The state of Cleveland print media: Local journalists ponder journalism in the next era

Dr. Joe  & the Squeeze Play Band perform at Concert for Truth at the Beachland Ballroom

Anyone who set foot in the Beachland Ballroom last Saturday, February 9, might have thought the rumors of print media's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

At the sold-out Concert for Truth, more than 450 people gathered to show their support for local journalism and those in the field who bring us the news every day. The event featured 11 local musicians who volunteered their time and talents to raise about $5,000 for the 24 Plain Dealer employees and members of the Plain Dealer unit of The Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild who are being laid off after March.

New York-based Advance Publications (which owns The Plain Dealer, Cleveland.com, and Sun News) made the announcement in December that they will lay off 24 copy editors, curators, designers, and illustrators—nearly one-third of the Guild members—and switch to a centralized production system outside of Ohio. Additional Plain Dealer employees fear they may be in danger of losing their jobs when a no-layoff clause in the Guild’s contract expires at the end of this month.

Ginger Christ, chair of the PD News Guild - Concert for Truth at the Beachland Ballroom

“What the newspaper is doing is union busting,” says Ginger Christ, chair of the Guild and Plain Dealer healthcare reporter. “Nationwide, we’re seeing newsrooms unionize, and we’ve seen journalists stand up for the quality of their newspapers. It allows us to speak freely and cover what needs to be covered.”

In response to the layoffs, Plain Dealer music critic Chuck Yarborough decided to organize a benefit concert to not only help his fellow employees but also raise awareness of the peril local journalism faces—­not just in Cleveland, but around the country—as readers’ desires to receive their news via print-on-paper declines and daily newspapers begin to centralize publications.

“It was just amazing to see the community show up for local journalism and for our Guild,” says Christ of the concert. “It was reaffirming to hear firsthand from readers that they want more, not less, from the Plain Dealer, and that they don't support union busting by the Plain Dealer and Advance. The energy in the room was infectious and proof that Cleveland cares about its local paper.”

The Guild is also running a GoFundMe campaign to further raise funds to save local journalism, and help the journalists losing their jobs.

But even as the community rallies around the PD, the future of local reporting remains unclear.
Chuck Yarborough

“I don’t know what the answer is,” says Brian Tucker, vice president and director of corporate affairs for Dollar Bank in Cleveland. He is the former editor and publisher of Crain’s Cleveland Business from 1985 to 2013, and also served as the Los Angeles assistant bureau chief for the Associated Press for five years. “The future is going to be very hard to figure out.”

FreshWater turned to a variety of veteran journalists—and “recovering journalists,” as Tucker calls himself—to get their takes on the current state of print media in Cleveland and what’s in store for the next era.

The ripple effect of downsizing

Having served as the PD living editor from 1988 to 1997, Michael Bennett remembers the days when the PD had a 400-person staff producing a 50- to 60-page newspaper each day.

“I happened to be at the Plain Dealer when it was resource-ripped and there was very little we couldn’t do,” he recalls, adding that the staff was able to start three new special interest sections—EveryWoman, NEXT for teenagers, and a family section—based on demographic studies to find what the readers wanted. “We were able to create solid quality journalism products. It was a great opportunity when journalists could both educate and inform readers, but also enlighten and inspire them.”

Aside from the lost days of specialty sections, 60-page newspapers, and even daily print newspapers, anyone in the industry today will point to the muckrakers of the early 1900s and the continued need for local on-the-ground journalists who have their ears open and keyboards ready. The world needs journalists as necessary gatekeepers and watchdogs—maybe more than ever.

“Inarguably, no matter what side of the political fence you sit, [in the absence of] a decent robust newspaper, politicians are going to do bad things,” says Tucker. “Nobody is going to be watching, no one is holding your feet to the fire.”

As Bennett sees it, the loss of key newsroom staff also means sacrificing the on-the-ground complete level of reporting that occurs by having the staff operate as a team. He says more factual errors occur when copy editors work remotely and aren’t familiar with the city, and the natural camaraderie that occurs in a noisy newsroom is gone.

“If you geographically separate reporters, copy editors, headline writers, and illustrators—as many newspaper companies are doing—you lose those personal and spontaneous interactions that inevitably create a better product for readers,” says Bennett, who was also editor and publisher of the Cleveland Jewish News from 2007 to 2009. “Remote copy editors may be able to fix grammar, but they won’t have the local context and historical knowledge that’s so valuable when reporters and editors work together. They won’t be there in the newsroom to spark conversations that get everyone thinking about how news is covered.”


The need for shoe-leather reporting


Former PD staffer Afi-Odelia Scruggs remembers the chaos of the newsroom at press time. “There was camaraderie in the newsroom,” says Scruggs, who worked as a general assignment reporter, suburban reporter, and minority affairs reporter from 1993 to 2001. “We were all nutty. It was a bare knuckles paper. We fought with editors for space. You went toe-to-toe with everyone, but you loved them.”

Scruggs, who played a keyboard set at Saturday's concert, stresses the need for “shoe-leather reporting”—hitting the pavement and reporting on the news witnessed firsthand.

“Part of a journalist’s [job] is to cover the local community and really embed in it,” Scruggs says. “The challenge is local reporting, because at the end of the day, you have to get people where they live.”

Afi ScruggsInstead, Scruggs says she sees multiple media outlets pulling stories from wire reports and press releases. She fears that local reporting will soon get lost altogether. “I’ve always been committed to local journalism,” she says. “The national people pull from the local. If there is no local, there’s no neutrality. I just don’t know. It leaves me scratching my head.”

Scruggs remembers covering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opening in 1995. A team of reporters were sent out into the field to cover the vibe in Cleveland that night. “Everybody went to different clubs and talked to people,” she recalls. “I went to Sunny Spot on Noble Road. When I came in, copy chief Bill Lammers was playing all the great music, organized by theme. It was a festive atmosphere at the PD.”

That kind of reporting is lost today, Christ says, and with it, we lose the voice of the community. “If you’re not out there every day, covering that beat, a lot of things are going to be lost,” she explains, adding that newsroom staffs have been cut by 75 percent in recent years.

“We’re still trying to cover community, but you can’t cover the community with the same vigor and zest because the staff keeps dwindling,” Christ argues. “You need to have a strong staff to hold accountable people in power. There are things we just can’t cover, and the community deserves more.”

The loss of balance and curation in news

Thomas Fladung—whose 33-year career in daily newspapers has included stints as managing editor of the Plain Dealer from 2011 to 2015 and immediate past president of the Press Club of Cleveland—points to a December 2018 Pew Research Center report that says only 16 percent of the readers the organization surveyed get their news from print newspapers, whereas one in five respondents said they got their news from social media.

Those numbers were about equal in 2017, the report shows, in part because of the decline in print newspaper circulation. In contrast, a 1996 Pew study reported that 72 percent of people surveyed read a newspaper daily, and only 12 percent were going online for their news.

The worrisome part of these numbers, says Tucker, is the loss of curated news done by daily print papers. “We subscribe to daily news to curate the things you should know,” he explains. “[Whereas on] things like your Facebook feed, you read what fits your implicit bias. You read what you want to read, instead of what you should be reading.”

And a good daily paper provides multiple viewpoints. “One of the beauties of a daily newspaper [is that] they continually run one conservative and one liberal syndicated [column] every day, so you have different opinions,” says Tucker.

The evolution of daily publishing

No one denies that ink-on-paper daily publishing is costly, and subscriptions to newspapers don’t come close to covering the costs anymore. “Local news reporting is expensive, no matter what the format,” says Fladung. “Fifty cents doesn’t cover the ink and paper. The circulation model drove advertising.”

But the old model is now a bust, says Fladung. “There’s increasing acknowledgement that knowledge isn’t free. What are you going to pay for, what are you going to support? We better find a model that does work. [Without] the day-to-day coverage, who’s watching City Hall? The cops? Local businesses?”

The crowd at Beachland BallroomBennett argues that Cleveland.com is a good digital version of the Plain Dealer, but he doesn’t want the print version—and the local reporting—to go by the wayside. 

“For some reason, it’s just not the same as holding the information in your hands,” he says. “When you hold something on the printed page, you retain more information. The best way to stay informed about state and county and community is to read a daily newspaper every day.”

On a nationwide level, all hope isn't lost. A number of newspaper owners around the country have invested heavily in their print editions; Fladung points to the Minneapolis Star Tribune as a key example. Bought by billionaire businessman Glen Taylor in 2014, the paper continues to hire local journalists and relaunched a print edition of a Sunday magazine.

Christ points to other newspapers that are also investing. “We’ve seen the Los Angeles Times, since they’ve had the new owner, expand staff and cover new beats,” she says. “It’s encouraging to see them put money into the newspaper and send profits back into the news. With the Washington Post and New York Times, subscription numbers are up because they are doubling down on journalism and people are turning to them as resources.”

While newsroom staffs have been cut—leaving little room for in-depth reporting—Scruggs says she see outlets like the Washington Post replacing the daily in-depth coverage with specialty newsletters for subscribers. She subscribes to the Post’s religion newsletter.


The future of media

While even the most seasoned journalists say they don’t know what the future holds for print media, most of them say it will always have some place in the market.

Tucker subscribes to the print editions of both the Plain Dealer and Crain's, but he also enjoys the digital format. “With the printed version, I can flip through it and read the things I didn’t click on,” he explains. “[The way we digest media] will continue to evolve. I think [media] will be primarily on devices. I think it’s going to be some sort of mix of things.”

Bennett stresses the need to keep journalism local. “If we don’t continue to have local reporters reporting on local issues with local copy editors and designers to put it all together, then we’re in trouble—as a community and as a society,” he says.

Though Scruggs relished her time at the PD, she is glad she got out of the newsroom when she did. “I count myself as one of the lucky ones because I had a great career, I got to be a columnist, and I then I left,” she says. “It gave me a much richer understanding of what journalism should be and can be.”

As for Christ, she says the battle to preserve daily journalism in Cleveland is far from over. “We’re not giving up. We’re not done fighting, we’re not letting the company do this,” she says. “We’re definitely worried about what’s going to happen next. We do not know how much value [is put on the newsroom] at this point, either. We’re bracing for the worst, but hoping for the best.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Cleveland.com employees could be subject to layoffs later this month—we apologize for the error. The Plain Dealer and Advance Ohio, which operates Cleveland.com, are separate and distinct entities. Advance Ohio employees are not subject to the collective bargaining agreement between The Plain Dealer and the Guild and Advance Ohio has no role whatsoever in negotiations between those parties. 
Brent Kirby and Alex Bevan perform at Concert for Truth at the Beachland Ballroom

Dancing in the aisles at Beachland Ballroom

Thanks for the memories

Every journalist has that one, memorable story to tell from days working a beat or following up on a lead. These former Plain Dealer writers recall their stories from back in the day when reporters actually covered their beats by hitting the streets, papers had the budgets to send staff across the county to run down a story, and editors sometimes called “stop the presses!” when a big story came in late (although the occurrence was not as frequent as cartoons and the movies depict).

Joe Rice, former Plain Dealer political writer (1971 to 1991) and Cleveland Press police reporter (1964 to 1968)

I remember my first byline. I was a police reporter for The Cleveland Press. We would call local police departments for news. One night, an officer—I believe in Westlake—mentioned a rabid fox had bitten a family’s dog and they might have to put her down.

Joe Rice interviews President Ronald Reagan photo was on Air Force One in 1981

I talked to the family and wrote a story about how they would have to choose between putting the dog to sleep or pay for surgery they could not afford. The story went on the front page. The family was inundated with calls and money. Koko the dog was saved.

At The Plain Dealer, I covered the 1978 election to recall Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich. With two minutes before press deadline, Kucinich was defeating the recall by 278 votes. I had to decide what to run. I made calls to election officials to find out which precincts were still out and then called Kucinich the winner. He won by 236 votes. The Plain Dealer had stopped the presses until my call.

I will always remember my exclusive with president Ronald Reagan in the fall of 1981. A friend of mine who worked for Reagan arranged it. I was told that if I came to Cincinnati, I could fly to Washington on Air Force One. A few minutes after I boarded the plane, I was taken to the President’s cabinet and did a 30-minute interview.

I reported that Reagan would not object to bringing striking air traffic controllers back to work. My story made national news.

During the interview, Reagan said he had heard my wife was a good cook from then-governor Jim Rhodes. He called my home and spoke to my wife, who was very excited. I was the envy of a lot of reporters.
 

Afi-Odelia ScruggsAfi-Odelia Scruggs, Plain Dealer general assignment, suburban, and minority affairs reporter (1993 to 2001)

Afi-Odelia Scruggs' most memorable work at the PD included a May 1995 series of stories covering Case Elementary School principal Nancy Marks and her affair with a sixth-grade boy.

“I did the story and started walking up and down the street,” Scruggs recalls. “I walked into a record store and asked [the clerk], 'Did you know her?'" The guy looked at me [and] called to someone in the back. Everyone had heard and knew about this.”

Scruggs eventually discovered that the boy’s mother knew about the affair but chose to blackmail the principal instead of reporting the affair to the police. “The bitter irony was that he was betrayed by every adult. Everybody in the school knew what was going on. It was straight investigative reporting. It was explosive. It was just amazing.”
 

Darrell Holland, former Plain Dealer religion editor

In 1977, with two other Plain Dealer reporters, I went to the Soviet Union for a weeklong vacation. Among the places and people I was in contact with was Anatoly Shcharansky. Shcharansky often acted as a press officer for the Jews who had organized efforts to win the permission for more Jews to be free to leave the Soviet Union and go to Israel and the United States.

After the interview, we returned to our hotel in Moscow and prepared for our trip back to Cleveland. But on leaving the interview with Shcharansky, we were told that the Soviet security officers were outside the apartment where we had talked to Shcharansky.

As we departed, the Soviets wished us good day, and in return we wished them a good day.

What we did not know at that moment was that Shcharansky would be taken into custody by Soviet security forces and sent to a prison in Siberia where he would be held for about 10 years. His wife had been allowed to go to Israel soon after Shcharansky was arrested.

When he was released by the Soviets, Shcharansky was permitted to go to Israel where he held several government posts.

Several years later, he visited Cleveland. He did not appear to remember our interview nor for that matter what we had talked about.
 

Michael Bennett, PD living editor from 1988 to 1997 and publisher of the Cleveland Jewish News from 2007 to 2012

I have Bobby Knight to thank for giving me the chance to say “Stop the presses!” I was Sunday editor at The Herald-Telephone (now called The Herald-Times) in Bloomington, Ind., in 1985, during the era that Knight was coaching the Indiana University Hoosiers to regular Big Ten basketball titles and two NCAA championships.

Known for verbal tirades and technical fouls, he didn’t disappoint during a home game that Saturday night. We had put first edition of the Sunday paper to bed—it had an early deadline to reach rural areas. Then someone noticed on the AP wire machine a photo of him tossing a chair across the court—this was well-before digital newsrooms or digital anything.

Bobby Knight, Indiana University Hoosiers coach 1985, tossing a chair across the court

I don't believe the presses were actually rolling, but all the pages were approved and they would have run soon. It wasn’t as dramatic as running back there and yelling "Stop the presses," but I did call the press foreman a bit excitedly and told him to pull back plates for page one and a few jump pages so I could get the photo on the cover. We quickly sent back new layouts and got the photo in all editions.

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