IN THE EYE OF THE HURRICANE

By: Joe Strupp

E&P Editor of the Year 2001: Martin Baron


Marty Baron’s love of newspaper competition bloomed fully some 23
years ago when he was a young reporter covering Boca Raton, Fla.,
for The Miami Herald.

During an otherwise uneventful City Council meeting, a reporter
for the competing Palm Beach Post departed early, leaving
Baron to endure the dismal proceedings alone. His
instinct to stick it out paid off when the council made a
surprise midnight move, voting to oust the mayor and giving Baron
a major scoop. “It showed me the importance of staying around,”
recalls Baron. “You never know what will happen.”

That sentiment could well describe Baron’s young but eventful
tenure as the Herald’s executive editor, a year when he
directed local coverage of what were arguably the two biggest
U.S. news stories of 2000: the Florida presidential recount and
the Elian Gonzalez saga. At the same time, the 46-year-old
Florida native, who returned to the Herald in January of
last year, managed to expand the Knight Ridder newspaper’s
reporting in several areas – from business to sports –
while making the best of tough budget and staff cuts; reduce the
number of newsroom meetings and editor’s positions; and forge
closer ties with reporters.

Herald employees, from the newest cub reporters up to
Publisher Alberto Ibarguen, generally agree that Baron’s efforts
have made the Herald not only a more pleasant place to
work but also a much stronger paper.

“There’s an authority about him that isn’t obnoxious,” says
Ibarguen, the two-year Herald publisher who hired Baron
and credits him with getting the most out of
reporters. “He’s got confidence and experience on a national
level. He’s done it.”

Baron, from his perspective, contends his methods are nothing
more than a common-sense management approach and basic news
judgment. Giving staff the support and direction they need is the
most important element, he says. “You have to create conditions
for reporters to do their best work and bring their best ideas
forward,” Baron says in an interview at his fifth-floor office,
which is decorated with news photographs and offers a panoramic
view of Miami’s Biscayne Bay. “The most important ones in the
newsroom are those who are out on the street listening to the
people rather than the editor who directs the paper.”

All Elian, all the time

Baron had been at the Herald only three months or so when
his first big leadership test occurred on Saturday, April 22.
Staying in a hotel while his new South Beach home underwent
renovation, he rushed into the newsroom when he got word of the
FBI raid to retrieve Elian Gonzalez.

Reporters and editors had been on the emotionally charged story
for months, ever since young Elian had landed in Florida in
November 1999 after his mother died at sea trying to bring him to
the United States. When armed agents stormed the home of Elian’s
relatives in Miami’s Little Havana at about 5:15 a.m. that April
morning, the Herald put its well-plotted coverage into
action.

“There had been a plan in place to have people on call,” says
Baron, who added that some 60 newsroom staffers, including 30
reporters, were involved in the raid coverage. “We had been
monitoring the house constantly, and when it happened, everyone
was in position to cover it. The key was to get facts straight on
the blow-by-blow of the raid, and we did.”

Observers praised the paper’s reporting that day, which is widely
rumored to be a Pulitzer Prize finalist for breaking news. “When
everything blew up with the raid, the Herald’s coverage
was spectacular,” says Jim Mullin, editor of Miami New
Times, the local alternative weekly and a regular critic of
the Herald. “It reinforced how good they are at responding
to big events.”

But not everyone raved about the paper’s approach before the
raid. A harsh critique in The New Republic slammed the
paper for unbalanced coverage during the Elian saga, including
charges that it missed three stories about the past legal
problems of some of the boy’s Miami relatives. “The paper has
been scooped on stories that spoke directly to whether the Miami
family was fit to care for Elian,” the article asserted.

Some Cuban-American Herald staffers, on the other hand,
complained that coverage tilted against the Miami relatives on
occasion, according to Reader Representative Barbara Gutierrez, a
Cuban native. “There were certain stories where the tone was
unfavorable to the family in Miami and a bit biased toward the
U.S. government,” she contends. “I don’t think it was
intentionally done, but it was an issue.”

Another conflict in the newsroom arose over derogatory comments
by some staffers about Cubans that offended Cuban-American
reporters. Baron called a meeting and demanded that the comments
stop. “I made it clear that any insensitive remarks would not be
tolerated,” says the editor, who speaks fluent Spanish.

Baron defends the paper’s work in the face of complaints of bias
and missed stories, claiming the Herald wrote more than
1,000 Elian stories and received thousands of positive reader
responses. But the editor admits there are some things about the
coverage he would have done differently. Among them, he wishes he
had run an Elian special section at some point and provided more
reporting on the daily lives of the city’s many Cuban exiles.
“I’m not sure we did as good a job of explaining that as we could
have,” he says.

Recount redux

When the too-close-to-call presidential election unraveled the
night of Nov. 8, Marty Baron was far from ground zero in Florida.
Stuck in a hotel some 3,000 miles away in San Jose, Calif., where
he’d spent the day in Knight Ridder budget meetings, Baron was
forced to run the paper’s Election Night coverage via telephone,
fax, and computer.

“I hated it,” says Baron, who vowed to never again attend a
budget meeting on Election Day. “We had good people here doing
what they were supposed to, but if it came up again, I would
refuse to go out there.”

If Baron felt he’d missed out on the Election Night excitement,
he didn’t have to wait long to make up for it. In the months
since Election Day, the Herald has made national election
news on several occasions, while breaking ground in newspaper
coverage of disputed returns.

First, the paper conducted a computer analysis in December of
state voting patterns that claimed Al Gore would have won the
state by 20,000 votes if some 170,000 discarded ballots had been
counted. Then, in February, the paper reported on its own review
of about 10,000 undervote ballots in Miami-Dade County that had
been discounted. That report indicated Bush would still have won
the county if those votes were included.

The Herald recently completed a similar recount in the
other 66 Florida counties, with results that were about to be
released (as E&P went to press). The entire effort, including the
hiring of an independent auditor, cost the paper some $500,000,
most of the money coming from Knight Ridder. “It was the obvious
thing to do and great journalism,” Knight Ridder Vice President
for News Jerry Ceppos says about the decision to spend the money.
“There was never a question about it.”

The Herald, showing unusual vigor and a bit of cockiness,
also chose to do the examination on its own, shunning invitations
to join a consortium of news outlets, including The New York
Times, The Washington Post, and CNN, which conducted
its own review. (USA Today, however, has arranged to
provide some funding for the project in exchange for being able
to publish results the same time as the Herald.) The
paper’s efforts included filing public-records requests in each
county, as well as a lawsuit for access in Duval County. Baron
put about 25% of the reporting staff on some element of the
story.

The Baron landscape

It’s no secret that Baron was not the Herald’s first
choice to replace former Executive Editor Doug Clifton, who left
Miami in 1999 to lead The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

A well-publicized effort to lure Robert Rivard (last year’s E&P
Editor of the Year) from the San Antonio Express-News took
precedence. When the Hearst Corp. agreed to give Rivard more
money and staff to keep him in Texas, Ibarguen searched again and
received a recommendation about Baron, then at The New York
Times, from Knight Ridder’s Ceppos, who’d been a
Herald editor when Baron was a reporter there in the
1970s.

Needing to bounce back from a series of budget cutbacks and
circulation declines, while planning for future financial
restraints, Ibarguen wanted an editor who could motivate staff,
focus coverage, and keep the bottom line strong. “The newsroom
here had talent, but it needed someone who encourages the
talent,” Ibarguen says. “He brought a passion about stories.”

One of Baron’s first acts was to cut the number of newsroom
meetings. Since coming to the paper, he’s eliminated a daily 45-
minute critique of the newspaper; a monthly two-hour meeting of
department heads; and an annual three-day editors’ retreat.
“People have more important things to do,” Baron argues. “Several
of those meetings simply involved editors talking to editors,
rather than to reporters and photographers.”

Baron also reduced the number of assistant managing editors, to
three from eight, as part of a budget reduction last year that
cut the overall newsroom staff from 434 full-time positions to
412. He chose to cut assistant editors rather than lose more
reporters. “It was a recognition that our money would be better
spent in the field,” he says. Along with the financial belt-
tightening, Baron also reorganized the paper’s priorities with
contraction in some areas and expansion in others.

Ibarguen believed the Herald needed to run a leaner
operation when he came aboard in 1998 from the publisher’s post
at El Nuevo Herald, the Herald’s Spanish-language
sister. At that time, the Herald had an 18% profit margin.
Ibarguen set a goal of reaching 22% by 2000, but not at the
expense of news coverage. He credits Baron with helping to
achieve both objectives.

In the wake of recent Knight Ridder cutbacks at the San Jose
Mercury News, which have shaken the chain’s West Coast
flagship and caused Mercury News Publisher Jay T. Harris
to quit in protest last month, Baron and Ibarguen remain
cautiously optimistic about what the cost-cutting atmosphere
could mean for the Herald. “We believe most of the big
cuts have already been made here,” Baron says, “but it is a
concern.”

Cool in the Miami heat

It’s 3:30 or so when The Miami Herald’s daily afternoon
meeting comes to order inside the small, sunny conference room
just steps from the paper’s newsroom. As editors take their seats
and begin lobbing story ideas and opinions back and forth, Marty
Baron barely stirs. While he remains focused on the discussion,
his comments are few and direct, offering opinions only when
asked or when he believes they are warranted.

Sporting tan pants, a light blue shirt, and a dark blue tie,
Baron suddenly shows strong interest when the rundown of stories
includes hot topics such as an airport expansion cost overrun,
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s decision not to push a tax cut, and the
indictment of five local police officers. “We should look at the
difficulty of convicting cops because they aren’t usually willing
to testify against each other,” Baron suggests in a reserved
voice. “We also need to have mugs of the indicted cops. Isn’t
that routine?”

Leaning back in his chair and rubbing the nape of his neck, Baron
goes on to propose a graphic for the airport story and more
information on the additional funding that will be needed. “I’d
like to know how they’re going to pay for this,” he tells the
group.

Fellow editors say Baron’s low-key, direct approach is welcomed
because it focuses on what is needed, not on distractions. “His
insight goes right to the heart of what’s right, wrong, or
missing from a story,” says David Wilson, the paper’s night news
editor and a 23-year Herald veteran. “I’ve learned a lot
from him in a short time.”

Baron has also earned accolades for trying to make new staffers
feel more at home by taking recruits out to lunch or holding
social gatherings for them. Last month, he hosted a half-dozen
new reporters in the Herald’s corporate box at American
Airlines Arena for a Miami Heat basketball game. “It’s easy in
such a huge newsroom for people to get buried in the daily
grind,” says Tere Figueras, a 24-year-old reporter who dined on
deli sandwiches and salad with other junior colleagues while
watching the Heat upset
the favored Sacramento Kings. “He makes it more than a place to
come to work.”

Amy Driscoll, who spent three weeks in Tallahassee last November
covering the Florida recount story, said Baron made her feel
appreciated with a simple e-mail message complimenting a story
she’d done on protests outside the Florida Supreme Court. “The
fact that he took the time out to write to me meant a lot,” says
Driscoll. Following the paper’s recount coverage, Baron also
signed off on a party for dozens of reporters who worked the
story.

Some staffers, however, say that Baron’s measured approach can
leave them cold. “He’s a poker face,” says one reporter who
requested anonymity. “People were not sure what to make of him at
first, and some people are afraid of him. He doesn’t beat around
the bush, and he doesn’t apologize.” Still, most contend that
Baron’s news-first approach, together with a passion for beating
competitors and a respect for the needs of reporters, is
positive. “He’s created an environment,” says reporter Holly Stepp,
“where news is really, really valued.”

Blowing them away

While Baron clearly relishes his role as one of Florida’s major
newspaper editors, the Sunshine State wasn’t always so alluring.

Born and raised in Tampa as the second son of Israeli immigrants,
he’d seen enough of Floridian life when he graduated from Tampa’s
Berkeley Preparatory School in 1972.

Longing to experience other parts of the country, he fled north
to Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where he edited the campus
newspaper and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a
master’s degree in business administration before leaving in
1976. “I wanted to get above the Mason-Dixon line,” Baron says.
“I was determined to have a different experience.”

Ironically, Baron’s first full-time reporting job landed him back
in Gator Country, at the Martin County bureau of the
Herald, where he covered everything from school-board
meetings to police stories, often taking his own photos and
transporting them to the Miami newsroom via public-transit bus.
“It was another era,” he recalls. “Government meetings were the
most boring thing I ever covered – they never ended. It
almost drove me out of journalism.”

After toiling in bureaus for more than a year, Baron transferred
to Miami in 1977 to work on the business staff. Two years later,
he jumped to the Los Angeles Times, where he continued
covering business until 1982, when he became assistant business
editor. The following year, he was named business editor at age
29. Baron says his competitive drive really took hold during the
eight years he ran the business section. In that time, he
increased the business staff to 60 from 35 and expanded coverage
of the defense industry, entertainment news, and investigative
stories.

“We weren’t going to be all things to all people. We were going
to focus on those areas,” says Baron. “The idea was to be very
aggressive in news coverage, never letting The Wall Street
Journal beat us out there. It was a very busy time with banks
failing and the S&L [savings-and-loan] scandal.”

Success overseeing the business beat earned Baron an assistant
managing editor post at the paper in 1991, when he began editing
Page One special reports, polls, and other special projects. In
1993, he took over the L.A. Times’ Orange County edition,
directing coverage of the Orange County bankruptcy scandal in
daily competition with the rival Orange County Register.
“We blew them away on that story,” Baron declares. “It broke just
after I got there, and we were really mobilized every day.”

During the height of the bankruptcy coverage, Baron would follow
12- and 14-hour days of reporting and editing with nightly
strategy sessions at 11:30 p.m. Planning and dogged reporting
were essential, according to those who worked in the newsroom at
the time. “He shaped our coverage and was very hands-on,” recalls
Mark Platte, one of the lead reporters on the bankruptcy story
and currently an assistant managing editor at The Honolulu
Advertiser. “He has a real vision for coverage of big
stories.”

One of the tools that boosted the L.A. Times over the
Register was a detailed review of testimony to a grand
jury investigating the bankruptcy. Among the gems mined from
those documents: the county treasurer had consulted a psychic on
investment decisions. “We were also able to do a basic
reconstruction of how the bankruptcy occurred,” Baron says.

In 1996, Baron moved to The New York Times, where he
served in several editing posts before becoming associate
managing editor (in charge of the newsroom at night), a job he
held until his departure to Miami.

The beach is back

Midday sunshine bathes Ocean Drive in the trendy Miami
neighborhood of South Beach as Marty Baron tools along the busy
roadway in a year-old Audi Quattro, a gift to himself upon
receiving the Herald’s top editing post last year. Giving
a guided tour of the area known for its rebirth as a tourist
magnet and nightspot, Baron stresses the importance he places on
getting out into the community and knowing its needs, but without
pandering to a single element.

“There is a lot of tension in the community, and it is not my job
to resolve it all,” Baron says while steering past the oceanfront
Lummus Park and slowing down to let a group of tourists cross the
street. “A lot of community journalism is basic – listening
to readers and going out to give talks, but remaining objective.”

For years prior to Baron’s arrival, many Herald critics
– in and out of the newsroom – complained that the
paper failed to provide diverse coverage of the community,
especially the ever-growing Cuban population. Although it
regularly won awards for coverage of big stories, such as
Hurricane Andrew, the paper’s attention to its own community was
often seen as limited.

In the past year, locals contend that the Herald has done more to
find out what makes every neighborhood tick and relay relevant
information to readers. “There are some things we might not agree
on, but we can’t say it is bad coverage – it is balanced,”
says Ninoska Perez, a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National
Foundation, based in Miami. “They are providing professional
coverage.”

T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami,
says he also notices broader coverage of all communities. “I’ve
seen more articles of a substantive nature in the past year,” he
says. “People in the black community used to believe all they did
was negative coverage. That is not the case anymore.”

Looking ahead, Baron is quick to point out the need for still
more changes he’d like to make. The Herald needs to
improve the training and evaluation of copy editors, push for
more aggressive reporting and enterprise projects, and focus on
retention of reporters, he discloses. “We want to make the Herald
a destination paper, not just a steppingstone,” Baron says. “We
want it to be a good place for reporters to stay.”

Plainly, Baron himself will be reluctant to leave Florida a
second time – revealing, once again, that he has learned the
value of “staying around.”



Joe Strupp (jstrupp@editorandpublisher.com) is an associate editor for E&P.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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