Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


The City Daily: Our Last Best Hope?

By Bill Grueskin, SAIS '81
City Editor,
The Miami Herald

I have a friend who has lived in Miami for many years. Because he knows that I work at The Miami Herald, now the city's only daily newspaper, he loves to goad me with this story:

As a boy, he had a delivery route for The Herald. Most days he would simply toss a paper onto every doorstep or porch. There was an off chance he might give away a paper to someone who wasn't a subscriber, but the odds were remote. Just about everyone in his neighborhood took the paper.

Now, several decades later, he'll take early-morning walks along the same route. For every house that gets The Herald, he'll spot two without it.

I hear anecdotes like this one every week. They make me feel like a blacksmith in Detroit, circa 1908, watching Henry Ford's Model Ts roll off the assembly line. I envision this guy patting his son on the shoulder and saying, "Don't worry about this, my boyÄpeople will always need a horse."

This drives me crazy. One reason is, I've spent the last two decades learning how to put out a product that fewer people want to buy.

And there's another reason: Daily newspapers are one of the last institutions that have any chance of pulling a community together. In big cities, especially those like Miami or Los Angeles where ethnic and racial divisions run deep, they are one of the last, best hopes.

Why don't a lot of people read newspapers? Many of them have gotten to be dull, insipid, or inaccurate. Many of them rehash the same diet of crime and mayhem that ran on last night's 11 o'clock Eyewitness Action News.

But I think that to many of our readers, this mission of unifying a community, based on geography, seems as out-of-date as a blacksmith's shop at your local mall.

Here's the exception that proves the rule: Two years ago, Hurricane Andrew smacked Dade County. Tens of thousands were homeless, without power, food, water, or hope.

It was, quite possibly, The Miami Herald's finest hour. And readers responded. Some of them stood on their doorsteps before dawn, in tears, grateful to hear the "plunk" of their paper as a sign of constancy amid all the disarray.

Then, a few weeks or months later, the power came back on. The roofs were restored. And some of those people who appreciated us so much right after the storm called us, with regrets, to cancel their subscriptions.

When the storm brought Miami together, The Herald prospered. And when people got over the storm, many of them went back to their old ways.

Over the years, The Herald has tried hard to get new readers and keep old ones. When waves of Hispanics came to Miami, we started a daily, Spanish-language edition. When readers moved to the suburbs, we started zoned editions for their neighborhoods. When they moved a county or two north, we tried to sell them a revamped paper for their new city.

Some of the measures have worked, some have been disasters, but nothing has reversed the sad fact that a much smaller percentage of our population reads The Herald now than a decade or two ago.

Which doesn't mean those people have stopped reading.

A few weeks ago, I went to a neighborhood bookstore, one with a particularly rich selection of magazines. There, I found a magazine not just for sportsmen, not just for sports fishermen, but for fishermen who catch crappies. There was another for those who catch bass. I'm not sure how a general-interest, mass-circulation paper like The Herald can compete for the time of a devout crappie fisherman.

Or take a new program on the Prodigy on-line service called (ironically, to me) "Journalist." This program allows you to set up your own diet of news, so each day you will see only stories on the subjects you request. Several minutes after you fire up this program, you get something on your computer screen that looks like a front page but is actually a compendium of wire stories sorted according to your list.

Interested in Asia but not Europe? The stories out of Prague and Paris will be filtered out. Want National League scores, but nothing from the American League? The Yankees will never appear on your computer screen (unless, I guess, they make the World Series).

So what's wrong with that? Don't readers always sort out the stories they want, even when faced with a bunch of newsprint and ink?

Actually, I think a lot of us don't. We scan a newspaper and, possibly drawn by an interesting photograph or headline, read about something that wouldn't usually be on our Top Ten Interests List. Maybe we learn about a play, a concert, or a corner of our community that otherwise we never would have sought out.

When people stop doing that, they lose something. They narrow their scope of interests, and gradually sever the ties to their communities. The less people care about their neighborhoods and cities, the less likely they will be to work to solve their problems.

Sound self-serving? You bet. But I also believe that when people stop reading newspapers, they stop thinking about themselves as a community, with all the responsibilities and opportunities that implies.

In the meantime, can I interest you in a set of slightly used horseshoes, installation included?

Bill Grueskin, who has been with The Miami Herald for nine years, has worked on newspapers ranging from The Dakota Sun, on a North Dakota Indian reservation, to the Daily American in Rome, Italy, to the Baltimore News-American.

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