News

Bradenton reporter recalls days at The Miami News

The Phone Caper Story and many others like it are surely being retold this weekend as 100 or so Miami News staffers gather in Miami for a remarkable, out-of-nowhere reunion -- 21 years after the demise of the spunky afternoon newspaper.

Here's how it goes:

Telephone connections weren't smooth shortly after The News moved its operations from a plant along the Miami River into the bayfront building of The Miami Herald in 1966.

While attempting to call out, News humor columnist John Keasler reached Gene Miller at the rival Herald through a phone operator's mistake. ``City desk,'' Miller barked. Keasler recognized the voice. ``I was trying to call out,'' he said. ``That's OK. You reached City Desk. Tell me the story, and I'll relay it to The Miami News,'' Miller cagily responded.

Hoping to cause havoc, Keasler made up a story: ``Twelve dead on the Palmetto. By the Big Curve.'' As he was hanging up, he heard Miller, whose competitive fires would carry him to two Pulitzer Prizes, snap, ``What? What? We have to scramble. . . .''

Keasler and Miller are dead, but memories of that keen sense of rivalry are resurfacing as staffers reunite to swap old tales about the The Miami News -- born in 1896, died the last day of 1988.

In its heyday and beyond, The News was a raucous, feet-on-the-desk kind of place, known for its highly competitive poker games (sometimes in the newspaper's conference room), merciless pranks and beer breakfasts after a long shift. It was also famed for its colorful characters, such as the critic who wore leather pants and ballet slippers in the newsroom and the staffer who, kicked out by his wife, set up housekeeping in the back of a hearse.

Back then -- before blogs, Google, Twitter, cellphone cameras and Facebook made everyone a ``citizen journalist'' -- reporters woke up with night sweats for fear that the competing paper was out scooping them. Today, with fewer newspapers but a more fragmented news media, a blogger working in his parents' basement could be the one who eats your lunch.

Among News veterans scattered around the globe and many still in the news business, there is a sense of pride at having fought the good fight, taken on a much bigger rival and, most days, held their own.

``We were always the underdog to the mighty Herald, and we played the role to perfection,'' says Pedro Gomez, an ESPN bureau reporter who was a member of The News' sports department under the late Leo Suarez.

``We consistently broke stories and, if you really look at the results, I would say The Herald was at its best when The News was around, because The Herald had to work hard and not get beat by the little stepchild that we were,'' Gomez adds.

Miami News staffers paint a portrait of a passionate newsroom that nurtured distinctive and edgy writing, that remains an important touchstone in their lives, even more so with the passage of time.

DeWitt Smith, on The News' night desk from 1984 to 1986, has worked on 11 newspapers in the last 30 years.

``What made The Miami News different was the esprit de corps,'' Smith says. ``It was palpable, particularly the night desk. The News had a spark to it. The News attracted people who liked the go-get-'em style and lived for that vibration and energy.

Former managing editor Sue Reisinger calls her stint at The News ``the most exciting time of my life. I have never cared so much about a room full of people as I did about those folks.''

Reisinger is one of a handful who labored for The Herald after The News. Another is Mel Frishman, who retired in 2007 as The Herald's Broward news editor.

Frishman's Miami News career began in 1959 when he was 17 and a senior at Miami High. His job, which paid a buck an hour, was taking raw copy off a wire service machine, gluing it to cardboard and shipping it to proofreaders through a pneumatic tube. (This was before electric typewriters, much less computers.)

BRASH HEADLINES

Frishman, who would have six job titles over the years and remained at the paper 'til the end, remembers The News' bold, sometimes sensational headlines -- a counterpoint to the more staid Herald.

``Miami News headlines were meant to grab you and set the tone. We were very picture oriented,'' he said. ``We were a liberal light.''

The News attracted many colorful individuals, says reunion co-organizer Mary Martin, a business reporter from 1985 to 1988.

Jon Marlowe was one. He usually wore leather pants, purple blouses and ballet-like slippers that drew stunned looks from the formally dressed competitors riding the elevator with the rock-'n'-roll critic.

``When I hired Jon Marlowe I told him, `If I ever understand anything you are writing, you are fired,' '' says longtime News editor Howard Kleinberg, now 77 and one of the emcees at Saturday night's reunion dinner at Parrot Jungle. Not to worry.

``I never understood a goddamn thing he wrote,'' says Kleinberg, who started as a high-school correspondent in 1949 and joined the staff a year later. ``But everyone seemed to love him.''

Keasler was one of the biggest devils in the newsroom. He was once photographed, in formal attire, presenting a rhinoceros with a bottle of bubbly, apparently as part of a sight gag to accompany a column about a new birth at the zoo. Other practical jokers included Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Don Wright and the late photographer Charlie Trainor Sr. They practiced practical trickery on their colleagues -- and each other.

``Wright used to toss his keys onto his desk when he'd come in,'' Reisinger says. ``Every few days, when he left the office to go to lunch or even the bathroom, they'd slip an old key onto the key chain. This went on for a week, and his key chain grew immensely heavy with old keys. One day he came in, threw his key chain down on his desk, and was heard to swear because it was so heavy. He exclaimed, ``What the hell! I don't even know what some of these keys are for!' ''

He retaliated by tossing confetti all over the photo department, says photographer A.G. (Gary) Montanari. Montanari, who became a court bailiff after The News closed, also remembers that he once caught Trainor putting marbles into the hubcaps of Wright's car.

What's up? Montanari asked. That's to distract Wright, Trainor explained, so the cartoonist won't notice the mullet that had been placed on his engine block.

Another character was the late Milt Sosin, ranked by News editors as the afternoon paper's top reporter.

``Milt had contacts all over the place,'' says David Kraslow, publisher from 1977 to 1988. ``I remember once that no one could find Meyer Lansky, he of Mafia fame. The phone rang on Milt's desk, and a voice said, `Miltie, it's Meyer.' ''

Sosin would score an exclusive interview with Lansky on the mobster's deathbed.

CBS4 anchor Elliott Rodriguez, who was hired as a Miami News reporter in May 1978 one week after graduating from the University of Miami, met Sosin his first day on the job.

``Milt was told to show me around. The first thing he did was show me his Jaguar sports car in the garage. Milt was tall, skinny and had a long neck. He was definitely Felix from The Odd Couple, but he looked more like Oscar. He always wore a sports jacket but hardly ever a tie. He preferred a neckband tucked into his shirt. He smoked a pipe and almost always had one with him.''

Julia Marozzi, who is coming to the reunion from Great Britain, was a neophyte copy editor named Jules Murphy during those heady times.

``All the night owls were a fantastic bunch of misfits and eccentrics who banded together after first edition, occasionally for a slap-up breakfast before heading home to try and get some sleep,'' says Marozzi, who became a high-ranking editor of The Financial Times in London and is now director of lifestyle media for Bentley Motors.

After 1966, The News and The Herald labored under a joint operating agreement in which two newspapers in the same market share business operations while maintaining separate and competitive newsrooms. As the afternoon newspaper, The News was at a distinct disadvantage.

THE LITTLE GUYS

``We were the little guys on the block and had to fight for everything,'' Kleinberg says.

Although this isn't the forum for a symposium on the future of journalism, Martin observes: `The current state of journalism is perilous. Many of our former colleagues have been laid off or are waiting for the next staff cutback or are hoping there will be an early retirement offer. We are all worried about what that means, not just to us, personally, but the quality of news and information available to all of us.

``I think The Miami News reunion is, in part, about honoring a tradition of news gathering that seems to be disappearing fast, to the detriment of all of us.''

The final headline of The Miami News on Dec. 31, 1988:

FAREWELL, MIAMI.

David Kraslow's front-page column ended: ``It hurts when any newspaper with a rich and proud history dies. But this is not just another newspaper. Not to me. And not to this town.''

After the last edition was put to bed, newspaper lingo for finished, the staff opened a case of champagne, and corks popped, recalls Merwin Sigale, now a journalism and mass-communications professor at Miami Dade College.

The champagne was good, but it left a bitter aftertaste.

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