Longform

Bad News

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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."

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."

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.

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Bob Whitby