The Rise and Fall of South Florida's Daily Newspapers

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When it came time to file a story on deadline, Dubocq knew he'd better have a roll of dimes for the pay phones. When covering a big trial, he'd hang an authentic out-of-order sign on the phone, removing it only when he needed to call the rewrite desk.

"It was just absolutely wild," Dubocq says of the competition among the papers at that time. "Failure was not an option."

The newspaper wars got especially fierce when a big story broke and he was forced to compete with the national media. He covered the 1997 slaying of Gianni Versace in Miami Beach and the 1980 race riots in Miami. He was part of the heyday of South Florida newspapers, a time when money was pouring in from the corporate offices to fuel the tricounty competition for readers and ad revenue. Smaller papers that published in the afternoon, such as the Sun-Tattler, Miami News, and Fort Lauderdale News, folded during the late '80s and early '90s, but the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel, and Palm Beach Post continued to boom in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach County, respectively.

Bill Rose was an editor at the Herald during those flush years, when "they didn't hesitate to throw money at stories," he says. The papers could afford to bring their readers a local twist on the biggest stories from the South or the world. For reporters, covering the Olympics or immigrant smuggling in Mexico was a dream job. For readers, who did not yet rely on CNN for national news, these stories were their window into foreign worlds.

Rose reported from Saudi Arabia, Haiti, and Mexico. In 1987, the Herald sent Rose to cover the 25th anniversary of James Meredith's pivotal civil rights victory as the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi.

That same year, editor Rose and a team of Herald reporters flew to Atlanta to cover the longest prison takeover in U.S. history. Cuban refugees were rioting because they were stuck in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary while the State Department tried to persuade Fidel Castro to take them back home. Upon landing at the Atlanta airport, Rose rented a van and parked it at a Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street from the prison. Handing the owner $50, he arranged to keep the van at the restaurant for the duration. Then, he called the cable and phone companies and had them set up lines from the van, creating a mobile news bureau for a pre-cell-phone world. When the refugees surrendered, a Herald reporter was on the scene.

By the late '90s, the spending spree at the Herald had ended. Rose's job as editor of the paper's weekly magazine, Tropic, was eliminated because the insert was a luxury the paper could no longer afford. The circulation slide that would put papers out of business a decade later had already begun. So he took a gig as metro editor at the Palm Beach Post and soon became managing editor, in charge of the entire newsroom.

When he arrived, the competition between the Post and the Sun-Sentinel was ratcheting up a notch. "It was almost a religious mission," Rose says. "And we succeeded big time."

During those years, the Post newsroom had the vibe of a football team that can taste a championship win. The air buzzed with communal excitement, a sense of fighting the good fight and feeling proud on the drive home. Coworkers became close friends, like an adopted family. Unlike the sweatshop atmosphere that pervades so many newsrooms, in West Palm Beach, reporters routinely left work at 6 p.m. and got paid enough to live comfortably in a booming real estate market.

As the Sentinel pushed its coverage north into Palm Beach County, the Post poured money into hiring more reporters to defend its territory. James Cox Kennedy, CEO of Cox Enterprises — which owns the Post, several other newspapers and television stations, AutoTrader.com, and the cable company Cox Communications — even came down to West Palm to affirm his commitment to this turf war.

Every story became a battle between the Post and the Sun-Sentinel, pushing reporters to dig deeper and find new angles on the news of the day. "If they had one word I didn't have, I was upset," Gilken remembers. "And that's often what made the stories so good down here."

Soon, the Post was sending reporters to Mexico to watch desperate immigrants jump on moving trains and cross the desert with smugglers to find slave-wage work in Florida's orange groves. During the 2000 presidential election debacle, the Post purchased two touch-screen voting machines so reporters could test them in the newsroom and see the flaws in the ballot counts up close.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab