Sunday, August 31, 2008

Another Paper Bites the Dust

The San Juan Star of Puerto Rico published its last paper Friday after 50 years. Orlando readers may not be familiar with the Star, but the Orlando Sentinel recruited a number of people from the Star. At least six Orlando Sentinel staffers worked there, including former San Juan bureau chief Ivan Roman, former crime and courts reporter Pedro Ruz Gutierrez, former communications desk staffer Vanessa Vazquez, former copy editors Edgardo Martinez and Carlos Galarza, and I.

And that's not counting a few Star alumni who currently work for the Sun-Sentinel. Plus, Ken Cogburn, the former editor of the Orlando Business Journal, was former managing editor of the Star. So the Star must have had an eye for hiring talent.

I replaced Ivan Roman at the Star when he left to join El Nuevo Herald in Miami. I held three different posts over the course of nearly seven years: business editor, assistant managing editor for features and editorial page editor. I returned to the states shortly after the paper was sold. I didn't meet Ruz until I moved to Orlando years later, but I have known Vazquez for years, and worked with her brother Tony, who is now a lawyer. I helped recruit Edgardo Martinez and Carlos Galarza to the Sentinel.

For the uninitiated, the Star was an unusual paper. It was the island's only English-language daily, and won a Pulitzer Prize in its first year of operation for a series of editorials denouncing the Catholic Church's attempt to influence a gubernatorial election. The church was upset about Gov. Luis Munoz Marin's pro-birth control stance. The paper's archives are a treasure trove of Puerto Rican history in the last half of the 20th century.

Many interesting people have passed through the Star's newsroom, including Pulitzer Prize winning author William Kennedy, who was its first managing editor. The story goes that Kennedy turned down Hunter Thompson for a job at the Star. Another staffer Manny Suarez nearly won a Pulitzer for a series of stories on the murder of two youths on a mountaintop known as Cerro Maravilla that involved the police and ensnared then Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo. According to scuttlebut, Suarez didn't get the prize because the stories, written in the early 1980s, were not all published in the same year.

For 24 years or so, the Star was owned by Scripps Howard, which did an awful job of managing it. I recall that executives came down in January, when the weather got bad in Cincinnati. As far as I could tell, they poured very little money into the paper -- until they got ready to sell it. All of a sudden, there was a flurry of building renovations and computer upgrades.

We learned that Star had been sold through its union during the Christmas holidays of 1993. The paper had a tough union, and the current owner blamed the union's unwillingness to cut benefits and agree to further staff cuts for the paper's demise. Having worked there, I can attest that it's more complicated than that.

The market for an English language paper had been dwindling for years. Plus, the owner squandered what resources he had on a Spanish-language edition, taking on far larger and better-financed rivals. Not a good plan.

I am sad to see it go. For a very long time the Star was the only island paper to write credibly about politics because it didn't have ties to a political party. But it was dysfunctional -- a good friend used to call it the San Juan Star Authority for its government-like sluggishness. Still, of all the papers I've ever worked for, the Star was definitely the liveliest. It had spunk, verve and heart. Adios, amigo.

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