In early 1991 I got the job as a reporter in the Miami Herald's Key West bureau. I was 23 years old. Reporters came down here for a couple years and, mostly, went on to great things within the Herald and beyond.
"You're so lucky," the editors in Miami told me. "You'll be there when Fidel goes."
Even though I stayed in the Herald bureau for the rest of the decade, breaking all previous records, Fidel outlasted me at the Herald bureau. And now he and I both have outlasted the Herald bureau itself.
The Herald hasn't had its office in Key West for years and it stopped producing a separate Keys section more than a decade ago, not too long after I left. None of this is surprising given the vast contraction of newspapers in general and the Herald in particular. But it's worth noting because it's the end of a very long and productive association.
Earl Adams, a Conch who went on to serve as County Clerk and later, the Key West Citizen's historical columnist, was writing for the Herald in the 1920s, according to county historian Tom Hambright. Reporters went on from here to do great things in Miami and beyond. When I got here, former Keys bureau reporters were working with great distinction at the St. Pete Times, the Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report. Two people before me, one of the Keys bureau staffers was Jay Carney — who went on to Time magazine before becoming the spokesman for President Obama. Reporters in the Keys covered hurricanes and historic waves of Cuban refugees and political scandals like no other. The other reporter in the bureau when I came was Dan Keating, who taught me a lot about reporting in general and the Florida Keys in particular, then moved on to win a Pulitzer for the Herald in Miami for exposing massive voter fraud (so massive that the courts overturned the election), then became database editor of the Washington Post, where he directed national coverage of the 2000 presidential vote recount.
The Herald's presence in the Keys meant they had knowledgable people on the ground for big investigative projects in the 1980s like Smuggler's Island, which blew the lid off the open toleration of marijuana smuggling on the island, and the Last Stand, which saved North Key Largo. As that piece was being reported, there were developments planned along the island that would have made it into another Miami Beach — and the state wasn't doing a whole lot about it.
Me? About a year into my time here, I decided to blow off grad school and use the money I'd been saving as a down payment on a condo. The condo cost $80,000 — best financial decision of my life. I've never regretted the other consequences, even as I've sometimes felt like I've had to jump from ice-floe to ice-floe, career-wise. With two people covering a 100-mile island chain, we had to cover everything, which meant we got to cover everything. Murder trials, elections, local government, fun features, environmental trend stories, everything. We took our own photos and figured out how to get the images to Miami. When I started, we drove the film to the airport every day then the Herald sent a courier to the Miami airport to pick it up. By the end, we were scanning prints and negatives and sending them up that way. I met my husband and got married here. I've made great friends of all ages and kinds here, people who now live overseas and across the country, but I'm pretty sure I'll be friends with them forever. I have attended baby showers and quinces and weddings and funerals. It's rare to walk the dog or go to the movies without seeing someone I know, and hearing about some interesting aspect of life here. Key West looooooooves Facebook, but it didn't really need it.
In truth, though, the bureau job as it was then was a job for the young and I finally burned out. Writing 500-plus stories a year and the constant pressure to fill that space gets old after a decade or so. In 2000 I quit. It took me awhile to find my identity outside of the Miami Herald but I got there. I started reviewing books for the paper and watched with concern and sympathy as the paper surfed the digital storm and reinvented itself. I admire those who have hung in there and continue to turn in good work. Newspapers are so unbelievably relentless in their demand for copy — and the web has to have made it even more so. I have little sympathy for the alums who gripe about how much better it was in the old days. The old days were fat and happy for newspapers and they are gone. Also, my memory is that in those olden, golden days most reporters spent a lot of their time griping about 1) how they were mistreated and 2) how much better things were 5, 10, 20 years before.
And now I'm back to being a Keys-based reporter for a Miami news outlet. On January 5, I'll be opening a Keys bureau for WLRN, South Florida's public radio station. It's the strangest feeling. I feel like I've been preparing for this job for 24 years, learning about the Keys and how to tell its stories for a mainland audience. And I feel like I'm a 23-year-old beginner again, finding my feet in this scary but exhilarating new (to me) world of radio journalism. See you on the radio.