Herald Reporters to Management: Stop Mimicking Twitter and Focus on Serious Journalism

The following letter appeared yesterday on the Miami Herald's internal memo board, Readme, and was signed by several veteran reporters and editors. 

------------------------------------------------------------

 Sept 2010
OUR HOPES FOR A BETTER HERALD:

So, it's Saturday night, and you want to hear live music. Among your choices: going to the Hard Rock Cafe to hear Shakira (or Seal or Ringo Starr or Reba McIntyre); or going to a bar with an open mike. At the Hard Rock, you'll hear a polished, professional artist. At open mike night, you'll probably hear people with day jobs singing Sweet Caroline ... perhaps lustily, probably off key.

Nothing intrinsically wrong with that open mike bar. But we'll bet most people, with
the ability to choose, would go hear the pro. 

The Miami Herald, we would argue, is becoming the newspaper equivalent of open mike night. Or a flea market.

Last month, a very serious story about a 15-year-old girl and her mother ... both killed
by the teen's older boyfriend ... included a quote by someone named "îlagordita.'' The quote
... "There was absolutely nothing good that could have possibly come from this
relationship'' ... did not add any particular insight to the story.  It was added, at the
suggestion of an editor ... in an effort to show the story was generating interest online.
But including the quote in the final story meant leaving out quotes from people who were
close to the tragedy.
 
On Sunday, we devoted the week's most desirable newspaper real estate to a series of
tweets from our readers about 9/11. We know almost nothing about these people. The names
could be real, but maybe not. It doesn't really matter in Twitter world. So, in a story
that begins on the top of our front page, we have 'geomens' and 'Karl B Gordon Geck' and
'Neko-do' and 'Miami Herald user' and 'Afro-Cheez' offering such trenchant and profound
observations as: 'I was

sleeping,' and 'In my car... Coming home from the gym,' and  'Standing at my kitchen sink.' 
 
Is there any reason why our dwindling pool of readers would care about any of this?

Judging from recent letters to the editor, we think not.
 
Yesterday, Russ Adkins of Plantation chided the Herald for placing a jeremiad by Pat
Riley above the fold on the front page Saturday. "Surely,'' Mr. Adkins wrote, "the paper
could have led with something more newsworthy than the Miami Heat's president reacting to
comments from Charles Barkley and others.''
 
The Herald has a proud tradition of playing arts and sports on its front page, but
there was always a threshold: They should rise to the level of 1A stories.
 
Earlier this summer, we printed several letters from readers who said ... one verbatim ...
"enough is enough'' with the front-page obsession over where LeBron James lives, eats,
socializes and is seen. We are told such sentiments have become commonplace in the Letters to the Editor basket.
 
A glance at other front pages on the Newsmuseum's website shows that while papers are
displaying more sports and leisure, they're still striving to provide smart and meaningful
stories.

When news arrived about the death of Edward Kennedy and the retirement of Justice John
Paul Stevens, we chose to run shallow "forward-thinking'' stories about their passing
rather than give our readers the impact ... bad or good ... they had on the nation. Even as
reading habits are changing, people still want to read those stories.

But perhaps most disturbing, on Tuesday we allowed an anonymous poster,
"unhappyatjackson,'' to suggest that one Jackson employee "needs to be fired'' while
another, Marvin O'Quinn, "needs to go to jail.'' When did the Herald decide it was
appropriate to allow people to attack others ... perhaps libel them ... in print, and
anonymously?
 
We're hoping to start a discussion about the quality of our front page, and the
newspaper in general, by being blunt: We barely recognize it these days. Local news does
not have to be shallow and cheesy. The readers who still buy our product aren't buying it
because they care what 'Gordon Geck' has to say. They buy it because they can read about
what their city and county governments are doing in thoughtful prose by Matt and Martha,
and Chuck; because they want to know something about the lives of their neighbors in obits
by Ellie; because they care deeply about their children's schools; because they want David
Smiley to tell them about the happenings at Miami Beach City Hall in a lively tone;
because they can find out about their relatives' welfare in Haiti from Jacqueline Charles;
and because they can't put down those features by Audra and Robert Samuels.

Most of us read, and greatly value, sports coverage and lifestyle features. Some of us
seek out those sections before looking elsewhere. But we question, as one of our readers
did in a recent letter: If routine sports stories belong on the front page, where do news
stories of significance belong? The reader suggested we print them in sports. 
 
Attempting to mimick Twitter or the Sun-Sentinel, we would argue, is a mistake. The
Sentinel, with its endless lists and tip-sheets, is doing no better than we are, and has
badly depleted what journalistic dignity it once had. 
 
We understand that this is a time of profound change and uncertainty. We only add to
that uncertainty when our product appears to have no tether, no anchor. At times, it seems
as if we are just throwing things at the wall, hoping something will stick. As one of our
colleagues said recently: if that is the plan, why not try throwing out some serious,
thoughtful, hard-hitting journalism?

We wish to make clear at the outset that we are not, in any way, attacking our
colleagues, whose work and dedication we value. The direction this paper is taking has
been dictated at the highest levels. Of course, we respect the authority of management to
make vital decisions on the paper's content and direction.

We simply want a place at the table, because we, too, care deeply about The Miami
Herald.

These remarks are endorsed, in alphabetic order, by:
  
   Rob Barry
   Elinor J. Brecher
   Tim Chapman
   John Dorschner
   Glenn Garvin
   Ronnie Greene
   Matt Haggman
   Scott Hiaasen
   Jordan Levin
   Carol Marbin Miller
   Kathy Martin
   Kat McGrory
   Curtis Morgan
   Diana Moskovitz
   Sue Mullin
   Chuck Rabin
   David Ovalle
   Beth Reinhard
   Mike Sallah
   Robert Samuels
   Michael Vasquez
   Andres Viglucci
   Jay Weaver


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