A name change to hide its Miami origins. A spanking new, $10 million Pembroke Pines headquarters just off Interstate 75. And now the flop of a multimillion-dollar marketing deal that embarrasses reporters and generates a national debate on journalistic ethics.

It must be The Herald's Broward-first strategy.

Conflicts of interest began migrating north from 1 Herald Plaza early this year, when the newspaper's publisher Alberto Ibargüen agreed to pony up $300,000 in hopes the Broward County School Board would put The Herald's name on the proposed Flanagan High football stadium. Privately Sun-Sentinel reporters and some of The Herald's Broward staff griped the agreement would compromise coverage by putting journalists into business with the people they write about. (No conflict here, says The Herald's Broward publisher, Paul Anger, whose daughter, by the way, attends Flanagan: "The high school needs a stadium; the county too. We're just trying to help them.")

Then last month Ibargüen took a very public role in the Florida Philharmonic strike. He led efforts to force musicians from the Fort Lauderdale­based orchestra, who are paid garbage, back to work. The result was apparently good for classical music fans. The strikers' will buckled, and they returned to work. But the behavior of The Miami Herald's maestro raised questions. Ibargüen at times didn't return calls from a Sun-Sentinel reporter covering the situation. Was it secrecy or competitive zeal that kept him from dialing?

Finally there was the Broward County Convention Center fiasco. Before the deal blew up last month, the newspaper agreed to pay $13 million over 15 years so the county would rename the facility the Herald Center of Greater Fort Lauderdale. Other newspapers' sales at the center would have been limited, and ticket prices would have included a surcharge to benefit Herald charities. Journalism professors, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times all weighed in on the issue. How could Herald reporters impartially cover the politics and construction? Even Anger, a former Herald sports editor who has enormous respect from his news-side colleagues, expressed his embarrassment, according to intimates on the staff. ("It's a perception problem," he comments now, "not a reality problem.")

Numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulation provide the key to understanding why Ibargüen, an otherwise canny executive, has acted so stupidly here. The county's second-most-read newspaper has steadily lost weekday circulation in Broward since 1998 -- about 5 percent, according to auditors' data. And The Herald has used unheard-of techniques to prop up its numbers, temporarily reducing the price of its Broward Sunday edition to 50 cents and virtually giving away as many as 4500 newspapers each week at the Swap Shop in Sunrise and a flea market in Margate. Though those techniques have worked to increase the Sunday total, they make the regular audit numbers even more difficult for readers and advertisers to understand, according to Audit Bureau executives.

Indeed, last month, just at the end of the Audit Bureau's reporting period, The Herald raised its Sunday price in Broward. The circulation results won't show up for a while in audits, so ad execs can sell their product at prices based on inflated reader numbers. "It's a shell game," says one Sun-Sentinel executive, who didn't want to be named. "But now they're out of tricks."

The Herald's future in Broward is unclear. The newspaper has already lost most of the county, so it pins its hopes on the area south of I-595, where many Miamians moved after Hurricane Andrew. Even there, though, The Herald will have to do more than put its name on a couple of public buildings to build readership.

Ibargüen, by all accounts a charismatic figure, must have figured that he could turn around the decline with a few bold moves. Instead he's dragged a once-great institution's reputation, yet again, into the muck. "The Herald wants to win with one big glitzy move like the convention center," says John Christie, a former Sun-Sentinel director who recently left the newspaper. "But as hard as The Herald tries to be a Broward paper, [it] never will be."

For his part Anger believes The Herald will out. "It is definitely a battle, but we are confident about the future," he says. "Anybody can make statistics dance. I know that sounds wimpy, but it's true."

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse