While lingering over coffee one recent afternoon, a friend waved a thin edition of The Plain Dealer in the air and angrily called it nothing but a rag. It was funny, but I took umbrage: It troubled me that my friend couldn't see value in the paper's substantial efforts in the most difficult of times.
Over the years, I've criticized the PD, mostly because I once worked there and knew it could be better. But I've grown to appreciate its pluck, especially its reporting on the worst public corruption case in Cleveland's history. Despite its uncertain future, dwindling staff and shrinking ad revenues, the PD has stirred the community to outrage and played a key role in changing a 200-year-old county government — thanks to new leadership without any binding ties to the city.
In a way, Cleveland is a small town, an easy place to accumulate acquaintances. But there are two jobs where connections can be especially detrimental: county prosecutor and newspaper publisher. Both attract pressure for favor from friends, family and felons.
But in 2006, for the first time in 50 years, a publisher with no such burdensome relationships took over the PD. Terry Egger arrived from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to lead a newspaper that was struggling financially and needed a fresh relationship with a community that had lost its way.
Cleveland has never been a great newspaper town, but Louis B. Seltzer, the longtime editor of The Cleveland Press, used the paper as a lever in shaping the community's destiny. The Press elected mayors, sought murderers, drove urban renewal and hunted public corruption as if it were on a safari. Sometimes the editor's righteous zeal became notorious, as with the Sam Sheppard case. But when the Press closed in 1982, it left behind the memory of Seltzer as the city's prime power broker.
The PD publishers who followed tried to emulate Seltzer and failed. Often, they did not possess the intellect, insight or courage to confront the town and its ills. Intrigued by City Hall politics, they sought to impress their views and values on elected officials, mainly the mayor. In turn, politicians extracted favors that affected news coverage.
Enter Egger, editor Susan Goldberg and troubling economic times, especially for newspapers. Goldberg had to cut staff, reduce pay and fill a dwindling news hole. A newspaper is difficult to manage even in the best of times, with exaggerated egos, eccentric personalities, diverse views and unfulfilled careers. Now it is a grinding challenge. But the public couldn't care less about a newspaper's internal foibles. What matters is how it wields the power of the press: timidly or mightily, for good or for bad, with or without a dedication to journalism's responsibility to the public.
The choice for Goldberg was not long in coming.
The troika of Cuyahoga County commissioners reigned over a government run amok with nepotism, cronyism, patronage, double dipping, incompetence and kickbacks. They arrogantly disregarded the media and the public with closed-door meetings and dismissed them with self-serving declarations.
I sensed this was about to change on April 17, 2008, the day the commissioners ejected two reporters from a public meeting for asking unsettling questions. The newspaper made the incident into a major story, even though reporters have routinely clashed with local public officials — especially during the days George Forbes ran City Council, when confrontations resembled street brawls. The ejection story's size and tone were far out of proportion, but it was a signal that Goldberg was changing the rules of engagement.
Then the FBI launched its county corruption case. The newspaper had all it could cover: Stories cascaded across page one. The federal investigation wasn't the newspaper's doing, but Goldberg packaged the lengthy articles with damning headlines and easy-to-digest charts and graphs, all with a stinging staccato aimed at the reader's soul.
The criminal lawyers at Johnny's Downtown complained daily of unfair coverage, the sinful media, violations of their clients' civil rights — in between calculating their billable hours. I loved it.
The editorial page, though reduced in staff and space, played a key role in articulating the depths into which government had slid. Sharply written editorials on an incompetent port authority led to the abandonment of the half-billion-dollar port relocation folly.
The newspaper broke other stories. It drove the venerated Sheriff Gerald McFaul from office for his illegal fundraising. It let the public know that Earle Turner, the city clerk of courts, rarely went to work and that Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold's contretemps with strange online messages called her judicial judgment into question.
Political figures here have not been challenged with such regularity since the 1950s. Some of it was over the top, but it was long in coming.
The onslaught played a major role in the passage of Issue 6, the reformation of county government, which the Democratic Party had stalled since the Depression. The artful play of the corruption cases during the campaign was asymmetrical journalism, but it matched the high-handedness Commissioner Tim Hagan had used to get the convention center and Medical Mart funded.
The newspaper's aggressiveness carries risks. We may fail to elect better candidates to the new government. Overzealousness may creep into coverage of some issues and hurt the PD's credibility. But Cleveland is better off with a newspaper that has fewer friends and is made of sterner stuff. Its in-depth reporting on the candidates for the new county government is exhaustive. No truly informed reader can term it rag content. That the paper has done all this despite low morale over pay cuts and a newsroom overstaffed with editors is impressive.
The paper is open to criticism, certainly: Egger sits on the board of the Cleveland Clinic, which gets prime play in the newspaper. Is that a conflict? Maybe, maybe not, but the perception begs the question. You also have to wonder how the PD could cover LeBron James for seven years and not give a feel for his true character. Waiters and waitresses on West Sixth Street knew James was a bad tipper with poor table manners and an obnoxious entourage. Our disappointment is that we were misled about his nature.
As the community's messenger, a newspaper will always be open to criticism and ridicule. But a city cannot prosper without it.
No one knows where newspaper journalism is headed, but give the PD its due. It drove the Philistines from the gates and helped change a two-centuries-old government. That is no small thing.