His Name Was Earl

maucker1.jpg
Associated Press
Maucker in the middle

Sun-Sentinel Editor Earl Maucker has announced he is leaving the newspaper after three decades there.

Maucker, who oversaw the merger between the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel in 1982 and has been top editor since 1994, had great strengths and great flaws. In a lot of ways, he was a paradox -- a corporate man to his core who managed to win the loyalty of the lion's share of his reporters. He instituted some of the worst changes to a newspaper imaginable during his tenure but also held the newsroom together through some of the most trying times in its history and stood by journalists when public officials complained about coverage.

I've had my fun with Maucker on this thing you're reading now, which began as a media blog a journalistic lifetime ago, back in 2006. Back then, there were three big, bloated newsrooms which formed the core of my early readership. Naturally, Maucker was a key figure in my coverage. And unfortunately for him, he'd formed the so-called "Help Team," a new approach to newspapering that Maucker believed was going to

transform newspapers forever. Purists, including myself, believed it was one of the stupidest things ever dreamed up. It came not from journalists but from marketing studies and perceived "readership trends." The idea was that people didn't necessarily want boring old stories about government and public policy. They didn't need news about their world so much as tips on how to live in it. 

The Help Team took over the newspaper, at least when it came to the marketing campaign. Reporters would come on TV and say, "I'm Dave Hyde -- how can I help you?" Obvious answer: Get off the TV and break some interesting stories for me to read, you moron. The Sentinel once did a box with tips for readers on what they can do while waiting for hurricane repairs. Not sure, but I hope it contained the words "read a fucking book."

The Help Team was more than just a band of reporters focusing on consumer coverage; it was the vanguard of a new philosophy. And it involved redesigning the front page to include only two or three stories. It also involved a supposed "partnership" between the editorial and marketing sides of the newspaper, where there used to be a veritable firewall.

Star commenters on the blog back then were newspaper insiders like Titus Groan. When the Help Team began to flounder a bit, the company went with the concept of "Transformative Change." What did it mean? Nobody was quite sure, but it was very, very corporate, involved weird covenants between the editorial folks and advertisers, and Maucker administered it.

All of that stuff was washed away, though, when a greedy little tycoon from Chicago who cared nothing for journalism bought Tribune Co. and put a bunch of radio jocks in control. Then the Great Recession came in and made everybody's hare-brained ideas moot. Newsrooms across America lost half their staffs. It was a slaughter in my industry and a painful one.

Ironically, the economic downturn has returned the Sun-Sentinel back to its newsgathering roots (though it's never been a bastion of good journalism). But you can bet that the carnage at the Sentinel affected Maucker. And I can't help but feel that the loss of Maucker, despite his flaws, will be bad for the Sentinel. It will likely slide deeper into corporate hell; Maucker was no wall between Chicago and his newsroom, but he was at least a semi-permeable membrane. And again he defended the staff against grandstanding officials. Now you have a "Content Director" overseeing both the Sun-Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel. Sounds rather Orwellian, doesn't it? 

No I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel for the Sentinel or, for that matter, my industry as it now stands. Maucker's exit, I suppose, is just a small part of the transformative change happening in the business of journalism -- and that process has only just begun.

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