Sunday, April 13, 2014

How to kill a newspaper

This month's issue of Ocean Drive Magazine features a short profile and a Q and A with the Miami Herald's Executive Editor, Aminda "Mindy" Marqués Gonzalez.

The piece ends with Marqués predicting the future of the Herald: "I can’t tell you exactly how you’ll be getting your news, but I know we’ll be delivering that news. We’ll be here."

What Marqués didn't tell Ocean Drive is that consciously - or subconsciously - she's on a mission to destroy what's left of what was, at one time, Florida's largest, and most-influential newspaper.

When Marqués was named the Herald's executive editor in October 2010, the paper's daily circulation was slightly over 151,000.

Now, three-and-a-half years later, the Herald's circulation is less than 100,000.

The chart below is taken from the print order for an upcoming 8-page special section to be inserted in the Dade and Broward editions of the Herald in May. The total press run for both sections is less than 95,000.

A publisher's statement filed last September listed the daily press run as 103,076.

Marqués told Ocean Drive Magazine that the Herald's daily circulation is 155,113. But she didn't tell Ocean Drive is how it's possible to claim a daily circulation of 155,000 when the daily press run is now less than 100,000.

Why are subscribers leaving in droves, and how did a newspaper that was once Florida's largest in terms of circulation, fall to fifth place?

For some answers, look no further than Marqués leadership - or lack of it.

Some answers:

  • Despite the recent appointment of Chuck Rabin to the crime and cops beat, under Marqués' leadership - or lack of it - the paper's crime coverage, has for years, consisted of nothing more than stories copied and pasted from TV station websites. 

  • Under Marqués' leadership - or lack of it - the paper ignored every shooting and homicide in one northwest Miami neighborhood in 2013.

  • Under Marqués' leadership - or lack of it - what little crime-related news the Herald does cover, is usually relegated to the inside pages of the paper's local section.

  • Last Wednesday, the Herald's sister publication, el Nuevo Herald, prominently displayed on its front page, the story of an allegedly drunk Miami-Dade cop who ran into a shopping cart containing two kids in a Publix parking lot.
    Page 1A of the Herald that same day, featured a silly story about - and I am not making this up - a "national water dance project."

  • And last February, when staff photographer Al Diaz shot a dramatic set images of a heroic life-saving effort on State Road 836, Marques ordered that the images run inside the paper, far away from the front page where they belonged. This despite the fact that Diaz's photos were featured on virtually every network and cable TV news show within hours of the incident, and for several days after.

  • A few days ago, I had a brief phone discussion with a Herald insider. We talked about the paper's rapid and steady circulation decline. Later that day in an email, the insider elaborated on some of the things we'd discussed on the phone:
    Many factors are involved.

    Obviously, the most significant is the technological transformation of the publishing world. The Herald was entrapped by the same forces that diminished most other newspapers -- demographic change, the availability of instant digital information, a significantly dumbed-down, self-absorded citizenry.

    But that doesn't explain the Herald's dramatic fall from grace. Every other paper in the state and nation confronted the same issues; our plunge has been far steeper than most.

    That's due to a failure of corporate strategy and of local management.

    The constant, Chinese-water-torture cuts in staff, space and vision have taken their toll. A struggling enterprise, any struggling enterprise, cannot hope to grow its business or even maintain its business if it continually offers its customers less (and frequently tries to charge more.) That's simply economic reality and it was willfully ignored by McClatchy, where top corporate executives still exhibit greed (protecting their rising salaries and bonuses) and cowardice (an unwillingness to take the chance of investing in the product). Their objective is just to get their next over-sized paycheck, regardless of the long-term consequences.

    Locally, the Peter Principle came largely into play. As seasoned, experienced managers were forced out (in some cases by age, but more often by fairly vicious terminations or no longer tolerable aggravation), they were replaced by people of less experience, weaker vision and, in some cases, their own brand of greed -- just keep that paycheck coming. Some survivors just aren't very smart or talented - they had risen to the level of their incompetence. But some are smart or talented  and many of those made small compromises in their professional standards. Then, larger compromises. Then, many standards simply were discarded. Also, when it comes to story assignment and play, especially front-page play, these less seasoned managers tend to be tentative and conservative - their first priority is to not rock the boat. The resulting environment discourages risk taking, encourages dull, "safe" story selection. So you end up with a dull, "safe" front page and newspaper - precisely the opposite of what is required to build or even maintain readership.

    If you look around the country at the papers that have most successfully held off the rising tide of failure, you see the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and, in Florida, the Tampa Bay Times. Even most of those are in varying degrees of trouble now, but they held on the longest. What do they have in common and what do they have that the Herald squandered? A core magnitude of coverage and quality. It's as simple as that.

    The remaining cohort of newspaper readers are fairly smart and engaged people. You can't fool them for long. By now, at a quickening pace, they have received the message about the Herald: This thing just isn't worth the walk out to the driveway or the website click and the leap over the digital paywall. (The executive editor actually boasted recently about 20 percent of the Herald's revenue coming from digital means. Think about that - after all of this time and effort, only 20 percent of our revenue is coming from the newspaper's only hope for the future, digital. And that's 20 percent of an overall revenue base that steadily diminishes as print circulation and advertising evaporate. That's hardly boast-worthy.)

    Pretty soon, the diminishing readership in print and the slow growth, if that's what it really is, in digital readership will reach the economic point of inflection. Remaining advertisers will realize that they're not getting any bang for their bucks. They will bow out. And when the ad managers at BrandsMart, Rooms to Go, and South Motors finally figure it out, it will be all over for us.

    One other thing: McClatchy proved in Alaska this past week that it feels no loyalty to its component newspapers or the people who work there or read them. That day also may be coming to Miami. If that happens, and it could be any day of any week, it also will be all over for us.

    Will the Herald be around a year from now? Probably.

    Two years from now? I'm not so sure.

    What I do know is that when someone finally gets around to writing the Herald's obituary, Marqués will be named as the person who, in the paper's final days, administered the coup de grâce.


    1. 40+ years a subscriber.....Unsubscribed last month

    2. I agree 100% with the Herald "insider." I don't subscribe to the Herald but I'll pick up a copy in Publix if I see a front page that looks interesting. But that rarely happens these days.

      It's almost as if the people in charge are intentionally trying to make the paper as boring as possible.

    3. I still subscribe to the herald and will continue to do so... I enjoy my printed news in the morning and also enjoy accessing their website throughout the day. It works for me - who doesn't like options.

      1. That last sentence... did the contributor just forget to end on a question mark? ...or is he/she claiming to be a reader who really DOESN'T like options?

        Of course, judging from the declining quality of the Herald's writers and their grammatical skills, the writer (I suspect) is nothing more than a loyal, brown-nosed Herald employee who defends this has-been paper as still a credible, viable "option."


      2. You got all that from the use of a period...
        Glad you aren't a Freudian! Who knows what other conclusions you would have jumped too.
        You got way too much time on your hands.

    4. This downward spiral is inevitable. There is nothing that can be done to stop it. The newspaper industry is comparable to the transportation industry: horseback to steam to automotive and next, drones. There will always be an insatiable thirst for news, especially sports. It is not that there is not an interest in news but that it is delivered in a much more efficient manner.

      1. And one suspects the Herald's top brass, like Miss Mindy, will still be defiantly insisting they can resurrect this paper as they stand in their ivory tower and watch the tide of 21st century technological advancement rise up and consume them. Which it will.

        In the meantime, any bets on when the Herald will stop acting like propaganda-spinning Cold War-era Soviet Politburo members trying to make communism look like it was a success and acknowledge what everybody else in town knows is the truth -- that the paper's circulation has finally dipped into the five-figure range? Or will they just continue to delude themselves and the public that they are still a widely-read paper?

    5. The 2014 Pulitzers were just announced and the Herald was once again NOT a recipient. (Somehow, I'm not surprised.)

      This now marks 5 years since their last one (for breaking news photography), 7 if you count since their last one for actual writing. This is the longest losing streak since their 1967-76 dry spell.

    6. The Herald died for me many years ago when they stopped "Tropic".


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