Bad News

Boca's hometown newspaper, once a paragon of journalism, has become a laughingstock

In hindsight the problem with letting readers dictate the newspaper's style and content seems obvious: News "consumers" don't always know what they want until they see it.

Most journalists hated 25/43. Linda Ellerbee, who was a syndicated columnist back then, wrote that the News was "... a newspaper for people who find USA Today too complex." The staid New York Times used the words didactic and garish to describe the News. Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism and former editor of The Atlanta Constitution, said the changes amounted to making the paper an entertainment rag. "The more entertainment, the more celebrity, the more light news, the more graphics, the more color and pizzazz that's stuffed into newspapers, the more irrelevant the newspaper becomes to the reader," Kovach was quoted in a Washington Post article as saying.

Readers were unmoved. A year after the makeover, paid circulation had jumped from 21,600 to about 25,000, but that increase was probably attributable to heavy advertising and promotion. Within a few years, all the gains disappeared.

Meet the new boss, smarter than the old boss
Joshua Prezant
Meet the new boss, smarter than the old boss
Tiny paper, huge press
Joshua Prezant
Tiny paper, huge press

After the hoopla faded, Knight Ridder quickly seemed to lose interest in the project. "A year later it became clear that they hadn't given sufficient thought to the long-term fiscal implications," says Randall Murray, the News's editorial-page editor for 11 years until he was fired in 2001.

Murray came to Boca Raton from The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He knew nothing about South Florida or 25/43 but was quickly swept up in the excitement after he arrived. "We worked 15- or 16-hour days, six days a week," he recalls. "It was hard as hell putting out the daily paper and planning for the next paper. It was essentially two jobs. We would work all day, then go to focus-group meetings at night. I came down with a whopping case of shingles a month after we got the new paper out."

The staff slowly dwindled and without sufficient manpower could not put out the same product. It was too labor intensive.

When Jim Batten died of a brain tumor in June 1995, Tony Ridder -- known more for business savvy than journalistic endeavors -- took over as Knight Ridder CEO. The News hadn't made money in years, says Murray, and Ridder wouldn't stand for that. "We knew it was just a matter of time before they dumped the News."

In December 1997 Knight Ridder sold the News and two other small dailies to Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Details of the deal were never published, but a source who worked at the News in 1997 says CNHI paid between ten and eleven million dollars for the paper.

CNHI is what industry wags refer to as an "instant chain;" it didn't exist before 1997 but now owns more than 200 daily and weekly newspapers around the country. It grew by purchasing tiny publications, many with circulations of less than 10,000.

The company is the brainchild of Ralph Martin, who learned the newspaper business during 19 years with the Thomson Corporation, a news conglomerate. In 1996 Martin started shopping around for investors to create his own chain. He found Retirement Systems of Alabama, a pension fund worth more than $22 billion. With a $1.3 billion loan from RSA, Martin went on a shopping spree, purchasing "clusters" of papers in geographic proximity to share operating expenses and ad sales.

After buying the News, Ralph Martin installed his younger brother Michael as the general manager, despite the latter's lack of newspaper experience. The elder brother had his eye on a nearby Deerfield Beach-based chain of papers, but when the Sun-Sentinel snatched it up in 1997, he and his company lost interest in the News. CNHI had owned the News for only a year when it worked out a deal to sell the paper to Michael Martin for $6.5 million. The company kept the old News building in downtown Boca Raton, which it has been trying to sell ever since, and Michael Martin took everything else.

According to an ex-News employee who worked for the paper at the time and asked not to be named, Michael Martin had neither the money nor a likely investor. "He didn't have two pennies of his own money, as far as I know," says the employee. Luckily Ron Smith, then the News's editor in chief, had a connection: Chattanooga Times publisher Paul Neely. (Smith declined to comment for this story.) On April 22, 1999, Michael Martin, with Neely's backing, became the News's third owner in three years. And before he sold the paper to Neal Heller last July 20, he almost ran it into the ground.

On the day Michael Martin took over, Smith wrote a front-page story about the new boss that contained an interesting, if elliptical, paragraph: "The 42-year-old businessman said unique circumstances allow him to go against the national trend toward chain ownership of smaller daily newspapers." Unique indeed. In fact the circumstances were almost unheard of.

Martin had gotten into a few legal scrapes. In 1993 the federal government garnished his wages for defaulting on a student loan. Three years later, while living in Arizona, Martin, who is gay, was involved in a fight that ended with his boyfriend, Barry Brooks, in the hospital.

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