November 17, 2004


Gotta give him props. When Miami Herald columnist and novelist Carl Hiaasen takes a swipe at his gainful employment, he digs his nails in.
I bet the Herald newsroom is abuzz over this:
For fans of Hiaasen's 2002 novel Basket Case, this is familiar terrain. That book's hero was a muckraking reporter busted down to the obituary beat after publicly embarrassing his paper's new budget-slashing corporate owner, Race Maggad, head of the Maggad-Feist newspaper chain. "These days we buy the loyalty of readers with giveaways and grocery coupons, not content," Basket Case's protagonist laments. Meanwhile, Maggad's mandate was to "strive for brevity and froth, shirking from stories that demand depth or deliberation, stories that might rattle a few cages and raise a little hell."
Maggad, of course, was a barely disguised caricature of Tony Ridder, CEO of the Herald's own parent company, Knight Ridder.
Did you ever hear from Tony Ridder after Basket Case was published?
"Not a word," Hiaasen answers dryly.
The real-life inspiration for Race Maggad wasn't exactly veiled.
Hiaasen leans forward, all the humor drained from his voice. "How could I not write about him? I grew up with this newspaper. I've put my life into it! It was the paper that landed on my doorstep every morning. So I have a right to be pissed, just like any reader. Anyone who can look you in the eye and tell you the Miami Herald of 2004 is as good as it was in 1984 is out of their skull. It's palpable, the difference is palpable."
Exhaling, Hiaasen slumps back in his chair. "But to be fair, I don't know what the options are. I don't blame the Herald. I blame Knight Ridder. There's plenty of good talent there, plenty of good editors, all the ingredients. But when you're not in charge of the money, when you're getting memos that say 'cut here, cut there,' you're screwed. Short of quitting, what do you do? It's amazing what they still do given how the budget has shrunk, the staff has shrunk, the news hole has shrunk. But it's really silly pretending it's the same paper it used to be."
While its metropolitan news-gathering has certainly suffered from staff reductions, the Herald's recent redesign has helped to spotlight arts and cultural coverage, which now rivals that of any weekly paper. But such arguments leave Hiaasen unmoved.
"It's been redesigned in such a way that you get more graphics than copy," he scoffs. "Since I've been at the paper, almost 29 years, I can't tell you how many redesigns there have been. But I can tell you how many actually improved the circulation figures: zero. You can blame the Internet, but if you're not putting out a product people feel they have to have, why the hell would they buy the paper? What they don't get anywhere else are the investigations, the really good writing -- Dave Barry, Leonard Pitts, the people you can't find anywhere else. If you're going to recycle the same old stuff, of course your circulation is going to go flat."
Posted by Jeff at November 17, 2004 08:04 AM | TrackBack