By: Joe Strupp
Recent troubles at the Miami Herald did not suddenly lead to Friday’s announcement that Tom Fiedler, the longtime executive editor, would be retiring soon. Fiedler told E&P today that he had actually decided to quit as early as mid-2005, but delayed the move after Knight Ridder put itself on the auction block last year.
Fiedler, 60, added that he was not forced out because of a recent dispute with el Nuevo Herald, the Herald’s Spanish-language sister paper, or last year’s decision to fire popular columnist Jim DeFede. But he admitted “those controversies are wearing on me and the paper.”
In describing his departure, which takes effect in March 2007, he said “from the standpoint of the organization it is probably a healthy thing. When the pitcher gets roughed up, it is a good idea to get some relief in the bullpen. I was throwing a lot of innings and was getting roughed up.”
But Fiedler points out that he had decided to leave the paper in the summer of 2005 when former publisher Jesus Diaz came in. He said he told Diaz he was planning to retire in March 2006 when he turned 60.
“That was my birth month and I would be turning 60 and thought that is a good time to step out of your current role and into your next chapter,” Fiedler explained. “I wanted to tell him and I thought that, in fairness to him coming in as a new publisher, I wanted him to know that if he wanted his own editor, he could put that into his own thinking.”
Diaz could not be reached for comment Monday.
But circumstances changed several months after Fiedler disclosed his plans to Diaz when Knight Ridder announced that the entire chain would be sold. Diaz asked Fielder if he still planned to leave in March 2006, Fiedler said. “The two of us recognized that going through the change, if we could have some stability, was to everyone’s best interest,” Fiedler said. “There was no more discussion about it.”
In mid-2005, the first of two controversies erupted when Fiedler fired columnist Jim DeFede for taping a phone conversation with a local public official who later killed himself in the Herald lobby. DeFede had taped the conversation without informing the official, a move Fiedler said violated the paper’s policies.
Knight Ridder was eventually sold earlier this year to The McClatchy Company, which sold off several properties – such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and San Jose Mercury News – but kept the Herald.
Also this year, an even bigger controversy erupted in September when the Herald broke the story about several el Nuevo Herald reporters being paid to appear on Radio Marti and TV Marti, two local anti-Castro broadcast outlets. The front page stories eventually led to the firing of two el Nuevo Herald staffers, and findings that several others had received such payments.
But the fired reporters were eventually rehired after it was revealed a previous el Nuevo Herald editor had given them permission to make the paid appearances. The incident sparked a heated rift between the two newsrooms, which Fiedler admits was partially his fault.
“My hope would be that, to the extent I had been part of the problem, my departure will lead to a different kind of conversation between the two newsrooms and hopefully an improved relationship,” Fiedler said. “I do know that many in the el Nuevo Herald newsroom were more than unhappy with the decision to publish the story about Radio Marti and TV Marti. To the extent that I approved those stories and vigorously defended those stories, I contributed to the anger and unhappiness people in that newsroom had toward this newsroom.”
Fiedler also drew criticism for referring to some on-air critics in the local Cuban-American media as ‘chihuahuas.”
Eventually, the dust-up led, at least in part, to the departure of Diaz in October. It also sparked an independent review of the situation by Clark Hoyt, a former Knight Ridder Washington editor who remains a McClatchy consultant. While Hoyt’s review found that the Herald’s coverage was accurate, it criticized the reporting for its “accusatory tone,” incomplete background, and decision to have it “rushed into print.”
Shortly after Diaz’s replacement, David Landsberg, came aboard, Fiedler said he told him about his previous plans to leave the paper. “We met again Thanksgiving week and that was also when some of the McClatchy [corporate] people came in to town,” Fiedler recalled. “At that point, we agreed that [the retirement] would take place the following March, but we would announce it [sooner] for planning purposes.”
Fiedler said he had lunch with Landsberg about 10 days ago and was told Anders Gyllenhaal of the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis had agreed to take the job.
“I know that speculation ties it to my newsroom and the el Nuevo Herald newsroom, but the truth is unrelated to that,” Fiedler stressed. He said he had not made any decisions about his next job, but did not believe it would be editing another newspaper.
“That is probably the least likely,” he said. “I don’t know that papers, given the [industry] situation, will be interested in a 60-year-old editor. It is a young person’s game.”
Fiedler, who covered politics for many years and gained fame in 1987 by exposing former Sen. Gary Hart’s affair with Donna Rice, said he would like to return to some kind of related coverage. “Perhaps get back into political journalism,” he said. “But I don’t know where.”