Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Buying some time for The Herald

There's probably nothing more pathetic than a once great prize fighter, past his prime, who keeps climbing into the ring, but then simply refuses to fight.

The Miami Herald is, right now, in a fight for its life.

The Herald is THE largest and most influential information provider in South Florida.

The Herald's power and weight cuts a wide swath across all segments of daily life in South Florida. It alone decides what is news, not only by what stories they choose to cover, but also by what they choose not to cover.

The influence the Herald wields has an effect on every other media outlet in South Florida. Pop in on a morning news meeting at any Miami TV station and you'll find a copy of the Herald on the conference table. A good portion of the stories that show up on the six o'clock news are driven by what was in the Herald that morning.

The Herald also tackles stories that TV stations can't or won't do.

A prime example is the Herald's 2006 "House of Lies" investigation of the Dade County Housing Agency. Within days of the first story six county officials were fired or resigned. Those firings and resignations happened even before all of the stories in the series were published.

But at times the Herald gets it wrong and compounds the problem by bullying.

In its coverage of Herald reporters found to be on the payroll of Radio and TV Marti, the Herald smeared and bullied those same reporters. But the icing on the cake was when Herald publisher Jesus Diaz tried to bully editors into killing a Carl Hiaasen column that was critical of his handling of the ensuing brouhaha.

Cooler heads prevailed and Hiaasen's column ran and Diaz was forced to resign.

So now, in spite of its past excellence and when it's more important than ever for the Herald to keep fighting, it appears that it's throwing in the towel.

You don't have to look very far to find proof the Herald just doesn't care any longer.

And that's a shame.

Like it or not, the Herald has long been an influence for good in South Florida. Its reporters have won 19 Pulitzer Prizes. At one time it had the largest circulation of any paper in the state. No longer. The St Petersburg Times now has a larger circulation.

But what's happening now at the Herald is all the more tragic because, after all, we're not talking about some weekly paper in Pahrump, Nevada. The Herald is a paper that was once on the list of the top 20 newspapers in the country.

There may come a day in the not too distant future when the Herald ceases publication. That's completely contrary to Herald publisher David Landsberg's recent remark that "the newspaper industry has a great future." But I expect him to say that even if he's not being realistic.

What's really puzzling is why the Herald is allowing the quality of its paper to deteriorate so rapidly.

I mean if you're coming to the end of the road, why not go out kicking and screaming and clawing? Put up a fight! At least hold your head up and look like you're trying.

Maybe the end is inevitable.

Or maybe, just maybe, they can do something to reverse those circulation losses and increase ad revenue a bit.

Herewith are my humble suggestions:

SUGGESTION: The Herald's circulation is going south faster than an out of control roller coaster.

Why? The Herald updates the website on a continuous basis all day. And then they take all that news and print it and deliver it to subscribers' homes every morning.

If I'm one of the thousands of paying subscribers who has Internet access during the day and can read the Herald for free, then at some point I'm wondering why I'm paying to have the same news I read yesterday delivered to me the following day in print form. There are, apparently, tens of thousands of subscribers who've figured this out. And they've cancelled the paper.

Why not use miamiherald.com to provide breaking news but hold back posting non-breaking news and longer feature stories on the site? Print them in the morning paper instead. Once they've been published then they can be posted on the site.

The way they're doing it now would be like Publix giving away fresh-baked bread everyday and then charging for the leftover stale loaves the next day.

SUGGESTION: Lose the boring broadsheet format and go ....(GASP!!) tabloid! Yes, tabloid!

They have the subscribers by the short ones. They're going to read the paper no matter what format it's in.

But if I'm out on the street and pass by a news rack and I see thisI keep moving. There's nothing there to grab me and pull me in.

But if I see this I might stop and buy the paper. I'm certainly not going to ignore it!

They have nothing to lose. The way they're doing it now isn't cutting the mustard.

NOTE TO HERALD: If you go this route start off slowly at first. These guys in NY are pros and have been writing ass-kicking heds like this for years. Take baby steps and work up to stuff like this. It's not for the faint of heart.

SUGGESTION: FIX THE DAMN WEBSITE!! It's a mess! 'Nuff said!
EDIT: Back in Dec. of last year editor Rick Hirsch sent me this...

From: Hirsch, Rick - Miami (RHirsch@miamiherald.com)
You may not know this sender.Mark as safe|Mark as unsafe
Sent: Wed 12/19/07 6:08 PM
To: newshawk@gmail.com

Again, Bill, thanks for the feedback. Some good points, some I would quarrel with. On our site usability, you are painfully correct. We've begun a process of redesigning the site with cleaner, simpler navigation. It isn't an overnight fix -- far from it -- but it will make a big difference.

I guess they're still tweaking.

SUGGESTION: Sell ads on page one. Other papers, including el Nuevo, are doing it.What advertiser wouldn't want to be seen on some prime front page real estate? Do it before your page one property values become worthless.

SUGGESTION: Change the editorial focus of the paper. Right now much of it reads like a boring Sunday school sermon. It's really not all that different from what it was 40 years ago. Not to mention that it's oh so politically correct.

Look around. Things are changing. Get feisty, fight dirty, kick ass and go after sacred cows! Get competitive. Be outrageous!

A side note: Magazine pioneer Clay Felker died today. I was intrigued by these two paragraphs in his NY Times obit:

"Mr. Felker’s magazine (New York) was hip and ardent, civic-minded and skeptical. It was preoccupied with the foibles of the rich and powerful, the fecklessness of government and the hijinks of wiseguys. But it never lost sight of the complicated business and cultural life of the city. Articles were often gossipy, even vicious, and some took liberties with sources and journalistic techniques.....Meanwhile, what he called its “secret weapon,” its service coverage — on where to eat, shop, drink and live — kept many readers coming back."
Not to mention those great covers week after week.

Can the Herald say that? I think not. New York magazine today is everything the Herald is NOT!

But there's no reason why the Herald can't take some of the things that made New York magazine a success and apply them locally.

SUGGESTION: A word about service coverage. They took a step forward a few months ago when they launched miami.com. It was supposed to be a portal site but they have a long way to go.

Right now when I need to look for a restaurant I go here: The New Times website. It's the gold standard for all things Miami.

SUGGESTION: Hire or assign a blogger to do nothing but blog full-time for the website.

Get someone who has the ability to go for the jugular like a Jim Defede and with the sources of a Joan Fleischman and then turn them loose. Guaranteed to make those page views go up if it's done right. Right now the Herald blogs are about as exciting as vanilla ice cream and as compelling as the phone book.

So if you're at the Herald you're asking yourself "who is this guy and what makes him so smart?" I'm no one really, just someone who's been reading the the Herald since 1960.

And if you're at the Herald and reading these suggestions you might be saying "it's no use, nothing's going to help us now."

To that I say: Your way isn't working so what do you have to lose?

It's up to you. Like the champion fighter you can keep fighting or you can take a dive and throw in the towel.

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