Liberty E. Holden had to go.
Though he’d been dead for 94 years, Holden still presided over daily news meetings at The Plain Dealer, his white-bearded chin jutting out proudly, his hand posed regally on a book.
The portrait of Holden, the paper’s late-1800s owner, took up the best wall space in the editors’ glassed-in conference room. And Susan Goldberg, the paper’s new editor, saw a better use for it.
“So, with all due respect, we moved Mr. Holden to a back wall,” she says. “And then somebody stuck a TV in front of him, which made me feel a little bit bad.” She had dry-erase boards put up so editors could scribble their plans for the next day’s edition.
Some reporters, watching through the glass, loved the symbolism: When Goldberg makes decisions, tradition isn’t looking over her shoulder. She focuses on today, tomorrow, the future.
Goldberg’s pet peeve, she says, is “whiny people who live in the past.” She wants The Plain Dealer, and Cleveland, to evolve and adapt, to take risks.
“The paper, compared to a lot of papers in the country, felt a little old-fashioned, especially in its appearance,” says Goldberg, 48, The Plain Dealer ’s first female editor. So she’s reinvented its front page with colorful sports blurbs on top, splashy centerpieces built on dramatic graphics and photos, and relentlessly local stories — more Browns and Indians, less war in Iraq; more of what the mayor says, less from the president.
The Plain Dealer, like newspapers nationwide, is struggling to hold on to readers and ad revenue.
“We need to put news out there that they can’t get anywhere else,” she says.
Whether you like her front pages or hate them, Goldberg is trying to bring to The Plain Dealer some lessons from her own life: resilience and reinvention. In the past three years, she watched the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, a company she worked for and loved, disappear. She ran the award-winning San Jose Mercury News as it lost millions of dollars in ad sales, then lost almost half its staff.
But her life’s greatest loss, and her most daring reinvention, was much more personal. In 1999, her first husband died after 11 years of marriage. A few months later, defying almost all advice, she moved from Washington, D.C., to San Jose to start her life again.
Plain Dealer publisher Terry Egger says he was looking for an editor “who was very much a realist and could see the opportunities and challenges that face our industry.” Goldberg stood out, Egger says, not just for rising to those professional challenges, but “also in her own life: the kinds of challenges she’s faced and how she dealt with it.
“That was a perfect example for our industry: Somebody who has dealt with pretty dramatic change and evolution in their life, and not just dealt with those changes, but grown tremendously and come out stronger.”
A few photographs on her bookshelves tell the story. In the first, Susan Goldberg is walking along the beach of Lake Washington in Seattle. She’s barefoot, holding a pair of Docksiders and a cigarette in one hand, her hair wind-blown against her shoulders. She’s about 21, but she looks older, glamorous and worldly. She’s a year or two into her reporting career; she so impressed Seattle Post-Intelligencer editors as an intern that they convinced her to leave college and take a full-time job with the paper at 20. (She got her degree, and quit smoking, years later.)
The second photo shows a dashing middle-aged man, white-haired with an eye patch and a smile that’s warm, kind, and just a little bit sly. That’s Gary Blonston, Goldberg’s first husband. He was a writing coach at her second job, at the Detroit Free Press — famed in the newsroom and the Knight Ridder chain for his storytelling and teaching.
The patch covered his left eye, blinded by melanoma. “Gary was a great writer and reporter, just a very, very wise man,” she says. “He was interested in everything: art, architecture, travel, jazz. He read everything. He was a Renaissance man.”
Blonston was 17 years older than Goldberg, the daughter of a professor and a librarian at the University of Michigan who’d lived in Turkey and Mexico during her father’s sabbaticals. They moved together to the San Jose Mercury News, married in California, and headed in late 1989 to Washington, D.C., where he worked in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau and eventually became bureau chief.
She edited at USA Today. “There aren’t a lot of people who can get as excited about a serious hard news story as they can get about a celebrity development or the end of ‘The Sopranos,’ ” says Tom McNamara, Goldberg’s boss there. “Susan can get excited about all those things, and she realizes that readers are excited about that.”
She also stood out for her sharp fashion sense, picked up from her always-elegant mother: well tailored, classic looks, no hair out of place. “She edited better than anybody else and dressed better than anybody else,” McNamara recalls.
Goldberg and Blonston were married 11 years. They bought a small house in Bethesda, Md., and built it into a big house. “They were a great love story,” says McNamara. “They were a wonderful couple with an incredible amount of friends. They thought the world of each other.”
But in 1998, a doctor told Blonston his cancer had returned. The cancer spread to his liver, then his brain. Goldberg took a leave from work to care for him. He died about 14 months after his diagnosis — and two years after she had lost her mother to brain cancer.
“Some things I learned about my character were not very flattering: how I’m a pretty lousy nurse, how I sometimes felt that life was passing me by while I was in a sick room, how I was angry that everyone I loved kept dying on me,” Goldberg said in a speech to the San Jose Rotary Club in 2002. “Other things I learned said better about me: I can help people through their darkest hours. I can make sure that the people I love get the very best care. I am loyal.”
Goldberg was 39. She had no idea how to be a young widow. “I could have easily stayed in Washington,” she says. “I had a good job. I had a lot of friends, I had tremendous support from the newspaper and from, really, everybody I knew.
“On the other hand, for me, it would have been like my life sort of stopped. It just would have been really hard to have been there, to be in the house we rebuilt,” she says. “We had really put our hearts and souls into it — and I just thought, I gotta start over. ”
David Yarnold, an old friend at the San Jose Mercury News, was promoted to executive editor that year. He’d been impressed with Goldberg’s blend of hard news instincts and fun storytelling sense ever since they’d both worked on the October 1989 earthquake coverage that won the Mercury News a Pulitzer Prize. But his favorite memory of working with Goldberg was from a Saturday when “Wheel of Fortune” star Vanna White, at the height of her fame, appeared at a photo-processing store in San Jose and attracted a mile-long traffic jam of fans. They put Vanna on Page One, impressing their bosses and horrifying old-school co-workers who thought they’d fronted fluff. “Susan and I looked at each other,” he remembers, “and we knew we were so right.”
Yarnold asked Goldberg to return to the Mercury News as managing editor. She accepted.
That brings us to a third photograph.
Goldberg, in a simple, chic pink dress, stands in front of a fire truck, next to her second husband, Geoffrey Etnire, handsome in a tuxedo. A sandy-haired 10-year-old boy in black tie plays on the truck: her stepson, Colin. There’s a firefighter in green flame-retardant gear as well. It’s January 2002, Goldberg and Etnire have just married at a historic home in Saratoga, Calif., and the fire department crashed the wedding after a fireplace set off an alarm.
Goldberg met Etnire, a very successful attorney for California real estate developers, at a dinner party. “She’s the best possible dinner date, dinner companion, dinner guest,” he says. “She’s smart and funny and very gracious and really interested in every single person at the table.” They lived in a big Spanish-style house built in 1937, old for San Jose, with an interior courtyard and a fountain.
“He’s very kind. He has a calming kind of personality,” says Elisabeth Rubinfien, a friend and former colleague of Goldberg’s who hosted the party where she and Etnire met. “I think that is a very good thing for Susan, because she brings a lot of energy to every situation.”
At work, as No. 2 editor of the San Jose paper, Goldberg was pushing her friend, Yarnold, to chase hard news. She called him at 6 a.m. California time on Sept. 11, 2001, to tell him the paper had to publish an extra (it was on the streets by noon). She insisted that the paper write about San Jose-based Knight Ridder giving its executives — their bosses — lucrative bonuses.
“She had a fax machine in her bedroom,” says David Satterfield, the current managing editor. “The news desk would fax her the front page. She would look at it before she went to bed.”
The fax was in the headboard, Etnire remembers. “She’d want to see the photos, the graphics, the headlines, the layouts, what’s above the fold and what isn’t. I’d say about 40 percent of the time, she’d call in something — a question, comment or suggestion.”
Yarnold left the top job in 2003, and Goldberg took over. Some hard-news reporters rolled their eyes at her flashy, feature-y front pages. The Mercury News ran 11 page-one stories in a month about the woman who claimed she’d bitten into a severed finger in her chili at a San Jose Wendy’s. “Fingered!” shouted a five-column headline when her tale was exposed as a hoax. A local press-watchdog group called the coverage sensational and asked why Iraq wasn’t on Page One more often, but Goldberg didn’t think much of such scolding. “God forbid we should be too interesting!” she’d say during front-page debates.
Meanwhile, the Mercury News was shrinking, losing classifieds to the Web and ad money to Silicon Valley’s economic troubles. Then, in late 2005, impatient shareholders forced Knight Ridder to put itself up for sale. Goldberg tried to reassure the paper’s reporters and editors with optimism and candor. The turmoil could end pretty well, she said at a meeting, if the McClatchy chain bought the Mercury News — or “we could be sold to Singleton, and that would suck.”
McClatchy did buy Knight Ridder in March 2006 — then sold the Mercury News 44 days later to Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group. Time for another photo, this one from The American Editor: Singleton, a CEO famed for slashing costs and staff, announces the deal that April as Goldberg looks on, her face puckered into a forced half-smile.
Luckily for Goldberg, her new bosses apparently never heard about her candid moment. Still, she had to cut the news staff: first buyouts, then layoffs. She intervened in a December 2006 labor dispute, prodding the paper and union into an 11th-hour agreement that meant fewer layoffs. “She had tremendous loyalty from the staff,” says Satterfield. But she had cut about a quarter of the news employees, and she could tell more cuts were coming.
“I just wanted to get out of the whole situation,” she says now. “It was just very unhappy. I didn’t see where it was going to end.”
Late last March, a headhunter called her. The Plain Dealer needed a new top editor. Was she interested? No, she said at first. Her stepson was a junior in high school, so she didn’t want to move.
“Then, after I hung up the phone, I started thinking, Let me get this straight, Susan. You’re in a situation that is not going well, and you have just told a top 20 newspaper to basically take a hike,” she says. “So I called the headhunter back and said, ‘Can I have a do-over on that?’
On May 14, Terry Egger led Susan Goldberg to the top of the open staircase that leads down to The Plain Dealer’s newsroom.
Reporters gathered below, anxious to learn whom Egger had chosen as their new editor. Goldberg, walking down the stairs, heard a murmuring well up: “It’s a girl! It’s a girl!”
“I think a lot of the women in the crowd here seemed startled that it was a woman,” Goldberg says. “I was sorry about how surprised they were.”
Two men in their 60s, Doug Clifton and Tom O’Hara, had run the paper for years. They were respected for improving the paper, but many reporters considered them remote and brusque. Many also felt their news staff, 86 percent white, was not diverse enough for a black-majority city.
The sea of white faces struck Goldberg right away. When O’Hara, passed over for the top job, resigned as managing editor to teach at Kent State, Goldberg hired Debra Adams Simmons, former editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, as her top deputy — the first black woman in such a prominent job at the PD.
“I saw some of the secretaries who were African-American wiping away tears,” says columnist Regina Brett. “For the first time, there was someone behind that glass wall that looked like them.”
Goldberg has also brought a new energy to The Plain Dealer, reporters and editors say. “It’s a generational thing,” says Brent Larkin, the editorial page editor. As the paper tries to attract younger readers, “I think it’s a good thing we don’t have a bunch of people in their 60s and 70s — and I’m including myself — in charge of the place.”
In December, Goldberg and her husband invited every Plain Dealer reporter and editor to a holiday party at their 1925 Tudor home in Cleveland Heights’ Fairmount Boulevard Historic District. It was a sure sign that things had changed. Clifton had most definitely not ever invited his employees over to his Bratenahl home. He wasn’t that type of boss.
Guests milled about the 15-room, $820,000 house, through the dazzling peaked two-story foyer; the two glass-windowed hallways looking out onto a courtyard where Goldberg has installed a fountain; the pristine new kitchen and room-sized pantry with a wine cabinet chilled to 50 degrees; the formal dining room, with walls and chairs in red and a vibrant painting of a Jamaican market scene. In the library (where a bookshelf hides a 6-by-6 Prohibition hooch hideaway), they inspected the books: literary fiction (Philip Roth and Richard Ford), biographies (two of Hillary Clinton) and journalists’ memoirs.
“The joke is, everyone wanted to see her shoe collection,” says Brett. “She’s known for having beautiful shoes. We expected a room full of shoes, but it was just a dressing area that has a few dozen pairs.”
In seven months, Goldberg had become famous at work for her high heels and classically elegant outfits, including St. John’s knits, high-end suit jacket and skirt combos. Since most journalists are famously casual and rumpled, her style has stood out in every newsroom she’s worked in. One reporter remembers calling in to work the day Goldberg was introduced and asking, “What’s she like?”
“She was wearing Manolo Blahniks!” a co-worker answered.
“No, what did she say?”
Goldberg has such a buzz trailing behind her, both admiring and envious, that many women at the PD are tired of anyone talking about her personal style. No one, three female reporters pointed out, ever talked about Clifton’s expensive suits. Goldberg even called the shoe gossip “plain, old-fashioned sexism” in a fall speech to the Junior League of Cleveland, the women volunteers group. She quoted a column by the PD’s Connie Schultz:
“Instead of focusing on particular skills to evaluate the evolving leadership of women, we waste time critiquing other stuff,” Schultz wrote. “Like women’s clothes, for example. I’ve watched folks twitch and twitter over the height of a female boss’ heels while giving a complete pass to male executives who hit the golf course ... wearing tablecloth plaids and shoe tassels as big as cow tongues.”
“I didn’t ask her which female boss she was talking about,” Goldberg told the crowd, “but I don’t really think I have to: I just so happen to have a collection of high heels Imelda Marcos would envy.”
Does it matter that The Plain Dealer, within a year, has gone from being run by two men in their 60s to two women in their 40s? Do female editors have different news judgment or management styles?
Most PD people answer the question gingerly. Goldberg is bolder. When I ask about her management philosophy, she says: “Command and control works really well in a newsroom. That is not a model that a lot of women are comfortable with.”
She borrows my pen and draws two dots and a long line. “Over here, this is the saint. And over here, this is the jerk. These are the ranges of behavior that a man can display and be successful. Now, here’s how this looks for women.”
She draws two dots, closer together, and a shorter line. “You can’t be too much of a saint, because you’re a total pushover, and people are going to walk all over you. You can’t be too nicey-nice. But God forbid, you cannot be too much of a jerk, because then you are the B-word, and you’re just not acceptable.”
Women do see the news differently, she says. “Female journalists are as aggressive, if not more so, than the men when it comes to nailing a story or a bad guy,” she told the Junior League. But “women, as a group, have a broader, less traditional definition of what news is than many men do, and I think we have life experiences that can help us connect better with our readers.” That means stories about hormone replacement, the Iron Chef, and maternity leave laws on Page One, she said. “I make no apology for seeking out, and displaying well, stories that blatantly appeal to women.”
If you’ve noticed The Plain Dealer’s front page changing in the last nine months, you’ve seen Goldberg’s influence. She’s brought in the design director she worked with in San Jose to revamp Page One around big photos, artful infographics, dramatic headlines. Cleveland and Ohio stories often take up the whole page. Sports, quirky features and health news show up more often.
Newspapers around the country have redesigned along the same lines, but Cleveland readers aren’t used to it. Some of them criticized Goldberg on a WCPN call-in show in November and at the City Club in December. One City Club questioner complained about the PD’s page-one story about Akron using beet juice to de-ice roads, while “inside the paper, you have to dig to find national news.”
Goldberg didn’t give an inch. “I want the paper to have exclusive local content,” she said.
When Goldberg’s strategy works, the paper is both eye-catching and informative. On Jan. 16, an artist’s rendering of a plan to redevelop downtown’s Ameritrust complex led readers to three important stories about big building plans in the city. Some days, there’s still room on the front for big national and world news, from the presidential race to the assassination of Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto.
On the other hand, consider Goldberg’s worst front-page decision: On Dec. 4, the PD gave half of page 1A to a photo of Lake Erie waves near the Cleveland West Pierhead Light and a story about how it hadn’t snowed after all the night before. The blockbuster news that the new National Intelligence Estimate reported that Iran was no longer trying to build a nuclear weapon — making war with the U.S. much less likely — got a few inches inside.
“If Plain Dealer editors are trying to convince readers that we should get our news from other sources, they are doing a good job,” reader Howard A. Kline of Shaker Heights wrote in a letter to the editor about the skimpy Iran coverage.
“I thought we blew that story,” Goldberg says quietly. “We blew it.”
The biggest question surrounding Goldberg is whether her front pages will attract new readers and keep current subscribers interested.
The Plain Dealer’s circulation declined only slightly this spring and summer, which included her first four months as editor. (Most big-city papers posted big circulation losses.) Goldberg’s changes have the publisher’s support: Egger says he’s heard more compliments from readers than complaints. “The circulation people really like it,” he adds. “They like a high-impact front page with a lot of energy.”
Goldberg also wants to do more with online news. Labor rules used to limit the work PD reporters could do for Cleveland.com, but Goldberg “kept bugging the people on our side of it,” she says, until a long impasse with the union was broken and a new agreement signed this fall. In 2008, reporters will be trained to collect audio for the Web. Video is next. “This is the future of our business,” she says. Responding to reader complaints, Goldberg has also asked Cleveland.com (a separate company) to introduce a new home page and more searchable lists.
Just as the Mercury News focused on Silicon Valley, Goldberg wants the Plain Dealer to specialize in covering Cleveland’s medical industry. She’s almost doubled the medical team, from four to seven reporters and editors, and they’re reporting on more medical news, from business stories to health.
But The Plain Dealer and its space for news have shrunk since Goldberg took over, and they’ll shrink more. She told the staff in December that because of poor ad revenue, she has to cut $1.3 million, or 5 percent, from the $26 million news budget. She’ll cut space, not people, she says.
Readers and reporters are measuring Goldberg’s commitment to investigative reporting. At the City Club, former Cleveland law director Subodh Chandra said he recalled fewer watchdog projects in 2007. “It’s absolutely one of our priorities,” she said.
Goldberg’s Mercury News was known for its tough coverage of San Jose’s mayor and a huge investigation that revealed prosecutors were cutting corners to win criminal convictions. Since her arrival, The Plain Dealer has kept up its tough reporting (started under Clifton) on cost overruns at the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and also scrutinized overspending at Cuyahoga Community College. It’s investigated the Food and Drug Administration’s fast-track approval process for new drugs. Goldberg is also proud of two in-depth series on Cleveland’s troubled Mount Pleasant neighborhood and Johanna Orozco, a young woman shot by her rapist ex-boyfriend after the juvenile court released him to house arrest. Goldberg says she wants the paper to run about 10 major in-depth projects a year.
“If newspapers stopped doing authoritative watchdog stories about their communities, no one else would,” Goldberg said at the City Club, to applause, “because no one else could.”
“This year has been very tough on us, because we’re living apart,” says Etnire. He and Goldberg are in the middle of 15 months of commuter marriage, until his son Colin goes to college this fall. For now, he comes to Cleveland for a week a month, and she spends a weekend a month in California. She has the book “Long-Distance Relationships: The Complete Guide” on a shelf at work.
“It’s not the best way to live,” she says. “It’s a little lonely. But having to do this the first year on a job is not necessarily a bad thing, because I can really focus a lot on the work.”
When Etnire is in town, they keep up their habit of going out for brunch on Sundays for pho, the Vietnamese soup. They take walks in snowstorms, which she and Etnire, who also grew up in Michigan, lived without for years. By fall, Etnire, 59, will move here and work on California land deals remotely.
For now, a little loneliness is worth it for Goldberg, who says she’s happy with her new job, especially how PD publisher Egger and owner Newhouse are handling a difficult time in their business.
“I feel very fortunate to be here,” she says. “Every day, I feel fortunate.”