Bad News

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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.

The Hellers sold the schools in 1999, though he stayed on as a consultant. He left last April, he says, after realizing the new owners didn't have aggressive plans to expand nationwide: "I was happy to leave. It was time for a new challenge. I had no idea it would be owning a newspaper."

Although Heller also wouldn't talk numbers, Mathieson says Martin filled him in before the sale was complete: a price tag of $2 million, $600,000 of which went to pay off Neely -- not an impressive return on an $11 million investment.

Like every owner before him, Heller has big plans: beefing up coverage of real estate, personal finance, business, and technology; adding a travel column; and expanding the sports section. Of course he uses the word local liberally when describing the paper's focus. Everyone who has owned the News since Knight Ridder has vehemently believed that local news will be the paper's salvation.

Maybe, maybe not. But even if Heller's vision proves viable, it may have come too late. "I just don't know if they can come back," says Randall Murray, the fired editorial-page editor. "It's lost so much credibility, it's gotten so small that there's no reason to take it anymore."

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Bob Whitby