Newspaper layoffs, partnerships, and the Net conspire to kill South Florida dailies

The loss of news is almost imperceptible; there's really no way to know what stories we might be missing when there's no one there to report it.

It's clear, though, that one story South Florida's three big dailies — the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, and Miami Herald — have largely missed concerns the bloodletting happening in their own industry during this brutal economic downturn.

The Shrinking Three have handed down nearly 1,000 buyouts and layoffs during the last couple of years, according to my estimate. About 350 of those workers were lost from the newsrooms. I added up those numbers from layoffs I've reported on my blog, the The Daily Pulp, because complete documentation of the slaughter can be found nowhere else.

The newspapers aren't just dramatically downsizing, they're also slowly morphing into one another. All three struck a deal to share stories on their Internet sites, meaning that a reporter for one at any given time is essentially representing all three newspapers.

The Sentinel and Herald are now distributing each other's newspapers in areas once hotly contested. And just last week, it was announced that the Sentinel will now print and distribute the Post, a move that will cost 300 workers their jobs. These are the same two newspapers, you might remember, that were recently in a full-on, bitter turf war.

For newspapers it feels like Armageddon. But what does it mean for you? Start with smaller papers, less information, and more rushed, half-baked articles. Throw in less coverage of your towns and counties. Tallahassee bureaus have been halved, reporters are covering two or three cities at a time, and in-depth pieces have become a rarer commodity while often meaningless briefs are all the rage.

The Sentinel, which has never been considered a top newspaper in terms of journalistic quality, produces a fraction of the journalistic content it did a couple of years ago. Its front page now features only one story. Among the dozens of journalists who have been led out the door are Tim Collie, an experienced long-form writer, and Joe Demma, the investigative editor.

The Post has seen the most cuts to its newsroom staff. Entire sections have been sheared. A shocking number — upwards of 50 — of its veteran editors and reporters took buyouts, including political editor Brian Crowley, Washington bureau chief Larry Lipman, assistant Metro editor Douglas Kalajian, long-time cartoonist Don Wright, and a slew of columnists. It has gotten so bad that the once proud and staid newspaper has hired a media consulting company, which specializes in TV news no less, to invade the newsroom. As Publisher Doug Franklin put it in an Oct. 10 memo to staff, Frank N. Magid Associates will be working in the newsroom for six months to "help shape our future."

Of the lot, the Herald has probably held up best, as it continues to put out quality investigative work. But it too is seeing the amount of news it produces dwindle as it has gotten rid of about 150 newsroom employees, including storied veterans like Martin Merzer and Phil Long.

Last week, Herald Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal likened what's happening in the newspaper industry to being hit by a hurricane. But he told me he doesn't believe there will be any more job losses at his newspaper.

"I just don't see that happening," said Gyllenhaal, who was a reporter for the newspaper back in its early '80s heyday. "It's been a difficult period, but everybody in the newsroom knows what we need to do. Whether it's a literal hurricane or a figurative one, which is what we're going through in a way, this is a newsroom that is taking it on and handling it."

Perhaps, but just barely, say some of those left behind to keep the website hopping and the dwindling print edition filled with copy.

"We're doing more with less, and there's a lot of chaos in the process," one Herald reporter told me. "The constant crush to put news up 24 hours on the web creates huge holes in our reporting. We just can't seem to move fast enough to get the newsroom reorganized with all the people leaving.

"The people still there are getting burned out, and things are starting to fray. It's hard to motivate people when their futures are uncertain, they're not getting raises, and their pay was never much to begin with. Anybody who sits there and says we're as good a product as we were a year ago, I think they're lying."

Gyllenhaal didn't go so far as to say that the newspaper as a whole is better after the cuts, but he did say some aspects of it had improved.

"The heart of what this newspaper does is very much in place," he said when asked to compare the current newsroom to that of the 1980s. "What is not in place is state coverage. We don't have a bureau in Naples and Palm Beach County. We don't have the foreign bureaus, or what we do have has changed. A lot of things have been rearranged. The newspaper, in terms of what we are trying to do now, is equal and, in some ways, better, than it has ever been. In the '80s, we weren't producing a constantly evolving online edition."

Here he brings up what has been both the bane and hope of the modern newspaper: the Internet. It has decimated the revenue power of the print edition, which Gyllenhaal says remains the industry's "mother ship." But it is also the potential source for untold future profits. The problem is that advertising profits from the web aren't large enough to offset those lost in print, and the day when they do appears to be years away.

"We just had record traffic last month, and this month is going to surpass that," Gyllenhaal says. "The website is being updated every few minutes, every story is going up. We're still in the middle of that transition obviously, but it's going better than we could have hoped for."

Of course, it's part of Gyllenhaal's job to be positive about his newspaper. But the journalists working at the three wonder if the consolidation happening at the three newspapers might be a trend meant to pave the way for more layoffs at all three papers.

"They should just combine all the newspapers into one and call it the South Florida Post," one Post reporter remarked, at least half seriously. "Make it a one-section tabloid for all three counties."

While such an idea might seem far-fetched, it's not inconceivable that a new owner could wind up taking over at least two of the publications. All are owned, after all, by companies in dire economic trouble which have already sold assets, including a couple of newspapers, to pay off debt.

The Herald, for instance, is owned by McClatchy Co., which bought the Miami newspaper's former parent, Knight Ridder, right at the top of the real estate and credit bubble in 2006. The company's stock hit an all-time high the year before the highly leveraged purchase at about $75 a share. Today, the company is $2 billion in debt and trading below three bucks.

The company has struck a deal to sell 10 acres of waterfront land next to One Herald Plaza for $190 million to help pay down its debt. But even that deal isn't safe in the deteriorating economy. McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt said last week during an earnings call that he can't guarantee the deal will close.

The Sentinel's parent, Tribune Co., may be in worse shape. It recently took a $3.8 billion write-down on its assets. Analysts at Fitch cut the rating on Tribune Co.'s $13.4 billion in debt, citing an "acceleration of declines in newspaper advertising revenue and cash flow at Tribune and no evidence from any participants in the industry regarding the prospects for current pressure relenting."

As for Cox Newspaper Inc., the owner of the Post, its rather drastic cost-cutting measures also indicate a company in a fight for its survival. In August, it announced plans to sell the Austin American-Statesman to help pay off its debt.

In short, there is no doubt that all three companies, while they may very well make it through this deep recession, are in danger of bankruptcy.

"I see the potential for the companies to go under, but that does not mean the newspapers themselves will close," says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg. "The more likely scenario is that someone will come in and run them and buy them at liquidation prices. But these are bigger companies, so they have more maneuvering room. There's a degree of hope there may not be for some of the smaller companies."

When asked if he had any concerns that the Herald might be sold in the next couple of years, Gyllenhaal said, "That's not something we're worried about."

Good thing, because there's more than enough to worry about already for the dailies of South Florida — and the people who read them.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman