Sunday, February 8, 2009

Castro's Death: A 'Herald' Waiting Game/Headache

By Joe Strupp
Editor & Publisher
February 04, 2009 1:00 PM ET

NEW YORK: Is The Miami Herald just waiting for Fidel Castro to die? Well, according to at least one top editor, the ongoing waiting game has become a true, well, deathwatch. "At Miami Herald Media Company, Fidel Castro is the journalistic equivalent of a kidney stone -- a constant pain who never seems to go away, and you pray that he passes, soon," Manny Garcia, the paper's senior editor/news, writes in an online column today about the 82-year-old Cuban leader. "Castro is part of our collective newsroom psyche, even outside One Herald Plaza. You could be on an African safari when Fidel dies and you gotta come home. Publisher's orders."Adds Garcia in the blog posting, "Everywhere I travel, I take 'the Cuba plan,' a three-ring binder with every possible scenario for when Fidel dies. Calling-tree diagrams. Bank accounts. Satellite phones. Fixers. Fast boats."And Garcia is not alone. Editor Anders Gyllenhaal admits the plans are in place and bigger than for any other death-in-waiting: "There is no other story like this. What happened in Cuba, in many ways, built Miami."Gyllenhaal declined to offer too many specifics for the plan, other than to say a special section is likely and possibly an extra edition: "depending on when the news comes out." One of the reasons for such in-depth preparation, in addition to Castro's prominence locally, is the fact that the story will come out of a country that is difficult to cover. "We are not able to be in Cuba, so trying to cover that country - to move in and out - is a big part of it."Two former Herald editors also acknowledged to E&P the significance of the Castro preparation.Tom Fiedler, who edited the paper from 2001 to 2007, and now serves as dean of the college of communication at Boston University, said, "we had plans for Castro's death going back to the 90s. It was truly exhaustive, maybe more detailed than the Pentagon's plan to invade Iraq. We made sure we had laptops on the ground in Cuba that we could get to and people there who agreed to help us -- journalists and non-journalists."Martin Baron, currently editor of the Boston Globe who ran the Herald newsroom in 2000 and part of 2001, said, "sitting on my desk was a prototype of what the pages would look like, even a headline that said 'Castro Dies' or something to that effect."He adds: "It was clearly going to be a death beyond all other deaths in the way we covered it."Also involved is El Nuevo Herald, the paper's Spanish-language sister, which circulates in Cuba.Garcia notes in his column: "You've gotta understand that the Cadaver-in-Chief is our story and biggest challenge. The Cuban government will not give us a journalist's visa to report from there, claiming we are the exile's lapdogs, which is garbage. Meanwhile, some exiles call us Granma North."Probably not too surprising. Most newspapers who have a major figure in their news sphere who is, well, getting older, likely make contingency plans for such events. A few years ago, The Asheville (N.C.) Citizen, the closest daily paper to evangelist Billy Graham's hometown, revealed it had a 20-page special section ready to go when he passed on.Of course, Castro's impact is probably a bit more severe, given Miami's proximity to Cuba and its local Cuban-American community."We sit in meetings, long meetings, going over possible stories." Garcia writes. "Phrasing. Tone. Length. We got at least five different versions of Fidel's obit, pegged to the time of day or night he dies. We built a Web page for the big day -- dubbed the `Holy (bleep)' page."

Joe Strupp ( is a senior editor at E&P.