the Marlins that threaten to move away if they don't get a new stadium at taxpayer expense. It's no wonder the Herald supports the stadium bid: The two companies think alike.
While the cities involved will keep their newspapers under new ownership, they won't be the same newspapers. In virtually every case, Gannett and Knight Ridder pulled out their top editors and executives when they made the deal, planning to send these men and women who theoretically were committed to a community and its newspaper to a new community and its newspaper - until they are shifted again in a journalistic game of musical chairs.
It's like moving the Marlins to Las Vegas but sending manager Jack McKeon to New York and President David Samson to San Francisco - only worse, because a baseball manager swears loyalty to a team but a newspaper editor is expected to loyally serve both a news team and a community.
The only loyalty in the newspaper-swapping extravaganza came from the Miami-based Knight Foundation, which distributes its funds to help cities that were served by the Knight newspaper chain in the days before the Ridder family took control of the empire. The foundation announced that while the Knight Ridder flag is coming down in Detroit and Tallahassee, the Knight Foundation will still serve those communities as promised.
The new swap-'em-around tenor of the newspaper business could prove a boon to the Miami Herald in several ways.
First, Knight Ridder has several leftover executives from papers it traded away who could be placed here.
Second, the Herald could use the trade-'em tactic to resolve a seemingly insoluble dilemma. As the world has read ad nauseam, the Herald fired star columnist Jim DeFede for an alleged transgression that we won't belabor. That has set off a free-for-all in which virtually every other Herald columnist has, incredibly, bludgeoned his or her own employer in print - and been joined by hundreds of present and former staff members online.
All demand that the paper take Mr. DeFede back.
But if the Herald buckles and does so, what does that say about the strength and judgment of its management in the first place?
What's a poor beleaguered paper to do?
Simple. Hire Mr. DeFede back - and immediately trade his contract to Fort Lauderdale rival South Florida Sun-Sentinel for a police reporter and a copy editor to be named later plus cash considerations.
Either that or huddle with Jeffrey Loria. A DeFede-for-Lowell trade would solve both their problems.