Bad News

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

Circulation withered, he adds, while Martin mismanaged printing jobs for other publications that had brought in vital revenue. Perlman still can't believe how employees remained loyal to the paper and went to extraordinary lengths to keep it alive. "We scrounged for paper left over from the Knight Ridder days," Perlman says. "It was so brittle it would break on the press. But we never missed a day of publishing because of [Martin]. There were days when I would walk into a manager's meeting and I was sure this would be the day we were done. We came as close to closing as physically possible without actually doing it."

None of the problems seemed to alter Martin's lifestyle appreciably, according to his ex-boyfriend. Mathieson contends Martin went through money like a trust fund baby even as the News was foundering. "He went to 52 or 57 charity events in a single season, and he would buy a table at each. That is like $2500 a piece." He traveled extensively, says Mathieson, was a member of the tony Boca Raton Resort & Club, and spent thousands renovating his own home using a corporate charge account. "He started getting financially really tight, so he started putting everything on the corporate Home Depot card," Mathieson says.

By early 2001 the News was on life support, and Neely was fed up. His only hope was finding a buyer. "Imagine it," says Mathieson. "At 42 [years old, Martin] was given $6.5 million and a paper. He didn't put in a dime. All he did was walk into the office. How moronic can you be? To be given this gift from God and to totally screw it up is unbelievable."

Employees call their office "The Palace" for good reason
Joshua Prezant
Employees call their office "The Palace" for good reason

Martin is a hard man to find these days; getting him on the record for this story required a dozen phone calls and two trips to his Delray Beach home. But when he did respond, over the phone and via e-mail, he was calm and congenial. His demeanor is that of a nice, albeit beaten, man -- not surprising given the recent turn of events.

The News almost died because he didn't cut costs immediately after taking over, Martin admits; it was bloated with staff after its Knight Ridder days, he says, and that changed little under CNHI. "The paper had been operating at a loss for two decades. I was not successful in reversing that in the first year and a half of my ownership," he says.

Like Neely, Martin won't talk numbers. He does say the paper was saddled with debt when he took over and, despite Neely's largesse, never had enough operating capital. His salaries were in line with other papers, he says, and his personal expenses were not outrageous, as Mathieson claims. "Unfortunately you've spoken to an ex-friend that has a personal grudge against me, totally unrelated to BRN. After I severed our personal friendship, Christopher Mathieson swore to develop stories to hurt me if I didn't write him a very large check, which of course I refused to do."

Yes, he used the corporate Home Depot card for personal expenses. But Martin says the charges were compensation for a two-thirds salary cut he took beginning in February 2000. "All [charges] were approved by management and completely documented," he says. And yes, he attended numerous social functions but not as many as Mathieson claims. That's part of the job for a community newspaper publisher. As for the $50,000 Boca Resort membership, Martin claims to have paid for that from his own pocket.

In the end Martin concedes failure as a publisher but writes off much of what's been said about him as sour grapes. "I'm sorry you've been given such bad information, but considering the source of most of it, I'm not surprised," he says.

Neal Heller and business partner Arthur Keiser spent five weeks hanging around the News before deciding to buy it this past July 20. It took that long to sort things out. "After a tremendous amount of due diligence, we identified the problems," says Heller, the 41-year-old publisher. "In large part they are attributable to the previous management." (Keiser, president of Fort Lauderdale-based Keiser College, is the minority shareholder.)

Heller is circumspect in his comments about BRN Media, but he clearly knows the score. If anyone can pull the paper out of its nosedive, he can.

One of Heller's first acts as the new boss was to squeeze all employees into about half the office space. Serendipitously the Congress Avenue office building was sold to a new owner about the same time Heller bought the News, and the landlord wanted to occupy half of the newspaper's space. This means the News pays less rent.

Instead of Martin's luxe suite, Heller works in a 10-by-12-foot space right off the newsroom with a view of the parking lot. "I like it," he says. "I want to be in the middle of things."

Like Martin, Heller has no background in newspapers. Unlike Martin, he has experience running a business.

A native of Queens, Heller graduated from the University of Miami in 1982 with a degree in broadcast journalism, then from Nova Southeastern University in 1985 with a law diploma. He worked briefly as a lawyer but didn't like it. At age 26 he purchased the Florida Institute of Massage Therapy and, with his then-wife, Elizabeth, built the single campus into a chain of nine accredited schools -- four in Florida and five in other eastern states. According to his March 2001 divorce filing, Heller's net worth is $3.59 million.

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