One Herald Plaza: Notes from an Irish wake

There was a time when the ownership of the presses conferred immense power and civic prestige, and the opportunity to make a great fortune, or even establish a media empire. The modern history of The Miami Herald begins with the purchase of the paper by John S. Knight in 1939. He served as editor while his brother James ran the business side. The Knights bought newsprint by the barge load, bringing it down from Newfoundland. They docked it at the massive printing plant and headquarters they built in the early 1960s along Biscayne Bay. The Herald was the flagship of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, and Knight Ridder’s executives occupied the 6th floor of the building, one floor above the newsroom.

I was at the paper from 1982 to 1990, and made it downtown in 1984 after stints in various bureaus. I can’t imagine that any newspaper in the country had a better view out the windows. We gazed upon the bay neighborhoods of the Venetian Isles, and Hibiscus and Palm and Star islands; the seaplanes taking off for Bimini and the Bahamas; cruise ships coming in and out of Government Cut; the distant hotels of Miami Beach; the spoil islands in the bay that the artist Cristo surrounded with pink plastic, turning them into giant flowers. Birds. Sailboats. Helicopters. Water everywhere. Blue skies.

We didn’t know how good we had it.

Yesterday we had a Miami Herald reunion, and it extended deep into the night, with some of us winding up at Tobacco Road. Close to a thousand Herald alums showed up, joining current Herald employees on a bayside terrace. A contingent of us came down from The Post, which famously pilfered the Herald staff for many years. The reunion was terrific fun, and heartwarming; old friendships were renewed and new ones made. But of course it was fundamentally a funeral (or an Irish wake as my friend Meg Laughlin put it). We were there to say goodbye to the Herald building, which has been sold by McClatchy, the company that bought Knight Ridder.

We reminisced promiscuously. We chewed on the future of the business. But mostly we said the aforementioned: We didn’t know how good we had it. We had so much fun, back in the day, when we all worked and played together, and were learning to be journalists and adults simultaneously (an effort that for some of us had required remedial education). That era was not marked by a great deal of discipline. But enough about me.

What I remember most – other than the forging of great friendships that have endured – is that we believed we could do anything creatively from our newspaper platform. Some of us had pretensions of being Writers, with the big fat capital W (as John Brecher, the city editor, would note on the many occasions when we tried to do overwrought feature stories rather than hard news). We felt that we had a moral obligation to rattle management whenever possible – or better yet, to annoy the corporate execs on the top floor. We dreamed, to borrow the phrase of my Post colleague Henry Allen, of putting literature in the newspaper. Many of us came aboard in the early 1980s, eager to join what was famously a writer’s paper (and a photographer’s paper – where Guzy and DuCille won all those Pulitzers). This was a town where great stories were as common as mangoes. (The ultimate story blew in a couple of years after I left: Hurricane Andrew.)

No, we didn’t know how good we had it, and had no sense that we were riding a great wave that would someday crash.

The new headquarters and printing plant will be suburban, several miles west of the airport, in Doral. I haven’t seen it, but my sources tell me it’s pretty swank. It’s just not on the water. It’s not in the city proper. The Herald is a smaller paper, because that it is the nature of the business.

The future is murky, and a little scary, but we will soldier on, right?. And we’ll remember the beautiful moments. Raise a glass: Here’s to the good old days, when we saw nothing but blue skies.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · March 19, 2013