Cleveland’s daily newspaper is changing even faster than we thought. Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton has announced he’ll retire on June 1 — doubling the stakes for the newspaper, already perched between the excitement of a new era and fears of decline.
Clifton and publisher Terry Egger broke the news at a 10 a.m. newsroom meeting on Thursday, Jan. 18. He’ll leave eight years to the day after he took over as editor — eight years that saw The Plain Dealer turn more aggressive, challenging two mayors, our local economy’s decline and any government official who tried to keep public records secret.
Politics reporter Mark Naymik says the PD’s reporters and editors weren’t surprised at the news. Top editors usually stay at major metro newspapers for about five to seven years, he says.
“A majority of people are disappointed,” Naymik says of Clifton’s departure. “They think he made it a better paper. I think Doug brought out a hard news edge to things. He kept our eye on the public records ball.” When reporters got tough with prominent newsmakers and the newsmakers fought back, Clifton always supported his staff, he says.
“No one can ever accuse him of protecting a sacred cow,” Naymik says. “Doug didn’t kowtow to anyone.”
Clifton, who’s 63, says he plans to retire to his house in Vermont, learn Spanish, find more time for reading, make “a perfect piece of cabinetry” and maybe take American history classes at Middlebury College. “I might even consider going into the classroom,” he says, “not to teach journalism, but to teach the value of journalists to non-journalists.”
Clifton leaves as the PD is going through tumultuous changes, trying to adjust to radical shifts in the newspaper industry. (See our January issue article, “The New Dealer.”) Egger, publisher since May, is trying to repair the paper’s ailing bottom line. One-sixth of the newsroom staff left this fall, taking advantage of a generous buyout offer. After dragging their feet for years, top PD editors made a major push in 2006 to improve the PD’s online news efforts.
But Clifton assured the staff he’s not leaving because of any of that. He thinks it’s an exciting time to be in newspapers, he wrote in a letter to the staff, and that the PD is confronting the industry’s new challenges “with vigor and vision.”
Rumors of Clifton retiring have buzzed around the PD for months, even years. But when his name didn’t appear on the list of the staffers who took the fall buyout, some on his staff suggested to Cleveland Magazine that his retirement was probably not imminent. In our Nov. 16 interview, Clifton said retirement was “not something beyond the realm of possibility” for him — but he demurred, calling himself “a young 63.” The next day, Clifton appeared on PD columnist Regina Brett’s WCPN radio show, and Brett asked her boss on the air when he planned to retire. Again, he was vague.
On Jan. 18, Clifton told his staff he was “letting the cat out of the bag now” because “I can’t tolerate this telling of little white lies.” His announcement, he tells Cleveland Magazine, was timed “to avoid the kinds of things I was frequently confronted with: the line of questioning you pursued, the magazine piece you did. I was on Regina Brett’s show. She asked me point-blank. It was becoming uncomfortable.”
Clifton says he wanted to retire in May 2006, but Egger took over as publisher that month, and he didn’t want it to look like he was leaving because of that. Instead, he told Egger in late November that he wanted to leave in June 2007. They decided to announce the news in the new year, after the buyouts were over.
My January story on the state of the Plain Dealer echoed one editor’s educated guess that Clifton would retire after leading the coverage of the 2008 elections. Asked about that in November, Clifton didn’t say much. Now he says another political race wouldn’t motivate him. “It is true I like politics,” he says. “But presidential elections come and go.”
Egger says he wishes Clifton weren’t retiring. “We were hoping he’d stay at least another year,” Egger told Cleveland Magazine. “I like the timing outlined in your article a lot better.”
The day of Clifton’s announcement, the City Club happened to host a forum of media critics. There, veteran alternative journalist Roldo Bartimole reported being angered by Cleveland Magazine’s report about Clifton telling his staff he sees bias in the journalistic slogan, “Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.” Bartimole argued that the paper should afflict more local figures with tougher coverage, from Sen. George Voinovich to state Republican chairman Bob Bennett to developer Dick Jacobs. “I’d say the comfortable are pretty comfortable at The Plain Dealer!”
But Bartimole changed his tone when asked about Clifton’s retirement. “I’m sorry to see him go,” he told the crowd. Clifton seemed to tire later in his tenure, he said, but he did a good job early on. In fact, Bartimole said he thought the aggressive City Hall reporting Clifton encouraged was one reason Mayor Mike White didn’t run for re-election in 2001.
WKYC-TV3 anchor Tim White, who attended the forum, said Clifton had been a strong, principled leader. “I think he has infused an ethical and deliberative thread through what the paper has covered and not covered.” Whether you agreed with his decisions or not, White says, “you could tell Clifton had his hand on things and was willing to be held accountable.”
When Cleveland’s economy began its decline of the 2000s, the PD “did an increasingly good job at trying to help other people understand the business climate here and all the different forces at play,” White says.
Clifton thinks his accomplishments include “building up a reverence for accuracy, aggressive pursuit of stories, and pursuit of open records.”
I tell him what Bartimole said about PD coverage helping to nudge Mike White to retire. “That’s probably true,” Clifton says.