Miami’s Media Muddle Print
Written by Jack King   
June 2009

You know things are shaky when the BT scoops everyone in town

Last month Biscayne Times did something that should have never been done: It scooped Miami’s big-city daily, four big-city television stations, and one big-city alternative weekly with a story that was right under their collective noses. The story, of course, was about the truly excessive salaries and benefits the City of Miami pays to many of its employees (“Gravy Train,” May 2009).

The first question that comes to my mind is this: Are we that good here, or are they that bad there. Alas, I am afraid it is the latter -- no offense to “Gravy Train” author Erik Bojnansky. And to punctuate that point, you have to understand that we had the story for several weeks and were absolutely fearful that someone else would discover it and break it before we could go to press. That’s no small fear when you only publish monthly in a news environment in which the Internet breaks news every minute.

And that may just be the crux of the problem. It is very easy to break news, but it is not so easy to gather news, especially quality investigative reporting. After all, this is the town that invented the instant news cycle for television. Some 20 years ago, the so-called reporters at WSVN-TV (Channel 7) sat by their police scanners, ready to leap at a moment’s notice to cover Miami’s latest auto accident or police shooting.

It was easy, took no brains, filled hours of mostly dead time on television, and gave rise to the catchy phrase, “If It Bleeds, It Leads.” After years of this crap, the public began to think this was actually news.

Miami’s two giants in the print news business, the Miami Herald and the weekly New Times, are quietly, slowly falling on hard times. Ten years ago they were considered among the best in their respective areas. Now both of them are reeling under huge debt and doing everything they can to cut costs, mostly by eliminating writers and editors.

The Herald and 31 other Knight Ridder daily newspapers were purchased in June 2006 by the McClatchy Company for a hell of a lot more than the Herald and the rest of them were worth. (Total price: $4.5 billion.) Even worse, the Herald is worth much less now than when purchased. Not a good business model. So what is a good business model? How about firing or buying out most everyone in the editorial department and replacing them with recent journalism school grads who will work for 50-percent less pay and few benefits. That’s a business model that works, but not for long. And who gets the short end of the stick? How about the paper’s readers, who think, at least for the time being, they’re still getting a quality product. Fat chance.

Miami New Times is a sad case. Once a beacon of journalistic light in the darkness that is Miami, today it is, as they say, a mere shadow of its former self. For years, while the Herald was chasing Pulitzer Prizes, New Times was chasing local news and doing it well. Now their staff is down to about nothing, the value of the editorial content is even less, and their only hope is to find a way to make money off their blog, Riptide 2.0. It is good and it’s timely, but it’s not very effective at generating revenue.

I had thought New Times could survive on its classified section and adult ads. That doesn’t seem to be so. Even the hookers are affected by the economic downturn. Who would have thought? I always believed that sin was recession-proof.

Even the ego media is suffering. Ocean Drive magazine, whose founder, Jerry Powers, sold out last year, is dropping its sister publications like hot stones. It won’t be long before Ocean Drive will be alone and considerably smaller than it is now.

Staying with the ego-publication business (and there have been many over the years in Miami), Elena Carpenter’s Miami Monthly looks like it might be going down also. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that Ms. Carpenter and I were partners in a now-defunct publication for a short period. She and I may have had our differences, but I don’t like to see any publication fail.) Miami Monthly is a classic Miami publication -- fantastic art direction and vaporous editorial content. How do I know Miami Monthly is in trouble? They were running in-house ads begging people to subscribe in order to keep the publication going. Gutsy, but not especially effective.

So we have the mainstream media in the crapper, the electronic media in the crapper, the alternative media in the crapper, and the ego media in the crapper. That leaves us with online media, which get millions of hits on every major and minor site every day. Unfortunately no one has been able to make any money off of it. And if you consider the fact that Internet media steal most of their information from the mainstream media, where does that leave us when the mainstream media stops giving away news for free? Frankly, I don’t know. And that’s one of the reasons I don’t write as much as I used to.

I still have high hopes for the journalism business, and that includes Biscayne Times, which publisher Jim Mullin blithely describes as “a clean-cut, hyper-local niche newspaper-magazine hybrid.”

Journalism is the lifeblood of the knowledge business, and knowledge is power. That cliché “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” is completely wrong. What you don’t know will adversely affect your life in many ways.

The New York Times has a project in conjunction with Google called TimesReader 2.0. It is as close to an online newspaper as I have seen. It is still in the experimental stage, and it is free, at least for now. They might be on to something. It’s been a long time coming.

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