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Issue Date: September 2008


A Graying Lady

As Cleveland’s daily paper shrinks and its alt-weeklies merge, our writer remembers a city electric with news and a time when reporters exposed kickbacks and abuses. Today, the town needs good journalism more than ever, but what will fill the void?
Michael D. Roberts
Every morning she pretties her face anew, an effort to feign life in her countenance, while within, the creep of death diminishes her to a fragile and hollow creature. Once healthy and haughty, she is a shadow as the illness progresses.

Since she never was widely loved, most turn from her failing. It is difficult for me to witness this demise, for I have known her for many years. For a time, we had an abiding interest in each other.

She was fickle and alluring and offered only the most intangible reward for my attention. I loved her and hated her, cursed her and reveled in the excitement she could bestow.

Later, when I left her, I became a severe critic, but the seed of my discontent was not that of others who regularly scorned her. No, I wanted to see her rise above herself and the sometimes shabby company she kept. I wanted the best for her.

That is why each morning it pains me to see a little bit more ofThe Plain Dealer die, along with a bit of the city and, believe me, a bit of each of us.

Technology, a shrinking world, the creeping fog of civic indifference and a society weaned on fast food, sound bites and self-interest have all contributed to the demise of the American newspaper. Conversely, the journalistic culture, insular and silo-like, with a lingering reluctance to abandon the past, all add to the free-fall of an institution we have relied upon since the creation of this nation.

The worst thing about this decline is that no one knows how deep the drop will fall. A friend atThe Plain Dealer told me one day that the bottom is not even in sight. This summer, reacting to a severe decrease in advertising, the paper slashed its news space, eliminating 32 pages per week, cutting the Arts and Life section and Taste section and dropping one of the two daily opinion pages. Perhaps as much as 20 percent of the paper’s personnel — 304 newsroom staffers as of early summer — will be cut. That follows a voluntary buyout in late 2006 that reduced the staff by 17 percent.

It is the same story for every American newspaper. But I believeThe Plain Dealer’s plunge will have a greater impact on Cleveland because of the uncertain state of the city.

Now, more than ever, Cleveland needs good journalism. We need it to help us endure and triumph over the worst times this city has experienced since the Great Depression. Our brazen, arrogant and contemptuous political and civic leaders have presided over the abandonment of a once great city that is now called the worst and poorest in the country. Newspapers traditionally have exposed such neglect.

There was a time when no one would believe that newspapers might disappear.

A drive north on I-77 for me is a ride into yesteryear. In the 1960s, I would drive my dreaded blue Opel downtown with anticipation growing as it drew closer to the newspaper at East 18th Street and Superior Avenue.

The city was electric with news. Civil rights dominated the decade, including the election of Carl Stokes as the first black American mayor. There was also crime, the riots and the rest of urban tragedy.

Each day’s work was different and exciting — challenging, too, for we had competition.The Cleveland Press was still the dominant newspaper, television news was emerging to contest it, and radio was fierce in its news coverage.

I weighed all that during the drive, eager to play in this frenzied milieu. I prayed the news gods would grace me that day with an eight-column headline that would lead the paper and allow me a smirk at colleagues over a beer at the Headliner, a block away fromThe Plain Dealer on Superior Avenue.

My cousin Buddy Levak, a prince in the realm of used cars, sold me the Opel, explaining with street reason that since my vocation took me to certain parts of the city, I should drive a car so sad and somber that no thief would be tempted by it. Unfortunately, neither would a date.

My cousin’s idea of a fully loaded vehicle included rust, and I clearly recall the night on I-77, traveling at 60 mph en route to a murder in Garfield Heights, that the rust gave out on both fender seams and the Opel sprouted wings. I swear I had liftoff.

The late Cuyahoga County coroner Samuel Gerber refused a ride to a meeting in University Circle when the seat belt came off in his hand.

“Young man, you have no idea how many mangled bodies I’ve seen because people failed to use seat belts,” he said. “It is safer for me to walk to my meeting than ride with you.” Then he reported me to the city editor as a safety hazard.

On another occasion on I-77, at 2:30 a.m., the hood leapt up and wrapped itself over the windshield. I escaped unscathed, but the menace met its condemnation.

The city held much for me at 23. There was the dash of downtown nightlife, crowded courtrooms, public figures both good and evil, tight-lipped homicide detectives, the mysteries of the bankruptcy codes, sarcastic editors who granted approval as if it were a personal loan, criminal lawyers who pled their clients between drinks, and a $110 weekly paycheck that seemed princely.

Then, it did not seem like work.

One day I came to the office and found the cafeteria filled with 50 angry longshoremen. They were signing affidavits attesting they were forced to kick back part of their pay to the notorious thug Danny Greene, who was soon sent to jail. On another occasion, I found myself assigned to the mystery of a forged Rembrandt. Then there was the day that I stumbled upon some Brink’s guards who had locked themselves out of their armored truck in front of the newspaper building.

Reporters got jobs in mental institutions and drove buses for the transit system, then reported the abuses they found. I spent months locating lost relatives that the probate court had paid lawyers to find, but never did. We returned hundreds of thousands of dollars to rightful heirs.

In time, the stories and the deteriorating human condition of the city dimmed the brightness and breathlessness of discovery. I steeled myself to confront some of those stories, especially where death and sorrow were involved. On those occasions, I felt more like an intruder than a reporter.

Later, these lessons and good luck enabled me to report from Saigon, Hong Kong, Beirut, Baghdad, Cairo, Jerusalem, Paris and Washington forThe Plain Dealer. It was the best of times, only then I did not know it.

This is why each morning I suffer at her appearance. There could be no estrangement that would make me reject the memory of the adventures she offered me.

So on one of those summer nights you wish could be preserved, a dark mood has cast a pall over twilight’s charm. I’m in the well-aged ambience of the Harbor Inn in the Flats, drinking beer with Pete Kotz, a large man in both size and consumption, who until recently was the editor ofScene,the alternative newspaper. Around him are a group of young men, writers from his former staff.

This is no happy night. The city’s two alternative weeklies have been purchased and merged into a single publication. This group of editors and writers is dispersing like survivors from a decimated rifle company to places like Miami, Nashville, Denver and elsewhere.

I sit across from them, remote — for this business is always about the young —listening to their banter, spoken in the lexicon of the trade, the stories that only the initiated hear about a city and its people.

I do not feel part of them, for I find myself observing them as a reporter does, gauging their emotions, weighing their loss, assessing how it fits into the tragic mosaic that has become our city.

These young people will likely find success elsewhere — as have so many others from the city — and Cleveland is once again less for their loss. No one knows how many journalists will departThe Plain Dealer before the newspaper can right itself — if it can survive. Even if it does, it will never be the same. Nothing ever is.

It is popular for people to complain about the local newspaper. It is almost endemic, like damning the weather. But for me, it is fearful to contemplate the demise of newspapers, for no matter your indictment, they are an important part of the American process, an institution that was sewn into the flag from the beginning.

While television and new technologies have challenged the newspaper’s role, nothing yet has quite appeared to take its place. A good newspaper is a family friend, a good cop and a sage of sorts. It can make you joyous and angry, proud and shameful. It enlightens and entertains. Nothing can really replace its role in society.

The paper’s role is as democracy’s last line of defense. The last check and balance. The last resort when all else fails. A newspaper is the first thing you complain about and the last thing you want to fail.

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