November 26, 2016

When news of Fidel Castro’s death broke late Friday night, the Miami Herald had a plan, decades in the making, to cover the story.

“We’ve been planning for this story longer than some of the people covering it have been alive,” said Rick Hirsch, managing editor of the Miami Herald.

Shortly after Castro’s death, the Herald’s website was flush with stories about the Cuban dictator, reflecting Miami’s connection with the island.

For decades, Herald staffers have known about the “Cuba Plan.”

“At one point it was super print-focused,” Executive Editor Mindy Marques told Poynter. “We talked about special print editions, we had it organized around the time of day, what we would do in terms of print.”

The plan changed as news consumption habits changed over the decades, taking into account how the story would break online. The politics of Cuba also forced big revisions to the Herald’s “Cuba Plan.”

“At one point we planned for an abrupt death that would have resulted in an exodus from the island,” Marques said. “We began planning how we could get with the Coast Guard when people take to the seas. But when the baton was passed from Fidel to Raul, it blunted that.”

Overnight and early morning in the newsroom.

A photo posted by Jeff Kleinman (@jeffkleinman) on

Newsrooms have treated rumors of Castro’s death with caution because there have been so many false reports over the years.

“It seemed at one point every six months a rumor would start,” Marques said. “Inevitably, somebody would find a picture of him and it would be debunked. We have not had a false alarm in a while. I don’t remember one this year.”

The misleading reports did have an upside, though.

“The only good thing about those false alarms is we would dust off the plan, go through it again, update them,” she said.

The news broke too late for the print editions of the Herald and other East Coast papers, but CNN had a newsflash as Raul Castro made the announcement. The news came on Cuba’s government TV in a dimly lit studio with portraits of Communist leaders in the background.

Patrick Oppman has been CNN’s Havana correspondent for three years. His Twitter bio heralds him as the only American TV correspondent based in Cuba.

Oppman was the first to tell many Cubans their former leader had died because state TV underplayed the news. In fact, Cuba TV anchors clad in military uniforms led their government-run newscasts with stories about military exercises rather than Castro’s death.

Chris Moody, a senior digital correspondent at CNN, was spending a few days at his parents’ house in West Palm Beach, Florida when the news of Castro’s death broke. He rushed to the Miami suburb known as Little Havana and began filing for TV and online.

Moody’s wife, Cristina, was born into a Cuban exile family, he told Poynter. They escaped Cuba, and he has heard their bitter tales of the life they left behind. Those emotions were evident as Cuban-Americans celebrated the news of Castro’s death in the streets.

“My job is to allow the people to speak,” he said. “They lived for decades with a person in charge who took their property, made them leave their homes, and for some, he took their loved one’s lives.”

Moody recognizes the oddity of covering a celebration over another person’s death — something he also saw standing outside the White House the night that the U.S. announced Osama Bin Laden’s death.

“My job is to report what I hear and see,” he said. “The Cubans do not think everything will change right away, but they have waited for this moment.”

Some of the stories about mixed emotions from

The Herald’s stories reflect the emotional outpouring and represent the subtle line between celebrating a death and celebrating the end of political repression.

Marques expects to hear echoes of the community’s emotions inside the Herald’s newsroom, she said.

“I think you can’t live here and not understand how deeply threaded this story is,” she said. “It changed the way the city laid the groundwork for exiles from other countries fleeing their political turmoil. There is such a sensibility of just what this means.”

She is married to a man named Fidel. His father died five years ago, and his mom died last year.

“My husband’s family has been separated for years, his uncle was a political prisoner,” she said. “That is a story you will hear time again from people in the newsroom.”

That’s already begun, as evidenced by a tweet from Herald sports writer Manny Navarro.

Navarro wrote a first-person essay explaining that, when Cuban-Americans talk about their heritage, they have to explain when they arrived. His mother fled Castro’s Cuba in the 1960s:

“I’m telling you all this because as someone of Cuban descent, I’ve come to learn over the years when you talk to another Cuban you have to define your suffering.”

“The questions are the same: Were you born there? When did you or your parents leave? Did you get here by plane or on a raft? What did Castro do to you or your family?”

“It’s like an awful ranking system and the more you or your family suffered, the more Cuban you really are.”

Other Miami-area extensive coverage of Castor’s death include:

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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