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.