September 23, 2007

No apology necessary

An interview with…



Biscayne Times

Two years ago this month, after 18 years as editor of Miami New Times, Jim Mullin abruptly resigned.

In his final piece, he wrote, “This is the farewell column I promised myself I wouldn't write. Public goodbyes too often end up being maudlin exercises in self-indulgence.”

Mullin was anything but maudlin. He defended the decision that led to – or simply sped up, depending on who you talk to – his departure: A July 2005 cover story about former Miami commissioner Art Teele that detailed his dalliances with “male prostitutes and multiple mistresses.” The same day the issue was posted online, and a day before it hit newsstands, Teele shot himself in the head with a pistol.

It became a national story, leading a Washington, D.C., gay publication to ask, “Did the Miami New Times kill Arthur Teele Jr.?”
(The answer, at the end of a very long article, was a firm no: “Miami New Times isn’t responsible for Teele’s death. If anything, the conspiracy of silence in the ‘mainstream’ media around sexual orientation is far more of a culprit.”)

In his farewell column, Mullin wrote that Teele’s suicide “cast a shadow over a moment in my professional career that otherwise would have been bright.” But, he added, “I remain confident in my decision to publish the State Attorney's criminal investigation of Teele, and though it's unfortunate that many readers were upset by our report, I'm accustomed to such criticism.”

Mullin would get a lot more of it less than a year later. From angry Californians.

After resigning as editor of New Times, Mullin became editor of…New Times. This New Times was in San Luis Obispo, in central California, but it wasn’t part of the New Times chain that spanned from Phoenix to Fort Lauderdale.
Even weirder, instead of moving out there, Mullin edited the “SLO” New Times from his Miami Beach home.

But almost immediately, he was in Teele-like trouble again.
Last February, Mullin ran a cover story titled, “Meth Made Easy.” It included a recipe for making methamphetamine, which his reporter easily found online. Even so, many readers attacked the article as “inexcusably irresponsible” and “over-the-top and out-of-control journalism.”

This time, instead of a farewell column, Mullin penned an apology.

“We deeply regret having provoked the community outrage that has been so forcefully expressed in response to last week’s cover story,” he wrote. “We received hundreds of angry letters and phone calls. … Businesses withdrew advertising. Some people vowed to launch a boycott of those advertisers who remain. Certain individuals took it upon themselves to confiscate copies of the paper – many thousands of copies.”

But the very next week, letters to editor started leaning the other way. Some readers were rightfully concerned about their neighbors dumping thousands of papers – censorship akin to book burning, just without the flames. Wrote one, “Bravo New Times for making this complacent county think!” Said another, “Thank you, New Times! I wish you luck in gaining back the understanding of your faithful readers, who so beautifully missed your point.”

Two weeks later, Mullin was once again a former New Times editor. Said the SLO New Times general manager, "There was a problem knowing the audience."

These days, Mullin is working where he definitely knows his audience – and where he won’t ever get fired. As both the editor and the owner of the Biscayne Times (a hyper-local monthly that takes its journalism very seriously), the 58-year-old Mullin finally has the job security he's been missing the past couple of years.

Biggest difference between running New Times and the Biscayne Times?

At New Times, I answered to superiors as I spent their money. At Biscayne Times, I answer to no one, as I spend my own money. The autonomy is seductive, but it’s tempered by sobering financial realities.

After nearly two decades at New Times, why was it time to go?

The immediate cause of my departure in October 2005 was a fundamental disagreement with Michael Lacey, my boss and co-owner of the New Times company (now Village Voice Media) over my decision to publish verbatim excerpts of a public document: a criminal investigation into Miami politician Arthur Teele, who committed suicide the day our story appeared.

But that disagreement was really a symptom of a larger problem – namely, that I had grown weary of the job that had consumed me for nearly 18 years. If I’d been smarter, I would have taken the initiative two or three years earlier to announce my retirement.

And why to a “regular” newspaper instead of another alt-weekly?

I hadn’t been looking to purchase a newspaper, though I wanted to continue in journalism. The opportunity arose when the founding owner of the Biscayne Times, Skip Van Cel, contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in buying his newspaper.

I’d spent a good deal of time the previous year considering the future of journalism and had concluded two things: Print journalism wasn’t going to die in my lifetime, and nimble, smartly executed neighborhood journalism was financially viable. So the call from Skip was unexpected but fortuitous. Within a couple of weeks, I’d decided it would be a worthwhile gamble.

Biggest complaint about the way The Miami Herald operates? If you were publisher of The Herald, what would you do differently?

After so many years spent critiquing The Herald, I’ve grown bored with it all, so I no longer complain. Instead I’ve lowered my expectations – significantly. Besides, I’m now a competitor for advertising dollars as well as good stories. It’s not in my interest to help them improve.

How is New Times, and indeed all alt-weeklies, different today than when you first became an alt-weekly editor?

I became editor of the San Diego Reader, one of the original alt-weeklies, way back in 1977. That has provided me and other veteran alt-weekly editors some perspective.

One of the most striking things we noticed over the years was a marked ebb in the pool of talented young people interested in journalism – at least our form of it.
Watergate inspired thousands of very bright and idealistic people to commit themselves to journalism. But that inspiration inevitably diminished, and so the brightest (if not the most idealistic) opted for med school or law school or Wall Street, when greed was good. Over time, that meant fewer and fewer great talents drawn to long hours and low pay at your local free weekly.

Where do you think newspapers will be a decade from now?

I think we’ll see more metropolitan dailies operated by privately held companies, even nonprofit organizations. They’ll take greater risks in adapting to a rapidly changing media environment, and they won’t demand sky-high profit margins. But I don’t know if they’ll survive. It’s likely we’ll also see more small publications, like Biscayne Times, taking bites out of the pie formerly dominated by daily papers, especially those in monopoly markets.

Anything you didn't quite anticipate when you took over the Biscayne Times? Does being both publisher and editor present any quandaries?

I didn’t fully appreciate the value of a really good advertising sales person. It’s an incredibly tough job, and vital to any publication’s success. As for the publisher/editor role, I haven’t experienced any serious conflicts. But then, I’ve been wearing two hats for only a few months.

One South Florida journalist you wish you could hire right now if you had the money?

As far as I’m concerned, money isn’t the big issue. More important is finding people who have a passion for this type of reporting: intensely local, intimately involved with the communities we cover, understanding that individual neighborhoods are microcosms of the larger world – for better and worse.

Career highlight so far?

Having played a significant part in building two newspapers (the San Diego Reader and Miami New Times) that have become institutions and will surely outlive me.

Career lowlight?

Discovering that a well-regarded San Diego freelance writer had fooled me with two fascinating and entirely plausible stories that turned out to have been completely fabricated. One of those stories was reprinted in another alt-weekly and led to a near-fatal misadventure in the California desert.

One thing you wish you would've known 20 years ago that you learned the hard way since?

Everyone makes bad hiring decisions. No employer anywhere has a perfect record. So don’t beat yourself up when someone you bet on doesn’t work out.

One piece of advice you wish you could surgically implant into the skulls of new grads and young pros?

Nearly all successful journalists are naturally gregarious and possess an insatiable curiosity about the world. If you don’t have either, you’re probably in the wrong line of work.