Kasich expressed support in his speech for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and proposed changes to the state’s tax code over the next three years. The Plain Dealer told the story in its tradition of coverage oriented toward public interest, with a “news you can use” flavor. Kasich’s wonky budget plan got transformed into reader-centric stories, like Higgs’s quick-turnaround piece “Answers to some of your questions on John Kasich’s budget plan” and one of his short follow-up items, “Ohio sales tax changes: What Gov. John Kasich’s budget proposal means to you“—a quick post that in turn grew into a full-fledged article. This straightforward tack on budget coverage shows that, amid editorial flux, the paper still keeps readers first.
Plain Dealer reporters also did a good job of staying with the budget, which has yet to move through the Ohio legislature, rather than leaving it behind and turning instead to Kasich’s forthcoming state of the union address. In another follow-up by the tireless Higgs, he reported on a new website created by Ohio Republicans to defend Kasich’s plan. It’s a solid piece, supported by numerous interviews, that makes an important catch: in several places, the site misleads (or is downright wrong) about the allegedly “job-killing” votes made by Democratic legislators.
Meanwhile, Rex Santas—not a staffer, but a Kent State University journalism student and a fellow at Ohio University’s statehouse news bureau—wrote an article (with contributions from a staff reporter) on a part of Kasich’s plan that would turn over control of Lakefront State Park to Cleveland. Blackwell took up an interesting story on how Kasich’s proposal is reverberating in the insider politics of Columbus, written with help from reporter Henry J. Gomez, a key contributor to the paper’s election coverage last year.
And Patrick O’Donnell, an education journalist reporting from Columbus ahead of the budget speech, wrote a substantial story, with contributions from reporter Edith Starzyk, that focused on how Kasich’s numbers will overhaul Ohio’s school funding. The piece was nicely supplemented with a graph comparing the property values in nearly 100 school districts, and a breakout of bullet points with highlights from Kasich’s two-year school proposal.
This is all admirable work, especially as its done on unsteady ground. But tight resources are evident in how many bylines are coming from just a handful of people, often in collaborations, and not necessarily staffers. Meanwhile, The Columbus Dispatch is picking up important stories on how Kasich hasn’t seen the numbers for his own school funding plan—numbers that show how 368 of 612 school districts will get zero additional funding for the next two years, including public schools in Cleveland.
In an interview Friday, Blackwell acknowledged the loss of institutional knowledge in The Plain Dealer’s statehouse coverage, while emphasizing that the paper takes political reporting seriously. The paper is, he said, “making every effort to make sure that it continues that important coverage, in spite of these changes, and is still a force to be reckoned with.”
And while Blackwell is still getting to know the beat, he said his inexperience can in some ways be an asset: “Because I’m brand-new to it, and I have to explain (statehouse politics) to others who are brand new to it, in plain language. I’ll teach as I learn.”
That’s an approach that sounds consistent with an emphasis on ordinary readers over insiders. But how this learning, and editorial rearranging, will play out for the paper’s long-term reporting, and the citizens who depend on it, is yet to be seen. The Plain Dealer’s transformation, or even its survival, is pivotal for those with a stake in Ohio politics—and, given the look of the nation’s electoral map, that includes not just locals, but all of us. We’ll be keeping an eye on how this story unfolds.