The Fourth Estate Sale

Decimated by corporate overlords, the only hope for our local newspapers may be the auction block.

It's time for both the Sun-Sentinel and the Miami Herald to be sold. The future of the Fourth Estate in South Florida may depend on it.

Before you listen to why, listen to elected officials talk about the state of journalism in Broward County. You know it's bad when politicians who used to complain about newspaper coverage now rue the fact that no one is looking over their shoulders anymore.

Broward County Commissioner John Rodstrom says coverage of county government by the Sentinel and the Herald has been cut at least in half during the past year.

"The newspaper coverage now just isn't even comparable to what it used to be," says Rodstrom, a veteran politician who has both used the press to his advantage and been skewered by it. "It's nothing like it used to be. For example, election coverage is practically nonexistent. They pick and choose certain stories but miss whole races. What they do cover, they don't cover in any depth. You used to have a lot more Sunday in-depth stories. They are operating with bare-bones crews, and it's all blog-oriented now.

"There was a time when you had a workshop, retreat, or any type of meeting and you'd have reporters from both papers there. Last retreat, there was no one there from either paper. It's just not the same."

The County Commission at least has one full-time beat reporter, the Sun-Sentinel's Scott Wyman, though even he often gets called away on unrelated assignments. For the first time in memory, the City of Hollywood doesn't have a full-time reporter dedicated to it. The closest to that would be Ihosvani Rodriguez, a Sun-Sentinel reporter who also covers Hallandale Beach and Dania Beach. Up until a couple of years ago, the city was covered by reporters from both the Sentinel and the Herald. The recent disappearing act has basically left the city — which has entered a new era under Mayor Peter Bober — largely outside the public eye.

"They've cut back to where there's no one assigned to the city — they've got [Rodriguez] running all over the place," veteran Hollywood activist Pete Brewer says.

Brewer points to the fact that nobody covered the city's decision to stop funding Arts­Park, and there has been little written about the shops that closed in downtown. "The Herald doesn't have anybody around here anymore. And people aren't getting the facts."

It's not just the county and Hollywood governments. It's happening all over, from Sunrise to Deerfield Beach to Parkland to Pembroke Pines to Delray Beach. The Miami Herald's Broward bureau, once a journalistic force in Broward County, has been moved from its longtime building on Sunrise Boulevard to smaller digs near the courthouse. Its coverage in Broward, once fairly comprehensive, has become sporadic at best, and its Broward edition is weighted with Miami-Dade news.

The Sentinel is a shadow of what it used to be as well. Between the two, the state of journalism in Broward has been decimated.

Not that Palm Beach County is faring any better. The Sun-Sentinel shut down its bureau in Delray Beach in November, and the Palm Beach Post has been hit with hundreds of staff cuts during the past year.

My own publication, New Times, which has a presence in both counties, also hasn't gone unscathed. During the past month or so, our already bare-bones newsroom has been rocked by two layoffs. Our managing editor, Edmund Newton, and our art director, James Lowe, were laid off when their positions were eliminated. Another position has been frozen. And our efforts, like the daily newspapers', are increasingly being focused on the internet.

It hurts all over in this industry, but the real impact on the public has been a rapid diminishing of local government coverage. Officials and activists throughout the county say that taxpayer dollars are no longer being tracked as they should and that significant developments are going unwatched.

Today, as is the case with Hollywood, there's no full-time reporter from either the Herald or the Sentinel in Sunrise. Instead, the Sentinel's former Sunrise reporter, Jennifer Gollan, reports on Pembroke Pines, Plantation, and other bergs, while the current reporter assigned to the city, Susannah Bryan, spends most of her time covering nearby Davie.

Sunrise Commissioner Sheila Alu says she can't recall the last time the daily press did an investigative report on her city. "And we've had huge issues facing the city that nobody knows about," she said. "We're voting on a $40 million public safety complex with some of the biggest builders in the county bidding on it, and there was no coverage beforehand. They just seem spread so thin. The newspapers used to be the watchdogs of the government, and people relied on them to tell the truth. Now they're just filled with advertisements."

But aren't there benefits for a politician when nobody is really watching them?

"Oh yes," Alu says with a laugh. "Believe me, we're fine with it."

One increasingly common tactic used by the Sun-Sentinel has been to elevate community coverage from its Forum Group weekly newspapers to the daily newspaper. The problem is that Forum newspapers, while stocked with hard-working reporters, have traditionally been more lapdogs to local governments than watchdogs.

"We used to have two or three reporters at our meetings; now we usually just have one from the Forum," Parkland Mayor Michael Udine says. "And that's what is showing up in the main newspaper."

The dearth of serious reporting has also affected the courthouse, says Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein.

"I pick up the paper every morning and can't believe how little there is to it anymore," Finkelstein says. "The Herald comes to the house, and I read it, but it doesn't have any presence in the courthouse anymore. [The Sentinel] doesn't seem to have the interest in going after big-time issues that require work. They want to write quick things for the blog. It just looks like it's falling apart to me."

Finkelstein says he's worried about the future.

"The media is it," he says. "When something is wrong, where else can I go? To power brokers? The speaker of the House? They don't care."

It's not like the newspapers made an idle decision to cut staff and coverage ­— it's born of very real financial crises. The owner of the Herald, McClatchy, is racked with debt, and the Sentinel's parent, Tribune Co., recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The newspaper, according to sources, still made $50 million in 2008, though that's far less than in years past. The Los Angeles Times, also owned by Tribune, reported last month that it would make $100 million in 2008, down from $240 million the previous year.

The real problem is that Tribune's debt service alone runs to about $1 billion a year. Newspapers are still viable businesses, but their resources are being sucked into the black holes of the corporations that own them.

The Sentinel and the Herald are both being decimated by their corporate parents, which are now headquartered in Chicago and Sacramento, respectively. A glaring example of this came last year, when McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt was paid an $800,000 bonus while the company's stock went into the toilet and job cuts were being planned.

McClatchy's stock price, which was at more than $70 a few years ago, recently dipped below a buck. Investors simply don't believe that the debt-laden company will survive — and they are probably right.

Those are reasons the Sentinel and the Herald need to be sold now — before the overlords in Chicago and Sacramento suck more life out of them.

Such a move isn't just smart for the newspapers and the cities they cover but for the creditors. They'll likely get a more substantial return on their investment and won't destroy the value of the newspapers over the next year or so while paying off interest payments.

At this point, it's not just a business decision; it's a moral imperative.

Don't get me wrong; selling the newspapers, while the best option, is still a rancid one. Buying at the top and selling after steep losses is never fun.

And there's the problem of finding a good buyer, or at least a willing one, considering newpapers haven't been selling in this terrible environment. The Herald, for instance, has been in talks with a pair of potential buyers that make any journalist shudder: the Fanjul sugar family and the Miami-based development company Related Group.

Ideally, groups of more independent investors will buy the newspapers. But that can happen only if the corporations do the right thing: put their still profitable newspapers up for sale now and help return them to doing what they were meant to do: cover the news. Hollywood may have entered a new era under Mayor Peter Bober, but newspaper readers wouldn't know it.C. Stiles

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