Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Old news

But still worth posting. Michael Lewis, the publisher of Miami Today, has written some fine columns about the Herald in the past couple of months. Here is an excerpt from one that was published on October 12th. Emphasis is mine.

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 Ibarguen, 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.

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