Uh-Oh

A consultant arrives at SoFla's top newspaper, and old hands cry foul

Daily newspapers in America have been hemorrhaging readers for decades -- nothin' new about that. And for just about as long, head honchos have searched for ways to stem the flow and win back subscribers.

Take, for example, The Miami Herald. Its weekday circulation of about 326,000 is roughly 100,000 fewer than 13 years ago. Just how can the paper win over all those 20-somethings, soccer moms, and ink-estranged TV addicts?

Heraldmanagement apparently hopes the magic potion will be snappy design. The guys who call themselves "South Florida's Pulitzer Prize-winning paper" (as opposed to the Sun-Sentinel, maybe) recently retained the services of one Mario Garcia, a design guru who's left his imprint on dozens of publications worldwide and teaches at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg. Perhaps the most notable product of Garcia's recent work is the redesign, introduced this summer, of The Wall Street Journal. According to the magazine Advertising Age, the Journal was looking "to attract a more diverse base of both readers and advertisers." Another Garcia redesign completed this summer was for the California-based Hispanic Business Magazine, a makeover that included "larger photos, breakout boxes, and quick facts," according to one press account.

News of Garcia's hiring, however, didn't sit well with some veteran Heraldeditorial staff. Reprinted here is a skirmish that appeared recently on the newspaper's internal bulletin board. Those who posted, in both Broward and Miami-Dade counties, are senior business writer Gregg Fields, investigative reporter Ronnie Greene, copyeditor Joe Modzelewski, and editor Dave Wilson.


BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID: The Herald has hired consultants numerous times since I've been here, ostensibly to "brainstorm" about ways to "improve" the newsroom. In each and every instance, it has resulted in cuts to staffing, salaries, and news hole. If these outside instant experts on journalism want to see what we'd do with fewer resources just recount to them the joys of that wonderful downsizing/buyout that occurred last year. Mention to them that we've experimented with salary freezes, hiring freezes and shoving good people out the door, and it turns out those approaches do nothing for quality.

Just a suggestion: Maybe when we play this camouflage game, someone could say: "It's impossible to envision fulfilling our journalistic mission with even one less dollar or one less person than we now have."

Sorry if it sounds cynical, but I've been to this parade before, and the emperor still isn't wearing any clothes. Happy brainstorming.

-- Gregg Fields

RE GREGG'S CAVEAT: Eight or ten years ago, a swarm of button-downed "consultants" with bad haircuts flew into Miami with the purported mission of making Florida's then-newspaper of record a leaner, meaner machine. I think they hung around for a couple of weeks, mostly shmoozing with ACEs [assistant city editors], drinking coffee and usually leaving hours before the paper is put together. Maybe they didn't want to miss happy hour at Mike's [a bar across the street from 1 Herald Plaza]. Then, just as suddenly as a plague of grasshoppers flitting away from a ravaged farm, they left. As far as I know, nothing much changed... though there was some downsizing... after this incursion by the white shirts. The name of the consulting firm? Arthur Andersen.

-- Joe Modzelewski

Gregg is right. We don't need consultants. We already know the solution to a better Herald: Hire more journalists, and give them time to dig out stories in America's richest news state. This newspaper has a tradition of groundbreaking work, both in words and pictures. Any brainstorming sessions should be devoted to enhancing that tradition. Nothing else.

-- Ronnie Greene

A REBUTTAL: With all due respect to Joe, Gregg, Ronnie and anyone else who feels the same way right now, your perception of what is taking place couldn't be more wrong. Here's the deal: This isn't about downsizing, cutting or otherwise trimming directly, indirectly, or with smoke and mirrors. This is about examining the resources we DO have and making the paper better. In one way or another, I've been involved in every one of those "strategic planning" nightmares for the last 10 years. We all know the sporadic results, often negative. The aim of this is very different. We're taking hard looks at readers' expectations and where we fall short. We aim to improve those areas. There are elements of the design and especially the organization of the newspaper that need to be better. That's why we hired the best and most credible newspaper design expert in the business. Mario Garcia knows his stuff. Most importantly, The Heraldis his hometown paper. Ask him next time he's here and he'll tell you. Finding ways to improve our work is as much a part of our newsroom tradition as investigative reporting and covering the big story better than anyone else. I'll be in the conference room Friday after the morning news meeting to answer any questions anyone has. I'll do it again next week, too. Now's the time to speak up. Please do.

-- Dave Wilson

 
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