The Little Paper That Couldn't

With shifting ownership, low morale, and conflicts of interest, the Boca Raton News continues to flail along

The night before Hurricane Georges was due to hit South Florida -- with memories of Hurricane Andrew's destruction still fresh in the minds of South Floridians -- Robert E. Diehl, editor of the Boca Raton News, convened a staff meeting. Diehl announced that the daily would publish off-site if the storm knocked out the paper's downtown office press.

Diehl, who took over the 13,000 circulation paper in January, then made another announcement: He was leaving town that evening. He told his staff he had a long-scheduled vacation planned and needed to depart immediately. It was an unusual move, to put it mildly. When disaster looms, news-gathering organizations try to put all hands on deck. Contingency plans rarely include getting the boss onto the next plane out of town.

Diehl says he left the paper in the capable hands of his local editor, Kevin Brady. The managing editor, Phyllis A. Gilchrist, was already on vacation that week. But to the News staffers at the meeting, the announcement was just one more indication that upper management had little commitment to the small daily newspaper.

"The morale around here is pretty low," explained one staffer, who asked not to be identified. "I think the general feeling is that nobody cares."

At the Boca Raton News, long the stepchild of South Florida journalism, charges that management is indifferent to all but the bottom line are a timeworn tradition. Last November, faced with declining circulation and flagging prospects for reviving the newspaper, the paper's parent company, Knight-Ridder, sold the News to a small Birmingham, Alabama-based publisher called Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI). Just a couple months later, News publisher Michael Martin announced he had put the paper's current building on the market.

Given these two major changes within a year, it barely registered on the bewilderment scale when Martin confirmed last week yet another significant newsroom rumor: Barely a year after CNHI purchased the News, the company was already considering selling the paper. "People have been through a lot around here," grumbled one reporter. "So they tend to have a sense of humor about it."

In an undated internal News memo obtained by New Times, Martin explained that CNHI is considering selling the paper because the company was unable to buy the South Florida Newspaper Network (SFNN) as planned. SFNN is a Deerfield Beach-based chain of 33 South Florida weeklies. CNHI's national strategy is to cluster groups of small regional newspapers to save money on administrative and publishing costs.

Although CNHI attempted to buy SFNN earlier this year, the company was beaten out by the Tribune Co., parent company to the Sun-Sentinel, which purchased the weeklies in September for an undisclosed amount. The transaction left CNHI groping to figure out what to do with the News.

"As a paper of our size and potential," Martin noted in the memo, "BRN could very well remain a stand-alone property of CNHI. We do have, however, a most exciting proposition on the table which would gain the capital investment required to sustain and grow the best local paper anywhere for Boca Raton and I am pursuing that proposition. This is with a group of local investors (I am a principal in that group) who have discussed the viability of BRN becoming an independent, locally owned paper. There is no 'deal' in place, only discussions."

Martin declined, in a telephone interview, to name the other investors, but noted that a decision on the possible sale should be made within the next two weeks. Mike Reed, CNHI's chief financial officer, confirmed the company is discussing a possible sale of the newspaper. He said it is too soon to assess the paper's financial success in its first year as a CNHI property.

The News, situated between West Palm Beach, stomping grounds of the Palm Beach Post, and Fort Lauderdale, home of the Sun-Sentinel, has struggled for years to compete editorially and financially with these larger papers. Skip Sheffield, a News writer for more than 25 years, says the paper's heyday was in the late '80s, when it was owned by Knight-Ridder and regularly broke important south Palm Beach County news stories.

But hard-hitting news stories took a back seat to shallow journalism in the early '90s, he says, when Knight-Ridder inaugurated a $2.9 million experiment in an attempt to market the News to baby boomers, ages 25 to 43. The aptly named project, 25/43, revamped the paper with splashy colors and graphics, short USA Today-style news nuggets, and a giant pink flamingo slapped onto the paper's logo. Both advertising and circulation increased as a result of the project, according to Michael P. Smith, 25/43's deputy director and the current managing director of Northwestern University's media-management center. But the new News proved light on substance.

When Knight-Ridder concluded the project at the end of 1991, the company withdrew its cash and expertise from Boca Raton. The newsroom staff dwindled from 45 people to roughly 25. Circulation also dropped from 17,000 in 1995 to about 13,000 two years later. And Knight-Ridder, which also owns the Miami Herald, sold the News at the end of that year. Today many of the two dozen editorial employees have been at the paper for less than a year.

Sheffield, who says he is a News loyalist, even if he has "to go down with the ship," concedes the paper is still in an editorial state of flux. "I think we have some good editors who are working hard and are sincere," he says, "but we don't have the resources without Knight-Ridder. It's tough."

Reporters and editors alike agree that CNHI has renewed the paper's emphasis on community news, which means more local stories than before but less in-depth coverage. Unfortunately some of those same staffers say the paper's editorial stance -- although not its news coverage -- is too beholden to business leaders.

A prime example is the editorial board's strong stand in favor of a plan that some say would allow increased development at the Blue Lake industrial park, one of Boca Raton's prime real estate locations.

When Boca Raton Mayor Carol Hanson unsuccessfully opposed the plan, publisher Martin responded with a signed column, on November 8, contending that the mayor was aligning herself with "a bunch of losers" for opposing the project. The mayor, a 64-year-old career politician who says her skin is "as thick as an alligator," canceled her subscription in protest. Last week the News published an ingratiating editorial about Blue Lake and one other developer with the headline "Developers can be good neighbors, too."

"It is refreshing to find developers that are as interested in being good neighbors as they are in making money," the editorial opines.

The strong editorial stance on this significant local issue may be legitimate for a community newspaper. But one little fact went unmentioned in both Martin's column and the subsequent editorial: With the News' downtown Boca Raton property currently for sale, management is looking for a new, 70,000-square-foot home. One of the prime possibilities, Martin says, is at the Blue Lake development. But only if the price is right.

It seems a clear-cut conflict of interest if the paper promotes developers with whom it plans to negotiate. Martin claims he didn't begin to look for the paper's new digs until after the Blue Lake issue had already come to a head. News editors, including editorial page editor C. Randall Murray, refused to talk with New Times about the possible conflict.

"You're trying to create some issues where there are no issues, and I don't consider that appropriate journalism," growled editor Diehl. "And this conversation is concluded at this point.

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