MAXWELL:  One of journalism’s gems tossed aside

10/21/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Like many other South Floridians, I grew up on the Miami Herald. Each morning, I watched my father pore over it at the breakfast table. He read the Negro news, the sports pages and the local and the A sections in that order.

In time, my own children watched me read the Herald _ the difference being that, on Monday through Saturday, I started with the opinion pages. On Sunday, I went straight to Tropic _ the newspaper’s magazine that launched the career of humorist Dave Barry.

By year’s end, Tropic, a 31-year-old treasure, will get the ax. “What Knight Ridder has said to us and to each of its newspapers is to increase profitability,” said the Herald’s new publisher, Alberto Ibarguen. “The Herald’s profit goal at this point is a 22 percent profit margin by the year 2000.”

Ibarguen said that the newspaper earned a 22 percent profit in 1997 but expects that figure to fall to 18 percent this year. He said that Tropic was losing nearly $2-million annually. The new plan includes reassigning the magazine’s staff, increasing the daily business, entertainment and sports sections, and enhancing the Sunday living section. Many long-time readers, born and reared in Broward and Dade counties, already feel the loss. For us, the magazine, representing quality, depth and style, put a shine on many ordinary subjects.

Several years ago, for example, it ran an article about the Hastings Fire Department near St. Augustine. I used to drive past the station every day, never suspecting that such a tiny building could harbor intrigue. But the goings-on there were of epic proportion, as the lone black firefighter tried to work with bigoted whites who wanted him out.

Who but Tropic would care about the Hastings Fire Department? The story is one of the most insightful and stylish I have ever read.

“Sometimes under the pressure of daily deadlines of breaking stories, no matter how brilliantly written, you can’t tell the whole story,” Tropic editor Bill Rose said. “But a magazine with the space and the time can really provide perspective that causes the light bulb to go off in your head.”

When I was a college English teacher, I placed Tropic on my suggested reading list. I often photocopied articles from it and used them in class. When I taught journalism, I required my students to read the cover story each week. These stories prompted some of our liveliest discussions.

As a student journalist at the University of Florida, I dreamed of getting published in Tropic, and I used it to teach myself how to write magazine and feature articles. I would drive from my home in Bronson to Mike’s Bookstore in Gainesville, buy the Herald, walk to a nearby cafe, order coffee and read Tropic’s lead story _ my routine for more than seven years.

I still read Tropic. Right now, I am enjoying the Oct. 18 issue. The cover story, titled “Southern Exposure,” is a well-written piece about the $9.6-million lawsuit that screenwriter Sandy Veith, who grew up in Miami Beach, filed (and won) against Universal Studios for stealing his pilot script that would become TV’s Northern Exposure. As always, author Meg Laughlin’s gifts of detail, nuance and surprise hold my attention.

“True Lies,” also in this issue, is a crisply drawn fictional piece by Stephen DiLauro capturing the ennui of two South Beach friends. The plot hinges on the anticipation of a low-grade epiphany, introduced in the opening paragraph: “The maieutics begin as Dwayne and Kenny cross Ocean Drive toward the beach, each carrying his third vodka slurpy of the day, in a cup from Wet Willie’s. “What is the one thing in the universe that cannot change?’ Dwayne asks. Kenny does not want to participate this time. “Well?’ Dwayne presses.”

The friends’ repartee, although clever and pseudocarpous, is amicable and funny. This little sun-drenched saga ends after Kenny, thinking that _ finally _ he has intellectually bested his friend, answers the original question. Dwayne counters with an observation that would impress Socrates.

“Tropic has always taken chances, which is why it’s a unique voice in American journalism,” Dave Barry said. “It’s truly a shame that this voice is being silenced.”

Ibarguen said that Tropic may be revived occasionally. “I realize this is not a decision that some people will like,” he said, “but the truth is, as a whole, I think that most of the readers will appreciate what we’re going to do with the newspaper.”

As a Tropic devotee, I do not think so. I believe that Knight Ridder’s obsession with the bottom line is killing the Herald itself.