Bad News

For a newspaper that hasn't made money in more than 20 years, the Boca Raton News sports some headquarters.

"The Palace," as employees sneeringly refer to it, is a square office building nestled in arboreal splendor at 5801 N. Congress Ave. in Boca Raton. Past the $10,000 fountain that looks like a huge boulder but doesn't work because it was never hooked up and beyond the thick glass doors etched with the paper's name is a lobby tiled in luxurious marble. Through the grand archway framed in rich, cherry woodwork is the community room. And what a room it is. Intended as a meeting space available to local organizations free of charge, it has 20-foot ceilings and glass walls that allow a climate-controlled view of the lush courtyard and garden nestled in the center of the building. The centerpiece of that garden is a young tree sprouting from a circular bed of smooth stones painted white and black and meticulously arranged in a Chinese yin-yang symbol.

A staircase with shiny brass railings leads to the offices of the News's advertising, business, and editorial departments. Floor-to-ceiling windows throughout the place showcase both the courtyard and greenery surrounding the building.

Most impressive is a second-floor suite where former publisher Michael Martin once worked in opulence: a cherry-and-glass liquor cabinet and bookshelf that sprawls across an entire wall, hardwood floors, and an executive bathroom with sink and shower. Imagine the place decorated with stylish furniture rumored to be worth between $7000 and $12,000 and you have a workspace worthy of a successful captain of industry.

But Martin wasn't successful, and both he and his furniture are gone. In fact the disparity between the paper and the place where it's produced makes a handy visual metaphor for his two years of ownership; all style, no competence.

Through the astonishing beneficence of a rich partner, Paul Neely, Martin took over the 45-year-old News in 1999 without risking his own money. For two years he lived an "Armani lifestyle," as one ex-News employee puts it, complete with an Infiniti SUV and a $475,000 home in Delray Beach a block from the ocean.

Then Neely grew weary of Martin's high living and tired of footing the bills. He wanted out, and Boca's hometown newspaper was in trouble.

These days the prognosis for the paper, even under new ownership, is not good. What was once a scrappy tabloid-size publication, considered to be among Florida's best small dailies, has become an anemic paper on the verge of irrelevance. It's the kind of place at which journalists work for a year or two right out of college, learn to write on deadline and figure out how city hall works, then move on or decide to leave journalism. And it's full of the mistakes that rookies make when they are stretched too thin or just aren't paying attention. A particularly embarrassing example: In a July 20 story about the paper's sale, staff writer Dale M. King got the name of his new boss's old company wrong. And nobody caught it.

The News is squeezed from the north by the Palm Beach Post and from the south by the Sun-Sentinel, both of which cover the News's home turf of Boca Raton and Delray Beach. There's little room to run and precious few resources with which to stand and fight. "I can't see how it can possibly survive," says Charles Layton, a former Philadelphia Inquirer editor who now writes books about the American newspaper industry. "That paper has been doomed for a long time."

The Boca Raton News was founded in December 1955 by a group of investors led by banker Tom Fleming. The editorial side consisted of husband-and-wife team Robert and Lora Britt.

In 1963 two executives from The Miami Herald purchased the paper and began building the staff. Their first hire was Sandy Wesley, a writer who spent decades at the News but was fired last March. The editorial staff totaled three for about a year, recalls Wesley. "The publisher covered sports and ran the press at times, the editor covered city meetings and police. I put out the women's section and wrote features."

Within a year the News added photo and sports editors and increased its publishing schedule to twice a week. By 1970 the paper was distributed every day except Monday. Around that time the News's owners sold the paper to Knight Newspapers, which at that time also owned The Miami Herald. (Knight merged with Ridder Publications Inc. in 1974.)

Wesley left the News in 1971 for a job writing features at the Palm Beach Post. She returned in 1981, when Knight Ridder began pumping capital into the paper. The media giant, then headquartered in Miami, beefed up the staff and switched from afternoon to morning delivery. Knight Ridder improved the situation, recalls former News reporter Mike Sallah, but was careful not to make the paper too good. "Knight Ridder did [the News] a terrible disservice," says Sallah, now a national-affairs writer for the Block News Alliance, a shared service of the Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "They built it into a really good daily, but they also stunted its growth. It was in a real position to grow in the '70s and '80s, but they didn't want it to get too big because they wanted the Herald to be big up there."

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Bob Whitby