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.