The Rise and Fall of South Florida's Daily Newspapers

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Dave Barry worries that investigative government stories, such as the Herald exposé this summer on Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez's quietly doling out raises to his top advisers while proposing layoffs for other county workers, will soon disappear because no one has time to dig through county records to find them. "That's what I fear will be gone," Barry says. "It's the stuff that nobody would know."

Perhaps the most vivid example is the lackluster way the Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald have handled the recent corruption allegations against Broward County School Board member Beverly Gallagher, County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion, and former Miramar Commissioner Fitzroy Salesman. The dailies waited to report on the scandal until federal charges were filed against the politicians, even though rumors of upcoming indictments swirled for months.

The recent staff cuts at the papers couldn't have helped. There's now only one reporter covering Broward County government for both the Herald and the Sentinel, says Dan Christensen, a reporter who covered the Broward beat for the Herald until he was laid off this spring.

"It's painfully obvious that the Sun-Sentinel has no federal sources," Christensen says.

Just a few years ago, covering a political scandal meant digging deeper to find a new angle every day to beat one's competitors. Now there's a comfort in knowing no one else will write what one paper misses. "I'm not getting a sense that there's a real kind of competition going on," says Dubocq.

Top editors at the dailies dispute this gloomy version of events. Gyllenhaal, the Herald executive editor, says that sharing content with other papers has allowed the Herald to increase its state coverage from Tallahassee, as well as breaking news, such as the smuggler's boat full of Haitian refugees that drowned off the coast of southern Palm Beach County earlier this year.

He says the papers "go separate ways" when covering the Broward County corruption scandal. As for critics who say that coverage has suffered, "There's always going to be concerns," he says. "I think the history of this partnership has shown that it's working pretty well."

Nick Moschella, content editor for the Post, says that after all the layoffs and management changes, the paper is now "trying to bring back a watchdog approach across the board. We want to write more in-depth."

The paper's trying to cover more small municipalities with a "community beat," he says. Meanwhile, he acknowledges that many reporters feel overworked. "I think we do the best we can to not wear people down," he says.

None of the editors say they foresee a complete merger between the papers or an end to the print editions any time soon.

"We're putting a good amount of attention online, but I think we haven't given up on the print readership," Moschella says.

As for the possibility of more layoffs, "that's in the hands of the economy," Gyllenhaal says.

Perhaps the most telling analysis comes from Abrams, Tribune's chief innovation officer. In his quest to make notoriously bureaucratic newspapers "evolve" and "get people to challenge the playbook," he can sound like a foreigner to cherished tenets of journalism.

"Integrity is so important," he says. "But so is staying in business."

Meanwhile, many of the reporters who have left South Florida's dailies have given up on the fish wrapper.

Christensen, the Miami Herald investigative reporter who was laid off this spring, launched a nonprofit investigative news site called Broward Bulldog. He's applied for tax-exempt status and is hoping to run on donations and even hire a staff.

"I'm not ready to stop doing this," he says. "I enjoy it, and I also think there's a need for it. But will it work out? I don't know."

Dubocq is now a private investigator, working for corporations who need someone to dig up dirt on competitors and helping criminal defense lawyers flesh out their cases. He says the job is "almost exactly the same as my old one," and he's making more money. The only difference is that now, when he's done crunching numbers and combing through court records, he winds up back home, alone. There's no editor to brag to, and his exposés never make the front page. "I don't leave my house that much," he admits.

Mary Kate Leming is betting on a different kind of journalism. After 22 years at the Palm Beach Post, she took the buyout and started a monthly newspaper. She and her husband, Jerry Lower, a former photography director for the Sun-Sentinel, created the Coastal Star, a nostalgically quaint publication that covers only the towns along the coast from Delray Beach to South Palm Beach. Hiring laid-off reporters as freelancers, the paper features well-written stories and magazine-style photos while filling in the gaps left by the Post's diminished local government coverage.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab