Q&A: Afi-Odelia Scruggs of PD Now What?

A former Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter on the "too big to ignore" paper and its place in the city

DETROIT, MI — Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs was one of the last hires of the Cleveland Plain Dealer during its hiring spree in the early 1990s. She had been recruited from the Dayton Daily News, and she arrived in Cleveland to cover suburban communities. She later became a metro columnist and then a minority affairs/general assignment reporter. Looking for a sabbatical from journalism, Scruggs voluntarily left the paper in 2001 to spend time teaching and training in design and online technology. But when she wanted to return a few years later, Scruggs found that there was no longer any room at the paper.

The Advance-owned Plain Dealer was then at the beginning of cutbacks and reorganization that most recently included its announcement that it will cut home delivery to three days a week, while continuing to print daily editions, and create a new digital company. Layoffs will be coming later in the year. At CJR, we’ve been watching closely how Advance has managed other strong regional publications, including the New Orleans Times-Picayune—see Ryan Chittum’s critical take for CJR here. I’ve written before about how the Plain Dealer has reported good political stories, even with a diminished reporting team. CJR’s Dean Starkman recently evaluated Advance’s plans for the Plain Dealer, and remains unimpressed.

Scruggs has become an independent journalist in Cleveland, writing, for example, columns for True/Slant about serial murders in the city, a piece on the importance of journalism education for Poynter, and a broadcast commentary for American Public Media’s “Marketplace” about family members as property. When she wrote a feature in 2007 for Cleveland Magazine, a voice mail came to the editors, thanking them for including her: “I thought she was one of the finest writers that the Plain Dealer had, and I’m glad to see her in the magazine.”

Scruggs has also taken a special interest in reporting on her former employer. She’s observed Advance’s impact on papers like The Ann Arbor News, which discontinued its 174-year run in 2009 and became AnnArbor.com. (“I actually applied for a job at that site,” Scruggs told me.) As the Times-Picayune story unfolded, Scruggs saw the hook to create PD Now What?, a blog dedicated to “covering the transformation of Cleveland’s major newspaper.” In her blog’s “About” section, she writes:

I see the newspaper differently now that I’m outside it. I’ve watched it diminish as pages counts dropped, and employees were bought out or laid off. Content has shifted to a web site that’s more perplexing than informative.

Yet the [Plain Dealer] is still the big dog. Here’s an example of its clout. For several years I volunteered with a high school journalism program. On opening day, the participants introduce themselves and share their career goals. Almost to a student, they wanted to work for the Plain Dealer.

The Plain Dealer isn’t what it was, that’s for sure. Not that it was perfect; the paper hasn’t covered poverty or minority affairs well at all. Still, the Plain Dealer is too big to ignore because it sets the news agenda for the region. Its future isn’t clear.

Scruggs embraces digital media and is sympathetic to the Advance’s dilemma as it faces communities that are increasingly adopting mobile technologies. “I’m not invested in the idea of a ‘newspaper’, per se,” she said. And in trying to keep her coverage balance, she declined an invitation to post on her blog the petition from the Save the Plain Dealer campaign, a staff-led drive that is pushing back against Advance’s plans.

Nonetheless, Scruggs said that the way Advance is carrying out the Plain Dealer’s transformation is “quite unsatisfactory.” I spoke with Scruggs about the Plain Dealer’s future and how it impacts Cleveland’s African American community in particular. What follows is an edited version of our phone conversation.

Why is the Plain Dealer important?

The Plain Dealer drives the news agenda of the area. It really does. I know people talk about Facebook and social media. But what I see is people posting newspaper stories—sharing them, liking them, commenting on them. But ain’t nobody pulling the public records on a story, okay? Let’s be real.

When I was a columnist, I used to get up in the morning and watch CNN and listen to the news radio on the way to work, and then realize I’d seen the same story four times. There are all these outlets, but they’re just that—just “outlets.” They’re not pulling from different sources. I think it’s worse now. If there is a story in The New York Times about the area, they probably picked it up from the Plain Dealer. It used to be that at public radio—WCPN, WKSU—they had stronger news teams and were real competitors [with the Plain Dealer]. But even from them, we’re not seeing the same level of reporting.

Without the Plain Dealer, there is not any news. That’s it. And I read the Cleveland Scene site, Cool Cleveland—which is the positive news site—Cleveland Magazine, Patch, which I used to work for. But there’s just nothing to fill the gap of the Plain Dealer. That’s the big thing. If we don’t support the Plain Dealer, what do we have? We don’t have anything. The Cleveland Press folded in ‘82, so the Plain Dealer became by default the big dog. And there’s no other news structure that can replicate what it does.

How do Clevelanders feel about the paper?

Clevelanders are very loyal to their institutions. Why do you think they support losing [sports] teams? Because it’s Cleveland. You can quote me on that! If you can say ‘it’s a Cleveland thing,’ people love that.

On the other hand, we’re not having the outpouring of public support for the Plain Dealer like you saw in New Orleans [for the Times-Picayune.]. No one’s stepping up to buy the Plain Dealer. The silence from the political elite is deafening

Couldn’t you think of that silence from politicians as a sign that the Plain Dealer does a good job holding them accountable—resulting in their ambivalence towards the paper?

Let me tell you a story. In 2001, the Plain Dealer ran a series called The Quiet Crisis that really put out there this idea of [Cleveland] being a declining city, and pushing that on leaders, asking “What are you going to do about it?” Later, during a county corruption scandal, the Plain Dealer was a leader in trying to get reforms in place—though they didn’t break that story, which some old-timers said was a sign of the paper’s decline.

So, yes, there is some animosity, this sense [from politicians] that they’re asking the paper, ‘Are you for us or against us?’ And in the hyper-partisan time we’re in now, a lot of people just don’t understand the difference between editorial stance and reporter stance. Journalists have not made that clear. With media changes online, it further obscures the difference.

Last fall, after news broke about changes at the Plain Dealer, African American activists discussed the implications of the digital transformation. You’ve shared with me a survey commissioned by One Community that found that 54 percent of African Americans in Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs lack broadband, as do 53 percent of Hispanics in the same area. About one third of adults in Cuyahoga County as a whole don’t have broadband access at home. What do you make of this?

You hear, ‘Let’s all go digital, nobody reads papers anymore.’ But the problem is, Cleveland, we’re not wired. The demographics of people who have access to broadband are striking.

The real concern for me, especially for African American communities, is becoming a news desert. Because the African American community doesn’t have money. For years, this paper tried to penetrate communities with money. But they weren’t as loyal. Now they’re chasing dollars, chasing clicks, and African Americans are at an even greater disadvantage. Hispanic communities might get better coverage because of the awareness of, quote-unquote, the ‘Latino Market.’

It’s not to say there is nothing in Cleveland for African Americans. The Call and Post has been around almost 110 years, and has done important work: I remember reading pieces from them when I was young. But they don’t quite have the ability to do investigative journalism, multimedia journalism. We’re just not seeing that.

If, as you’ve written on your blog, the paper is not covering minority issues well, why do these communities still have a stake in reading it?

When I was at the paper, I sat on one of those committees you don’t really want to sit on. But you take your turn, and I took my medicine. I was privy to internal communications, and I learned a lot. One of things I was shocked by was the level of penetration the Plain Dealer had in African American communities. Black folks were loyal Plain Dealer readers, especially old ones.

Years ago, when I was doing a round-up of responses about the end of Napster—so that tells you about when this was—I talked with one kid, an African American who couldn’t have been more than 21 or 22, and he told me he read the paper everyday. He didn’t have a subscription, but got copies from people who bought it for him. He knew that paper inside and out.

Another time, there was a controversial killing that led to a big uproar in the community. A Plain Dealer columnist called one of the kids involved a ‘thug.’ It turned out that the child had a very, very dysfunctional family—really, a tragedy—and his friends called us and wrote letters challenging that characterization. I wrote a column about the coverage of the killing. I asked those friends, “How did you even know about the ‘thug’ thing?” They said, “Oh, we read the paper everyday.” “Really?” I asked. “Oh, you don’t think we can read?” “No, but you just hear a lot that teens are abandoning the paper in droves.” And yet, here they were.

So why are they reading the paper? I don’t have a clue! But they do, in spite of the fact that the Plain Dealer does not cover African American communities well, it does not cover Hispanic communities well, and it does not cover poverty issues well.

If it covered those issues well, what would it look like?

There’s been a demographic shift in Cleveland, African Americans moving out of the city into the inner-ring, and sometimes outer-ring suburbs. Middle-class folks are moving out. In the twenty years I’ve been here, the Cuyahoga River has been a huge divide with blacks on the east side, whites on the west side. But more blacks are moving to the west side. This speaks to the isolation of the underclass. That would be a story I’d think the Plain Dealer would cover if it took these issues seriously.

I’d also like to see different kinds of profiles. It doesn’t have to be all serious stories about what we’re doing about poverty. There’s a real tradition here, for example, of a fashion round-up before prom, where everybody comes together and wears their prom clothes to show off and take pictures. Everybody comes: mama, daddy, little sister. There are 3-4,000 people checking out the kids and saying hi and taking photos. Then they go to prom and we go home. It’s one of those Cleveland traditions in the minority community that would make a great story.

That kind of thing needs to be there too, instead of just who got shot, who got killed. I’m not saying not to do those stories, but we’d be a richer newspaper if we can go beyond spot news coverage where you come in and come out, don’t do a follow, and don’t do an investigation. It’s about where you put your assets. So far, these communities have just not been considered.

Many of your former colleagues, unfortunately, will not be with the Plain Dealer past summer. As someone who transitioned from the paper, albeit under different circumstances, do you have any advice?

I would tell people there are not a lot of jobs out there! The biggest problem is about leaving your job behind, all that goes with it. I understand: journalism is a calling. And you’re used to a free flow of information, answering hard questions, and asking them. Then you go to these other work environments, and it’s a culture shock.

I’d suggest to them that they look into doing journalism in some kind of way, maybe part-time, or even in setting up blogs, and if willing, to be a freelancer. You’re not going to be able to do the deep investigative stories, because if you’re also working another full-time job, you simply don’t have the time. But if you get creative, doing this on the side can lead you to other things.

A whole generation of journalists is going to be absorbed into other fields. I don’t like it, but that’s just reality. I do a lot of other things, but I’m still producing independent bohemian journalism. But I know that’s not for everyone. Some are going to leave Cleveland—they’re going to have to, especially those higher-profiled people, like the group associated with the Save the Plain Dealer campaign. They could parlay their work there into other jobs. They of all people will have an easier time landing on their feet.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.