Herald's salvation: Call off the dogs, return to newspapering
By Michael Lewis
"The Miami Herald enters a new era today," began a June 27 editorial hailing its sale to the McClatchy Co. Truer words were never written, but so far, it's not the era McClatchy was looking for.
After 15 weeks in McClatchy hands, the Herald is consumed by firestorms that have caused the newspaper to repeatedly dominate its own pages:
nA banner story reported that the publisher had fired El Nuevo Herald journalists who'd been paid to appear on Radio and TV Marti.
nThe publisher wrote a front-page column trying to justify the firings as subscribers by the hundreds cancelled both the English- and Spanish-language papers.
nA longtime columnist complained to California headquarters that the publisher wanted to kill a column about the affair that advised the publisher, "Lighten up, bro!" Headquarters overruled the publisher.
nThe publisher wrote a front-page column saying the fired journalists had been reinstated, and, by the way, he had quit himself and had been replaced.
nAmidst reports that six more El Nuevo Herald journalists had appeared on government media, the new publisher said he hadn't yet decided how to handle the issue in the long run.
nThe newsrooms of the English-language and Spanish-language papers were reported to be at war.
nThe executive editor wrote a front-page apology for using "an unfortunate term" during a staff meeting. His words were meaningless unless you'd followed the affair likely to be memorialized as Chihuahua-gate, which may prove to be the most damaging blow of all to the once-venerable Herald.
It's the most polarizing soap opera in years: As the Herald Turns. And it isn't over yet.
The McClatchy era didn't begin as a fiasco. Herald executives were overjoyed when McClatchy took over after former owner Knight Ridder imploded. Of all the alternatives, they said, this was the best.
Over breakfast at the Miami City Club on July 31, Herald Publisher Jesus Diaz told me how happy he was that McClatchy had been strictly hands-off. The new owners were only concerned about profits, he said, and hadn't gotten involved in the Miami Herald or El Nuevo Herald.
Less than two months later, Mr. Diaz privately resigned after McClatchy executives overruled him and told him to publish a Carl Hiaasen column and another by Ana Menendez.
In his own front-page column, Mr. Diaz wrote, "My first reaction was to keep both columns, which represent Carl's and Ana's opinions, from running in the paper at this time because I believe they may inflame sentiments in the Cuban community." But, he wrote, others "in our organization" disagreed, and the columns appeared.
After that, the Herald reported, Mr. Diaz quit in private, and then last week in public, to be replaced by Herald business office lifer David Landsberg.
We wanted to let Mr. Landsberg tell you all about his aims for the paper and its current problems in his own words via a profile this week, but the crisis-managing PR firm hired to represent him, RBB, says it will take some time before he'll be willing to talk with the press.
As a publisher on a vastly smaller scale, however, I've been asked often in recent days about the conflagration at One Herald Plaza. What's really going on over there? Will McClatchy sell El Nuevo Herald? How long will Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler last?
Still, nobody has yet asked about the most telling report. It appeared on Page 18A Thursday, the same day Mr. Fiedler wrote on the front page "An apology over my words." An earlier front-page story had informed a majority Hispanic community that Mr. Fiedler had told his staff "the "22 people who listen to Cuban radio' were being stirred up by "little chihuahuas nipping at our heels.'"
The hidden disaster on Page 18A was the Herald's circulation statement, required by the postal service. It noted that Herald daily circulation in the prior 12 months averaged 263,831 copies — down 11% in a year from 295,812. Sunday circulation, at 345,478, was down more than 12%, from 394,563 in 2005.
Those huge declines were averages through September, only slightly affected by subscription cancellations after Marti-gate. But on Sept. 21, weekday circulation had fallen to 249,869. On Sept. 24, Sunday circulation had tumbled to 305,473.
Big newspapers blame circulation slides on the Internet. But put the Herald's nosedive in perspective. In 1986, it had 441,087 circulation daily and 539,791 Sundays. It's been straight downhill from there, virtually every year, much of that long before we'd ever heard of the Internet.
The Herald's enemy has been not technology or changing reader habits or changes in local ethnic patterns so much as what the Herald has or hasn't done in and for this community and what understanding it does or doesn't have of this community. As comic-strip character Pogo said years ago, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
And, no, I'm not talking about just the McClatchy era. As 20-year circulation figures show, for 20 years, the Herald has been decaying from within.
That plunge, however, has yet to harm the bottom line: When circulation slides, advertising rates rise, followed by frequent staff cutbacks, resulting in rising profits to fatten corporate coffers. Only the community suffers.
The Miami Herald has long lived on reputation. Decades ago, the best journalists of this nation applied for Herald jobs, and only the best were taken. Everything from community service to printing quality was top level. Ask longtime readers.
But it was in the nuts-and-bolts of day-to-day reporting that the Herald long excelled. And it is in the nuts-and-bolts aspect that staff cutbacks and misguided directional changes have most hurt the newspaper and Miami.
Don't get me wrong: The Herald will keep winning Pulitzer prizes for reporting efforts that are commendable. The Herald still does a fine job on big stories.
But readers care far less about prizes than daily information they need, presented accurately and fairly without pandering to anyone. And the key word in that sentence is "need." A newspaper can be full of fair and accurate reports and still fail to serve — or hold — readers. Topic selection and careful editing by experienced newspeople are key — and are less and less frequent at the Herald.
Part of that decline came as cost cuts swept the Herald's most-experienced but higher-paid people out the door.
Part has been a progression of publishers, each replaced by a subordinate — starting with David Lawrence, a newsman, who was replaced by Alberto IbargŁen, a lawyer by training; Jesus Diaz, an accountant; and David Landsberg, a finance person. Mr. Lawrence was the last journalist at the helm.
A newspaper can survive only so long by losing circulation and then cutting costs and raising advertising rates to compensate. Somewhere it needs to look at the news it provides.
If a restaurant kept serving fewer customers at higher prices with smaller portions of increasingly inferior quality, it wouldn't last long. It would have to look quickly at what the chef was putting on the menu and on the plate.
That's where the Herald is today. It isn't nourishing readers' minds with appropriate selections or pleasing their palates with what it does serve.
The bad selection started when publishers and editors decided to isolate their ethnic audiences and serve them the wrong way — by separating the English springer spaniels and the great Danes from the chihuahuas and then proceeding to pander to, placate and patronize them all.
If a small paper could offer a bit of advice to the still-powerful Herald, it's this: Call off the dogs. Just print the news readers need and forget trying to please, placate or patronize.
As one Cuban American told me over dinner Friday, "I wish the Herald could see this" — eight people seated at a table together just like any other good family of any ethnic origin, no different and needing no special treatment, just understanding and respect.
The point at which the Herald lost Miami was when it decided to please ethnic group after ethnic group and forgot the lesson of 100 years ago, when newspapers served as the textbook of the immigrant by providing vital information about how new homelands and hometowns worked. That same information — not a bit different — was what everyone from the Native American to the Mayflower crowd also needed.
The Herald took another route, maintaining profits but losing its soul. Now, on its own front page, years of internal decay are becoming episodes of a public telenovela that seems headed for an unhappy ending for all.
That would be a shame for Miami. A daily newspaper remains the best potential connector to link the disparate elements of a metropolis, the single reference point that helps all of us see the same picture of our community — assuming that the daily press is prepared to print that picture without fear or favor.
So, again, to the new Herald owners, free advice: Don't try to please Miamians or make them love you — just inform them. It will work wonders, maybe even save your expensive new acquisition before developers use the right of first refusal they already hold to buy the Herald building.
Just use two four-letter words. Those words are "news" and "guts." Then, glue them together with professional judgment. Put it all together, and it's called newspapering.
The best way to get the Miami Herald off the front page of the Miami Herald is not to worry about who to please or avoid offending but to remember how to serve all of the readers every day.
Otherwise, the Herald will just continue going to the dogs.