Steadying the Miami Herald newsroom, after cuts and a digital reinvention

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SERGIO BUSTOS came to the Miami Herald as a politics editor in 2005 after more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter. He’d started out at the Philadelphia Inquirer, worked as a Washington correspondent for Gannett, and covered immigration for the Arizona Republic. He thought the Herald would be his last stop. But he couldn’t ward off a creeping sense of insecurity after the Herald’s parent company, McClatchy, laid off 250 people from the paper at the height of the financial crisis in 2008, and another 175 the following year.

“When you’re looking at the newspaper business,” Bustos says, “it was just really hard to say, ‘Alright Sergio, in 10 years, when I turn 62, do I see myself at a newspaper?’ That was just a hard, hard question to say yes to.” After 10 years at the paper, Bustos left to return to reporting, covering the campaigns of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio for the Associated Press. The Herald has shed jobs intermittently since 2009, through layoffs and attrition, and one current Herald reporter described a feeling of “everlasting angst” that remains, even a decade later, from the largest cuts in the paper’s history.

At a time when many major metro papers struggle to stave off staff cuts from corporate owners, Bustos’s experience points to a different problem—one that often goes underreported in coverage of cutbacks and layoffs. Despite their seniority or their perceived indispensability, many staffers at the Herald and similarly strained papers have left of their own accord. The reasons why range from the financial and the personal to professional ambitions and frustrations with the Herald’s push to reinvent itself as a digital media company.

Over the past five years, Herald reporters have left for marquee jobs at The New York Times and The Washington Post. They’ve also made lateral moves, or gone to smaller outlets like Miami digital startup the New Tropic, the non-profit education newsroom Chalkbeat, or the local NPR affiliate WLRN. In some cases, they’ve pursued different professions altogether.

People who have left the Herald in recent years usually aren’t replaced, limiting possibilities for moves within the newsroom, and complicating the task of planning coverage across the organization.

Patricia Mazzei and Audra Burch both joined The New York Times in the past year, after 10 and 18 years at the Herald, respectively. “The Herald has always been poached by the national papers,” says the paper’s editor, Mindy Marques. “We used to feed, and we still do, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal… But there wasn’t a Politico, there wasn’t Axios”—deep-pocketed, national, digital-only competitors. Marc Caputo left a column and a gig as a state politics reporter after 14 years at the Herald to join the rollout of Politico Florida in 2014. “In general, large corporate ownership of newspapers linked to the stock market is worse than ownership by a benevolent billionaire with vision or a properly run nonprofit,” Caputo writes in an email.

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People who have left the Herald in recent years usually aren’t replaced, limiting possibilities for moves within the newsroom, and complicating the task of planning coverage across the organization. At times, Bustos says, the paper verged on a “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” approach. When Bustos raised his hand for an open position as the paper’s Sunday editor in 2012, management offered him a raise and suggested that he do the job alongside his work editing political coverage. Mike Vasquez left for Politico in 2016, just as he made higher education a premier beat at the Herald, with a series that won national awards, sparked legislative changes and criminal charges against the president of a for-profit college. Although Vasquez periodically covered other education stories, the balance shifted after his departure. Higher education coverage is now the responsibility of the Herald’s lone education reporter.

By the time Lance Dixon left the Herald earlier this year after three years as a local government reporter, he was covering North Miami and Coral Gables—cities with little in common, at opposite ends of the metro area. When he left, neither beat was replaced. Instead, the paper is moving towards a “general assignment” model, with one reporter monitoring the county’s 30 smallest towns and cities.

The 2009 layoffs—along with mandatory furloughs, pay cuts of up to 10 percent, and pension freezes for those who remained—became anchored in the psyche of the newsroom. Scott Hiaasen, the son of longtime Herald columnist and acclaimed novelist Carl Hiaasen, was a member of the newspaper’s decorated investigative team and, by his colleagues’ accounts, one of the most talented journalists in the newsroom. After the layoffs, Hiaasen went to Barnes & Noble and bought an LSAT-prep book. “It was survival,” says Hiaasen, who is married to another Herald journalist, Jenny Staletovich, and is a father of three young kids. He didn’t see a future for a household whose income depended entirely on a newspaper on its heels. In 2013, Hiaasen finished law school and left for a career in corporate law. A year later, another longtime reporter and editor, Scott Andron, got his JD and left for a job in Broward County’s legal office.

The basic instability of the journalism employment market isn’t limited to the Miami Herald. It helped convince a Toledo Blade cops reporter to become a police officer, and has gutted the ranks of sportswriters well beyond the world of local newspapers. But Hiaasen says the Herald is different: a news organization subject to layoffs and natural attrition driven by financial pressure, but with “a crop of ambitious and pretty talented people who leave upwards.” For those reporters, Hiaasen says, the problems that ail many metro dailies enhance the Herald’s status as a career springboard.

“It’s difficult, when you have periods of a lot of departures, to reorganize in a thoughtful way,” Marques acknowledges. “We’ve had to adjust as managers to the idea that people are not gonna be with us forever.” That dynamic, adds Marques, is also affected by a new young generation of journalists that moves frequently between news organizations. “Find me a millennial who doesn’t already have three or four organizations on his or her resume,” Marques says. Marques insists the Herald has never struggled to attract new talent; part of the appeal of working in a lean news organization, younger Herald reporters point out, is the opportunity to rise through the ranks quickly. But as Hiaasen observes, they’re equally likely to take notice when jobs go unfilled after a colleague’s departure. “If you’re a 28 year old reporter who really wants to be good, but you’re just waiting to figure out what the next move is, but there’s no move, maybe that’s when you leave,” he says.

McClatchy has been hamstrung by debt it took on to purchase the Herald’s earlier parent company, Knight Ridder, in 2006, near the height of the stock market. “At one point they were owing $900 million,” Bustos says. “How do you grow a company when you’re deep in debt?” When McClatchy sold the Herald’s waterfront office building for $236 million, the lion’s share went to fill a hole in the paper’s pension fund. “What it didn’t do is make the Miami Herald news product better,” says Hiaasen.

“I saw it especially as Sunday editor,” Bustos says. “There we were on a Saturday night, relegated to putting out the Sunday paper with literally a handful of people. We didn’t cover breaking news on a Saturday. It had to be a face-eating situation, a quadruple homicide…We did as best we could, but typos were not unusual.” The print deadline gradually shifted two hours earlier on Saturday nights because it gave the Herald a cheaper time slot at the pressing plant.

Over the same period, others were frustrated that the Herald couldn’t invest more resources to support the news operation’s transition online, or the staffing to make good on McClatchy’s proposed pivot to video, even as the company pushed its papers to double down on boosting online traffic. The Herald’s subscriber base has continued to shrink year by year, but the web traffic has doubled in the past five years, from 6.3 million average monthly unique visitors in 2012 to 13.9 million average monthly unique visitors in 2017.

Last fall, Tim Grieve, McClatchy’s vice president of news, made a presentation to the newsroom just as papers across the company unveiled newsroom reinvention plans. Through that process, Marques explains, each of the Herald’s beats was reimagined “through the prism of what the audience wants.”

“We placed our chips on the high-mission, high-impact beats that mesh with what we can tell, by what our readers are reading, that they want to consume,” she says. And although the Herald’s lean staff still manages to set the agenda in coverage of major events like Parkland or the FIU bridge collapse or the death of Fidel Castro, not everybody is reassured.

Grieve’s presentation included a calculation of the paper’s digital ad revenue per 1,000 pageviews, which worked out to $13 at the time. One reporter reviewed the number of pageviews needed to justify that same reporter’s salary, “because that’s what they do.” The figure was close to breaking even, the reporter tells CJR, “but obviously, the paper wants to make money.”

It’s not hard to see the tension that can arise between optimizing for clicks and reporting in the public interest, and wonder whether it’s hastened departures from the Herald newsroom.

Since 2015, screens in the newsroom have shown click counts from the monitoring service Chartbeat for the most popular stories on the Herald website, a common feature in newsrooms around the country. In November, courts and crime reporter David Ovalle tweeted a photo of the Herald’s new “click chain”—a reference to the University of Miami football team’s “turnover chain,” worn by a player who forces a turnover. At the Herald, Ovalle wrote, the click chain goes to the reporter whose stories lead web traffic for the week.

For a time, Chartbeat monitors displayed separate feeds for web traffic in the South Florida market and traffic from further afield. Now, all pageviews are displayed together. In Ovalle’s photograph, the headline on top of the Chartbeat heap reads, “They had guns, masks and a 17-year-old to kidnap, police say. Then her dad stepped in.” The story was written by a reporter in San Francisco about an attempted kidnapping case in the Florida panhandle.

Since the fall, reporters have been given annual “traffic goals” that many in the newsroom simply call “click quotas.” Another addition is a four-person “real-time news” team that scours the internet to rewrite content with the potential to go viral, regardless of whether a story is tied to Miami. The team is made up of beat reporters reassigned to writing three stories a shift; their performance is explicitly tied to clicks.

Some reporters see welcome changes in McClatchy’s mandate for reinvention, like a checklist reporters now use to evaluate a story’s potential reach and to focus the story to appeal to readers. After a period when some felt the paper was falling behind the digital curve, the Herald has moved aggressively to sharpen the newsroom’s framing of coverage to do well online. “That includes writing different kinds of stories, different kinds of headlines,” one reporter says. “Some of that is triage,” the reporter adds. “We need to reach a stabilization point with [that] revenue stream so that we can focus on subscriptions and audience.” As long as digital ad revenue remains a major source of funding, there’s a sense that internet-savvy news decisions can help insulate the Herald from further cuts: The Kansas City Star and The Sacramento Bee each lost 10 or more employees in McClatchy’s most recent round of layoffs, aimed at restructuring the company around regional teams in each part of the country. The Herald was spared.

But it’s not hard to see the tension that can arise between optimizing for clicks and reporting in the public interest, and wonder whether it’s hastened departures from the Herald newsroom. “There are pros and cons to what they’re doing now,” says the reporter who tallied page views after seeing Grieve’s presentation. “If you do a story and 500 people read it, you should be asking yourself, ‘Did I do something wrong, was it worth it to do that story?’ But then sometimes, you do that story that 500 people read, but those 500 people are in City Hall, and they change what they’re doing. Well, I think change is the biggest metric of success for a newsroom.”

Several of those who left have expressed sadness at what they’ve heard from colleagues since. As Sergio Bustos put it, “I’m glad I’m not there to have to write a headline that’s supposed to trick a reader into reading into a story, with the belief that that will save the newspaper. I just don’t think it’s gonna do it.”

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Editor’s Note: After publication, CJR spoke with McClatchy Vice President of News Tim Grieve, who framed the company’s efforts in terms of three objectives: retaining existing print subscribers, reaching new readers online, and maximizing engagement to boost digital ad revenue. Grieve noted that the ability of small “real-time news” teams to create viral stories online helps subsidize the work of reporters doing more traditional accountability journalism.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the date of Lance Dixon’s departure, and misidentified Carl Hiaasen as a former Herald columnist.

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Rowan Moore Gerety is the author of Go Tell the Crocodiles: Chasing Prosperity in Mozambique. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, the Miami Herald, and The Guardian, and he has produced radio stories for NPR and PRI. He studied anthropology at Columbia University and was a Fulbright fellow in Mozambique.