The Rise and Fall of South Florida's Daily Newspapers

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The story explained how Masilotti used a secret land trust to make $1.3 million off the South Florida Water Management District's purchase of 3,000 acres of land in Martin County. Dozens of follow-up articles chronicled more land deals that netted $10 million for Masilotti, while then-County Commissioner Warren Newell also raked in about $500,000 by voting for deals that benefited him — including the water district's $190 million purchase of rock pits in western Palm Beach County.

Soon, the federal prosecutor indicted Masilotti and Newell on corruption charges, along with prominent lobbyist William Boose III and real estate consultant Daniel Miteff, who were involved in some of the tainted deals. All four landed in federal prison.

Dubocq kept writing, winning national recognition for his investigation. In June 2008, he was still detailing the widening federal probe surrounding the County Commission's plans for a new convention center hotel.

Two months later, he was gone.

At age 55, with a salary approaching six figures, Dubocq could see it was best to retire. Investigative reporting jobs were being axed all over the country, and he wasn't willing to find out whether his was next. His buyout package from the Post included health insurance — a perk he wouldn't get if he waited for a layoff — and eight months' pay. It was a generous sendoff, especially considering what happened after he left.

Suddenly, South Florida newsrooms became the kind of offices that journalists normally ridiculed in print: corporate and obtuse, with a layer of fear and dread hanging over them like smog.

At the Palm Beach Post, managers were shifted and reporters taken off beats they had covered for years, spurring resentment, confusion, and inconsistent coverage. Thanks to a series of newsroom "re-orgs," some reporters were drowning in work while others wasted hours reading magazines and applying to grad school. The south Palm Beach County bureau was reduced to a ghostly room full of empty cubicles where a few stray reporters tried not to think about how long the lights would stay on.

At one point, a memo went out saying the paper would no longer provide free coffee. After mass protests, this directive was rescinded — but employees still had to buy their own creamer.

Things got even weirder last winter, when Cox sent a fresh-faced 34-year-old publisher named Alex Taylor, nephew of CEO Kennedy, to run the Post. The new boss seemed a tad insensitive to a staff that had just been unceremoniously chopped in half.

Last July — one year after the buyouts — Taylor announced that another management shakeup and job cuts were on the way. This time, there would be layoffs, not buyouts, meaning workers had no choice in the matter and received just one week's pay for every year of service.

Taylor chose this moment to send out an email urging staffers to brush up on their customer service skills and not act so glum about the death rattle of their industry.

He wrote:

"If someone says to you, 'I hear things down at the Post are tough. How are you doing?' you could say, 'Yeah it stinks, no one knows what's happening,' (not good) or you could say 'It's a fascinating time to be in the business. Things are changing quickly and dramatically and I think it's exciting to be on the leading edge of how media is evolving,' (good, positive). Two ways of looking at the same thing, but one is just a lot more uplifting."

In preparation for the next round of layoffs, which arrived this September, Post reporters and editors spent a harrowing few weeks receiving formal job evaluations for the first time in years. They scurried to apply for different posts in the newsroom and worried themselves sick. On the last day, they waited at their desks for phone calls informing them it was time to pack a box and go home. By then, Taylor had already announced he was leaving for a new job in Ohio.

Meanwhile, a new brand of electronic cheerleading was invading the Sun-Sentinel's newsroom. Lee Abrams, Tribune's new chief innovation officer, had begun sending out "think pieces" designed to help usher in a new era of profitability.

These memos are long, exhaustive, seemingly steam-of-consciousness missives littered with Abrams' catch phrases like AFDI — Actually Fucking Doing It.

One famous "think piece" told people to evaluate their offices and rid them of "traits" that make them "average" such as "UPTIGHT/PARANOID: You know the drill. You can FEEL the fear."

Another suggested adding more "man on the street" segments to the company's TV news shows. He considered this concept a revelation:

"Every day, an average person is interviewed about top stories," he wrote. "We've heard what the experts think, let's open it up to REAL people. This could be red hot. What the average citizen's take on the topics is."

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab