It’s appropriate that Brendan Ring, proprietor of world-famous Nighttown on Cedar Hill, gave shelter this spring to a nomadic clan once comprised of the town’s all-time best drinkers. The fact that many are dead will not hold them back from hanging around his bar.
Ring saved the Press Club of Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame, which consists of more than 100 plaques honoring journalists. Their work earned them the privilege of being memorialized close to the bar.
The Press Club traces its wayward roots to 1887, and has moved from place to place like a vagabond on the dole. Unlike the Union Club or Tavern Club, the Press Club required neither sponsor nor pedigree. You did not even have to possess the ability to write a sentence, only a check.
Prior to its reincarnation at Nighttown, the club and its Hall of Fame resided at the University Club on Euclid Avenue. When the building was sold to Myers University in 2002, the plaques and other memorabilia suffered the ignominy of storage.
In the small community of Cleveland journalism, Ring’s gesture is a big thing. The names on the plaques represent those who chronicled the daily events of a city, and in some cases shaped its destiny, for more than a century and a half. They also represent the end of an era.
Cleveland has never been a journalistic mecca. The lack of many Pulitzer Prizes here reflects more on the news organizations than individuals. Many who have worked here have gone on to other newspapers and won the award.
The Hall of Fame was founded in 1981, and I was among its organizers. We created it because people could work for 40 years covering the city and accumulating its secrets, and then one day walk out of the newspaper, leaving no trace behind other than bylines yellowing with age.
The newspapers here were not sentimental places. Pensions were paltry, and there were no pictures or plaques left behind to honor those who had contributed to the publication. There was no tradition other than high stress and low pay.
The workplace consisted of riots, fires, murders, general mayhem, inarticulate editors, broken marriages, boring and corrupt public officials, whining advertising executives, bad hours, heavy drinking, debt and a cynicism that calcified the soul.
So after a lengthy career of enduring the above — plus the usual professional enmity that develops over time among colleagues — few cared about history when they retired. And no one is forgotten faster than a former journalist.
The Hall of Fame was meant to preserve a sense of the journalistic past and create a tradition for those who followed. But we never anticipated that people would stop reading newspapers.
None of us thought the Hall of Fame would ultimately mark the end of an era and the decline of journalism in Cleveland. Though newspapers are slipping nationwide, the lack of competitive alternatives here makes its impact feel greater.
The decline began slowly, with the closing of The Cleveland News in 1960, the growing impact of television, the failure of The Cleveland Press in 1982 and the continuous fragmentation of the media.
The 1990s represented the dark age of Cleveland journalism. The 12 years of Mayor Mike White’s administration were a truly corrupt era, as later events would prove, but that fact went largely uncovered by The Plain Dealer. A changing economic environment forced publications to reduce the scope of news and commentary. Electronic media, including the Internet, grew and permeated, further fragmenting the advertising market.
These factors rained such confusion upon journalism’s traditional practices that its future is still undetermined. The one certainty is that the names on the plaques on Nighttown are part of another time.
The plaques at Nighttown tell an epic story. Collectively, the people honored there covered every major event in Cleveland over a century and a half.
I went there recently and walked among the plaques, which are across from the barroom. To date, 124 journalists have been accepted into the Hall of Fame. The late Dorothy Fuldheim, who never suffered fools in her long career on WEWS TV5, would be relieved to know that her plaque was found in the offices of WCPN.
I laughed upon discovering that the late Don Robertson is represented by two identical plaques. That is only fitting, for Robertson was a man of boundless talent and ego. His family is represented four times: His father, Carl T. Robertson, and his mother, Josephine Robertson, are also members of the Hall of Fame.
During my visit, I complained that Louis B. Seltzer, the late editor of The Cleveland Press, deserved better play than he received. No figure dominated Cleveland journalism the way he did, yet his plaque was in the bottom row, waist high. He’s now in the top row, at eye level.
Pausing at the plaque of Bus Bergen, a legendary reporter for The Cleveland Press, I reflected that he was a major reason why I chose to be a newspaper reporter. As a kid, I delivered the paper and saw his bylined stories banner page one.
It was a time when reporters solved murders. Who didn’t want to do that?
In fact, Bergen was featured twice on the TV show “The Big Story,” sponsored by Pall Mall cigarettes, that told real stories from American newspapers.
Other journalists date to the 19th century, including men such as Edwin Cowles, whose antislavery editorials played a key role in influencing Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves. Artemus Ward, The Plain Dealer’s city editor in 1857, was a mentor of sorts to Mark Twain.
On the walls are the names of those whose skill and knowledge helped shape many careers. Hil Black, the great Press police reporter and among the first black journalists on the city’s major dailies; Johnny Rees, the last city editor of the Cleveland News, a man who saw almost every story a city could write; and Doris O’Donnell, a superb reporter and a pioneer in women’s journalism, are just a few.
The biggest group memorialized on the walls are sports writers, almost too numerous to mention, led by the late sports editor Gordon Cobbledick of The Plain Dealer, also a war correspondent in World War II; and Whitey Lewis of The Press, whose sports columns carried the newspaper in its glory days.
It is unlikely that a group like this will pass again. Technology, cultural changes and publications’ and stations’ simple struggle for survival have made the old way of journalism a thing of the past.
I needed a drink last year when former Plain Dealer publisher Alex Machaskee was inducted into the Hall of Fame. I can’t remember Alex covering a fire or arguing with a homicide cop on deadline in some dark alley on the East Side or even working late rewrite. It was on Machaskee’s watch that the enterprising Nate Gray tried to steal the whole town and the newspaper missed the story. The next thing you know, the nominating committee will be putting up advertising salesmen.
Cynicism aside, when you get to Nighttown, pause at the plaques and read. Maybe even raise a glass to them. For the most part, the people there gave more to the city than they ever got back.