The shrinking-staff scenario is one reason the Beacon Journal, which is less than 20 miles from North Canton, has used the wire to report the Suarez story. In a phone interview, reporter Stephanie Warsmith noted that the newsroom had 210 people when she joined the paper in 1998; it has since dropped by two-thirds.
Another reason is that, with its remaining staff, the paper had some other pressing business to cover, Managing Editor Doug Oplinger wrote via email. “At the beginning of August, we had a mass killing in Copley Township—8 shot and killed, and a ninth injured—as a gunman chased family through a nice suburban neighborhood,” he wrote. “That consumed us.”
Oplinger, a former Statehouse reporter himself, said the new reality requires a new approach. “[I]t is frustrating when we don’t have those stories first, but this is a new era, and news organizations have to rely on one another to hold leaders accountable,” he wrote. “One of the things all newsrooms have to do, and this is a change in thinking, is have every reporter watching his or her beat at the state level, too, and that has to be learned. That means daily checking competing newspapers and wires. We’re still working through that.”
At The Repository, reporter Robert Wang followed the accounts from The Blade and The New Republic. Wang referred my inquiries to his newspaper’s executive editor, Don Detore. In an email response to five questions, Detore wrote: “Like all news-gathering organizations, we make hundreds of news decisions every week. We did publish this story by The Toledo Blade in our print edition on Saturday, Aug. 20, as part of the content-sharing cooperative we have with the seven other largest Ohio dailies. We have done some reporting on this story recently, and we will continue to follow it as much as our time and resources allow.”
For his part, The Blade’s Tony Cook, who first broke the story, said via email that he jumped on it because of Mandel’s statewide status, even though Canton is 160 miles from Toledo. The paper did check back in after the initial report, he wrote.
“[W]e followed up with law enforcement to see if they planned to investigate, but of course they wouldn’t comment. Nor did employees at the company return our calls,” Cook wrote. “I guess we could have gone out there to speak with employees, but even if we had, chances are no one would have been aware of an FBI investigation at that stage.” (The Blade did contact Suarez employees while reporting its original story, but the workers generally declined to comment.)
“I suppose we could have randomly driven out to Canton a couple months after the initial story and knocked on the doors of employees, but that would have required significant travel with very little potential return for our time and effort. We had to weigh all of that against other work we had on our plate.” (That work, he noted, included an investigation of how Toledo awarded housing rehabilitation contracts—an effort that resulted in the firing of top housing officials and another federal investigation.
Cook said The Blade has one dedicated political reporter, who isn’t him. But he offered a different explanation for why follow-up sometimes falls through.
“To me it’s a prioritization problem more than a resource problem,” Cook wrote. “Newspapers spend a lot of time covering and writing about events or meetings that readers could attend themselves. But ultimately it’s up to the individual reporter to dig and ask hard questions, and to use their experience covering government to draw connections and tell stories that have no other way of being told.”
The emphasis on priorities, too, is a valid point. The Blade may be too much of a hike from North Canton for the sort of down-the-road pursuit that unearthed the investigation, but more local papers like The Repository and Beacon Journal could have added this story to their “tickler file” and checked for periodic updates. As journalists are wont to say, this didn’t pass the smell test, so odds seemed high it might pique some kind of law enforcement interest.