Bad News

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

According to police reports, Martin had been staying at Brooks's Scottsdale home regularly for two months. On January 11, 1996, the pair had several drinks before starting a shouting match. Martin packed a small bag and left. But before Martin could drive away in his Honda Passport, Brooks demanded the return of a garage-door opener. Martin backed out of the driveway while his host was reaching into the car, dragging Brooks about 20 feet into the street. Brooks suffered a broken right patella, a broken left ankle, and severe scrapes on his legs.

Brooks sued Martin in civil court. In 1997 a jury awarded Brooks $9000 but found the relative degree of fault split evenly between the two.

About that time Martin moved to Florida, where he worked as vice president of sales and marketing for Whitman Education in Miami before brother Ralph made him general manager of the News.

Neely chooses his words carefully when talking about the News. "I'm not going to talk numbers," he says when asked to confirm the reported sales price of $6.5 million. In a roundabout way, he concedes that he was the sole financial backer. "I brought something to the partnership, and they brought sweat equity."

Two other sources -- Chris Mathieson, who was Martin's live-in boyfriend until the two split this summer, and an ex-News employee who worked in the business department and asked not to be named -- fill in the details. Martin had 57 percent of the company, and Neely held 30 percent. Martin gave the remaining 13 percent to Clifford Jones, chairman of the Boca Pops Orchestra and a close friend. (Jones did not return phone calls for this story.)

Neely financed the deal by using personal stock as collateral for a loan, says Mathieson. Better still for Martin, Neely lived outside Florida and rarely visited. "How does someone invest millions and have no oversight?" asks the former business-department employee. "What is going on?"

Together Jones, Martin, Neely, and Ron Smith composed BRN Media Group, which owned the News and two smaller publications, Education Times and B Magazine.

Times were good in the stock market back then, and as Neely's portfolio increased in value, he took additional loans to finance the paper's operation, say Mathieson and two sources who asked not to be named. Neely's total investment peaked at $11 million before he pulled the plug, according to the three.

When BRN bought the News, Martin threw a catered, red-carpet bash complete with a band, valet parking, and gift bottles of wine labeled "BRN Media." All the beautiful people of Boca were invited, says the ex-employee. But the staff was snubbed, then and later. "Come Christmas we didn't get a lousy, stinking Christmas card from him or a thank you. We got nothing."

CNHI owned the paper's offices, at the time still located in the old News building, and Martin wanted to move. So the new publisher dispatched his general manager, Scott Edgerton, to look for a new space. When Edgerton showed Martin the Congress Avenue location, the owner fell in love. He moved the paper in November 1999. "There is no question the offices were considerably nicer than the Boca Raton News's original office downtown," Edgerton says, noting the paper got a deal on the space because it took over a prior tenant's lease. On the open market, the posh, 43,000-square-foot building would have commanded a lease price "in the mid-$20 range" per square foot, he says. "What we paid is confidential, but it is less than $10 a square foot."

Still when you own a press, as the News does, moving isn't cheap. The concrete floor in the new press room had to be fortified so the massive machinery wouldn't vibrate the whole building. The ex- business-department employee says disassembling, moving, and reassembling the press cost about $1 million.

Executives were paid juicy salaries, according to another News source, who worked in management -- including $168,000 to Martin and $150,000 each to Clifford Jones and a third Martin brother, Paul, who, though employed by the News, lived in Kentucky. (Ralph Martin, who left CNHI in July 2000 but later came to work for Michael as a consultant, was recently named the News's chief operating officer by current owner Neal Heller.)

Michael Martin apparently relished the social status his title brought considerably more than he enjoyed the work. He served on the boards of more than a dozen community organizations, including the Boca Pops Orchestra, Florida Atlantic University, the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce, and the Palm Beach International Film Festival.

Meanwhile the News was dying. Ron Smith, by all accounts a competent manager, left to become a night editor at the Palm Beach Post. And Neely apparently grew tired of Martin's flamboyant lifestyle. "It's fair to say I had trouble with Michael Martin," says Neely. "There were differences that made me want to leave the partnership."

In March, Martin fired 20 employees. Twice in the following four months, the News couldn't meet payroll. Jeff Perlman, vice president of product development, says contractors weren't getting paid and were therefore reluctant to do business with the paper. When a newsprint supplier cut the News off, the end seemed nigh. "Around here we compared Michael's leadership to being in a car with a drunk driver," Perlman says. "We just prayed he wouldn't take us over the cliff with him."

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