The Rise and Fall of South Florida's Daily Newspapers

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These memos were not exactly welcomed in the newsroom. In fact, they made some people wonder why the Tribune spent money to hire a memo writer. "We found the memos absurd," says one ex-Sentinel employee, who did not want to give his name. "To me, he [Abrams] wasn't grounded in reality."

In a phone interview, Abrams said he just wants to get people to be more open to evolving and reinventing their industry. The memos are meant to "get people thinking and talking and debating" about new ways to serve readers.

But with so many staff cuts, who has time to read them?

"I was too busy working," says Mc Nelly Torres, a recently laid-off Sentinel reporter.

At the Herald, editors are constantly huddled in meetings, leaving reporters in the lurch and creating a sense of fear and mystery, according to one current staffer who wanted to remain anonymous. "I don't know what the fuck they're doing in the meetings," he said.

The staffer says that he's still proud to be at the paper but that the newsroom has dramatically changed. "It seems post-apocalyptic to me half the time... Overall, you just feel that the air has been let out of the balloon."

"Everybody's scared," adds Torres, describing the vibe at the Sun-Sentinel. "I'm so glad that I'm out of that environment. It's just a very toxic environment."

Many reporters are simply demoralized. They're accustomed to using their best stories to climb to a better beat or to a more prestigious newspaper. But with papers like the New York Times struggling, there's nothing left to aspire to.

To top it all off, the vicious competition that used to be the lifeblood of all South Florida newsrooms has vanished. Now the papers save money by doing what was once unthinkable: sharing stories and photos. Furthermore, the Sentinel prints the Post on its presses, and the Post has surrendered its turf war in southern Palm Beach County, letting the Sentinel cover breaking news in the area.

Dave Barry, the humor columnist who launched his career at the Herald, summarizes the mood this way: "If I were a young journalism school graduate, I would just take my diploma and kill myself."

Emily Minor cried the day she walked out of the Palm Beach Post headquarters for the last time. After 30 years in journalism, 13 of them as a feature columnist in West Palm Beach, she felt the loss keenly, even though it was her choice to accept the buyout.

"A newsroom is a place where you get paid to have a cup of coffee and think about the world," Minor says. "To work in a place that is humming with that kind of intellect — it's a real high."

Now, Minor works part-time at a retail clothing store, which for confidentiality reasons she can't name but calls "a hilarious adventure." She still freelances for the Post and other smaller papers and says she has no regrets about leaving her full-time job.

Still, starting over at 53, with her husband still working and her kid off to college, is not easy. When she gets a little extra freelance work, Minor's days look brighter. "And then there are days when you can truly watch all the first season of Mad Men," she says.

The disappearance of bylines like Minor, Dubocq, and Gilken may have slipped by many readers, but the overall change in news coverage at the three papers is hard to miss.

Stories often read like news releases, parroting what politicians say because there's no time or physical space in a shrinking paper to interview more sources. Instead of dedicating their days to pissing off the powers that be, reporters at the Post are urged to attend "customer service" training sessions and do everything they can to please an ever-shrinking audience of readers. The mandate is to break news on the web, not find an in-depth scoop. "The real problem was you had no space and you didn't have as many reporters to go out and find those really good stories and develop them," says Bill Rose, describing his last days at the Post.

With more experienced reporters getting laid off, institutional knowledge is lost. More articles are written by rookies or even college interns. "They can't report their way out of a fucking paper bag," says the Herald staffer.

Meanwhile, many of the reporters who remain are overworked.

As protests erupted this fall over increased testing for kids in Palm Beach County schools, one Post reporter, Laura Green, was responsible for writing a front-page story every day — down from a team of three education reporters a few years ago. Stacey Singer, the Post's lone health reporter covering the swine flu pandemic, says she writes four to five stories a week, plus as many blogs. "There's no air in my day anymore," Singer says.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab