Twenty-Five Stories

2 Dig deep, stick to the facts, no cheap shots: A reporters’ editor talks about The PD newsroom

Gary Clark

I entered journalism by going to war.

My job as a Marine in Vietnam was to write stories about Marines. Those stories would be sent to their hometown papers. The stories would often be the only acknowledgement those Marines would get for performing a dangerous job during an unpopular war.

I would hitchhike by plane, helicopter, truck or jeep during 1968 and 1969 to 1st Marine Division firebases and outposts throughout I-Corps, the most northern combat zone in Vietnam. Like civilian reporters, we would often arrive after a battle or firefight. In other cases, I would be with Marines when shit happened.

My entry into the Marines in 1966 was delayed by about a month. My brother, Brian, a Marine rifle squad leader and the oldest of the five Clark brothers, was killed in a firefight in October 1966, and the Marines gave me a month to grieve with my family.

I returned to the states in 1969 determined to be a reporter and to write stories people would want to read. I earned a journalism degree at the Ohio State University (OSU), worked for a 40,000-circulation daily for four years, and returned to OSU to earn a masters’ degree.

I met my wife, Caryn, at that first paper. Caryn got a job painting house interiors for extra cash while I attended grad school. I still remember her, pregnant and in white painters’ bib overalls.

Our daughter, Jessica, was born in Columbus in January 1978 between two massive snowstorms.

Later that year, I was hired at The Plain Dealer by Bob McGruder, a smart and respected city editor.

I think newspapers are special. Their mission – to inform readers and reveal the truth – is critical to a democracy.

The Plain Dealer was also my hometown newspaper. I loved working there. I worked at The PD from 1978 to 2000, the last 10 years or so as managing editor.

Those last 10 years were also dramatic, dynamic and very, very hard. Alex Machaskee became publisher in 1990 and frequently fought with the two men who consecutively served as editor of the paper during the 1990s. As managing editor, I had a front row seat. That period has been covered by various alternative papers, newsletters and blogs in Cleveland. But what follows is a view from my perch.

I worked at The Plain Dealer with lots of hard-working, talented people. I helped hire and promote many of them. I promoted aggressive investigative reporting and computer-assisted reporting. I was an advocate for ethical journalism: Report deeply, stick to the facts, and no cheap shots.

I also quickly learned from other reporters and editors that The PD carried some baggage: It had been a target of criticism over the years for a top leadership that was cautious and uninspired, for publishing editorials backing downtown taxpayer-financed development schemes, for a pro-business stance and for a tough labor-relations posture.

But my first few months at the paper were exciting. Dennis Kucinich had been elected the mayor of Cleveland the previous year. When I arrived at the paper, he was involved in a slugfest with the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. (CEI) over the future of Muny Light, the city’s electric utility and a CEI competitor.

The coverage was tough and in-depth, including a take-out on the directors of major banks and corporations who also served on CEI’s board of directors. I wasn’t part of that coverage, but I learned much about city politics from it.

My first personal experience with the city’s willingness to help corporate Cleveland came a couple of years later.

British Petroleum (Sohio) in 1981 wanted to build a headquarters building on Public Square. George Forbes, the powerful president of Cleveland City Council, hinted a couple of times that he had a public financing package for BP, but he wouldn’t disclose it and instead set a private executive session at a local hotel to brief City Council.

My partner at City Hall and I worked the phones and wrote what the financing package might entail.

McGruder asked me to cover the meeting, but to leave if Forbes insisted since we had no legal right to be on private property uninvited.

Forbes was in a foul mood that morning, and wanted the media out. I talked to Roldo Bartimole, the editor of Point of View, a newsletter that explored the relationships between corporate Cleveland and City Hall, and we agreed to argue that we should be allowed to stay because the project was the public’s business – but that we would leave if Forbes insisted.

Forbes suddenly exploded and pushed both of us into a line of TV cameramen. The tape of that incident has been re-broadcast many times on Cleveland TV, generally accompanying stories about Forbes and his power.  I wish I received royalties.

It also wasn’t long before I got my own up-close look at the PD’s willingness to use its own power improperly, in my view.

In 1982, The Plain Dealer quietly arranged to publish a lawyer-brokered front-page story that retracted a two-part series authored the previous year by reporter Walt Bogdanich.

The series said that then-Ohio Teamster boss Jackie Presser had taken kickbacks from a public relations firm and that he had been a government informant for years.

Caryn and I were scheduled to attend a staff event the night before publication with Steve Hatch and his wife, Diane. Hatch was executive secretary of the Cleveland Newspaper Guild, Local 1.

Instead, we spent the night at Hatch’s apartment with Bogdanich and his wife, reporter Stephanie Saul, while Hatch tried unsuccessfully to have the retraction pulled.

Newspaper Guild members scheduled an informational picket line for the next day. The intent of the picket line was to bring attention to the truth.

One of the things burned into my memory that day was an editor on the city desk answering every call he received with a booming, “The Plain Dealer. We apologize.”

Bogdanich eventually left The PD and went on to win three Pulitzer Prizes at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

I continued at The PD, covering the administration of Mayor George Voinovich and Forbes. Covering Forbes was tough – he normally liked doing business in private and was even more difficult with reporters who wrote stories he didn’t like.

I was still able to get my share of good stories by working documents or sources – clerks were a great help. I generally got good Page One play, although Bartimole once told me he thought I would do better if The Cleveland Press had a more aggressive reporter covering city hall to motivate me. I thought I was working pretty hard, but I paid attention.

The Press was struggling at the time. Its circulation was dropping – the victim of a tough afternoon rush-hour delivery schedule and the competition from evening television news. The Press didn’t start a Sunday paper until late in its existence.

The Press closed in 1982. I was an officer in the Cleveland Newspaper Guild by then, and a senior executive at The Plain Dealer asked me to attend a meeting of Press employees at a local hotel. It was my job to tell them that The Plain Dealer had no openings. It wasn’t hiring.

It was heartbreaking to stand in front of all those journalists and tell them that the only other major outlet in Cleveland for their talents was essentially slamming the door.

During those first years at The Plain Dealer, I was “socialized” into the newsroom through my work with Local 1 of the Cleveland Newspaper Guild as a member, PD unit chair and Local president, and from listening to reporters and others tell stories about The PD’s past, either in the newsroom or at the Headliner, a newspaper bar down the street.

I worked with the Guild on grievances staff members had with their bosses, and helped bargain contracts. I remember my wife and young daughter one year helping to clean a dusty warehouse the union had rented for a strike headquarters. (The strike was called off after a late-night request from a federal mediator to resume talks.)

Later, I would also bring my son, Brian, to the newsroom on occasional Saturdays. He would watch TV or play with my computer while I worked.

In the mid-1980s, City Editor Bob Samsot asked me to join the city desk as an assistant city editor. Samsot was a good story editor with a calm demeanor and a good relationship with reporters.

I thought twice about going on the desk. Assistant city editors worked long and late hours, including weekends. But I agreed.

After all, with Samsot and McGruder at my back, what could go wrong?

Samsot and McGruder left the paper shortly thereafter. Samsot had quickly learned that newsroom editors could face rough treatment and unfair criticism from top executives at the paper.

McGruder had become managing editor, but was concerned the paper would never select a black as editor.

The editor and publisher at the time was Tom Vail, a scion of a wealthy family.

Vail was rarely in the newsroom. He left operations to Executive Editor David Hopcraft, and my only experience with Vail was on the rare occasions when he did visit the newsroom.

Bill Woestendiek, the paper’s editorial director, replaced Hopcraft in 1984.

Woestendiek and McGruder didn’t mesh. At one point, McGruder was told in the Headliner by a reporter close to Woestendiek that Woestendiek was planning an investigative team that would include the reporter.

It was the first McGruder had heard of the plan. He quietly turned and walked out. He left The PD in 1986 and went to Detroit, where he was named deputy managing editor of the Detroit Free Press and, eventually, executive editor. I stayed in touch on and off until he died of cancer in 2002.

At The PD, it seemed like a revolving door.

In my 22 years at The Plain Dealer, five different editors headed the paper, in addition to Vail.

I don’t know if that’s unusual, but it did create uncertainty and turmoil. The turnover, including the continuing, sudden departures of others in divisions throughout the building, prompted some people to recommend never going to lunch with your boss on Friday – because you might not come back.

In 1986, Thom Greer, the paper’s sports editor, was named managing editor and eventually replaced Woestendiek as editor.

Greer could be fun and gregarious in a social setting, but he could be abrupt and combative in the newsroom.

I was city editor by then and Greer could be difficult to work with. We often had to fight for our stories, including a running investigation by reporters Jim Parker and John Griffith about a drug dealer who was allowed by Cleveland cops to sell drugs on the streets of Cleveland while the cops tried to develop him as an informant.

Possibly because of the fights over stories, Greer began to act as if the city desk was an underground cell trying to thwart him. City desk editors generally were only sticking up for reporters and their stories. After a particularly ugly meeting, where one of my assistants detailed a frustrating and convoluted editing process, a top editor threatened to put my “dick in the dirt.”

Greer launched a purge of the city desk. Nearly every editor on the desk was forced into a new assignment. Most reporters on the city desk signed a petition asking Greer to keep me as City Editor, but he refused.

I was fortunate enough to land on the state desk. Mary Anne Sharkey, the chief of the Columbus bureau, had assembled a seasoned staff that broke lots of news and investigative stories.

The state desk also included Dick Ellers, a roving reporter in northeast Oho, and Bill Sloat in Cincinnati. Sloat was one of the best and most versatile reporters I ever worked with.

My state desk assignment was a wonderful experience, but it didn’t last.

Greer moved me to the National Desk, and Sharkey eventually became editor of the editorial and opinion pages, reporting to Vail.

In a major surprise, Greer asked me about a year later to be managing editor. I was confused about the offer since he had kicked me off the city desk.

I said yes, but I often thought afterwards whether I should have more carefully considered that request.

I worked for Greer and, later, for Editor David Hall, as managing editor for nearly 10 years.

Much of it was great. We tried to improve the number and quality of investigative stories and projects, be more aggressive on government beats, and get better writing into the paper. We sent a reporter who was a former Vietnam combat photographer to cover the start of the Gulf War in 1990. We began to get good reviews on our investigative work from judges at Pulitzer and Investigative Reporters & Editors conferences.

The publisher also approved an expensive request to buy a computer for computer-assisted reporting projects. And we named an editor to oversee and promote computer-assisted reporting.

We were Pulitzer Prize finalists three times during the 1990s, twice for investigative reporting and once for beat reporting. We won lots of other awards.

I also made mistakes as managing editor that I still regret.

  • Greer had made threats to remove a reporter from an important beat because of a weekly column he wrote for the editorial pages that Greer thought was routinely unfair. I had defended the reporter but, after another of those columns, I agreed with Greer to take him off his beat. It was wrong. I fault myself for not continuing to defend the reporter aggressively enough.
  • During a prison riot in Ohio, one of the reporters covering the story said sources were saying that inmates had killed several guards. The reporter was concerned about using the information, but I pushed to use it to be competitive. The next day, we learned the sources – not the reporter – were wrong. I was deeply troubled that my decision had added even more fear and anxiety to the lives of the guards’ families.
  • I also refused to let a reporter grant anonymity the night before publication to a Supreme Court justice who was the lead critic in a story about another justice. Our legal counsel was concerned that the move would make the story dangerously under-sourced. The reporter resigned without warning the next morning. He was a good reporter who had mentored me, and I wish I could have come up with a solution.

~

 

In 1990, Machaskee, who was general manager and who had worked in marketing, labor relations and as Vail’s assistant, became publisher. Things began getting tense almost right away.

Machaskee was a tough, driven leader. But he could be snide and accusatory in his frequent memos to Greer and I, and to our department heads. He also seemed to like making people squirm at meetings of his division heads.

I was generally the one who had to research and write the memos explaining to Machaskee why we had done what we did.

Shortly after I became managing editor, Machaskee and the Newhouse family, which owned The Plain Dealer, proposed we zone the paper. It was an extraordinary proposal.

Zoning is the process of hiring additional staff to cover surrounding suburban communities in an effort to add circulation and advertising. It also involves the difficult and time-consuming process of re-working every page in the Metro section on deadline to make them unique to each zone.

I was told to immediately put together an editorial team to develop a zoning proposal – even though we were in the middle of an important mayoral primary between Forbes and Mike White, a council colleague. White won, but I was already knee-deep in zoning plans by the time of the general election.

While zoning is a good way to add news coverage, thus improving the paper for readers, expectations soon became more than we could deliver.

In our proposal, the editorial team advised Greer and Machaskee that zoning seldom increased circulation or advertising. Quoting editors at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, another Newhouse paper, we said zoning is less an offensive strategy than a defensive one – to protect the core circulation area. That advisory seemed to slip people’s minds.

And Greer cut our staffing request.

We still hired a remarkable number of people. As zoning evolved from four to six zones, including requirements that each zone have a completely local Metro cover AND a page one story, we added close to 100 staffers – reporters, photographers, bureau chiefs, secretaries, copy editors and page designers.

Those hired were good journalists, who added much to the paper and would eventually move to other areas of coverage. They strengthened the paper.

But it was zoning hell. Tracking all those zones and stories turned editors into score keepers. We received monthly tallies of the number of stories we had produced in each zone, often with a critical note from Machaskee.

On occasions, those memos accused us of being “lazy” or “stupid.” I was also threatened in at least one memo from Machaskee with “discipline, up to and including discharge” after weekend editors forgot to alert senior editors and Machaskee that they were working on a story that mentioned previously published Plain Dealer editorial positions on the Middle East.

Machaskee should have been notified. But discharge?

Most editors weren’t fearful of Machaskee’s complaints or threats at that point, but it added to the pressures.

And Greer would make sudden staffing or other changes, adding to the chaos. At one point, Greer and Machaskee moved Sharkey from editorial director to Metro editor, and Metro editor Ted Diadiun was named sports editor. I doubt either wanted the reassignments at that point in their careers, but we weren’t asked.

The dueling memos, reassignments and negative atmosphere mainly affected the management group, but it also affected the staff. They didn’t understand the changing mandates and probably thought we were all nuts.

And it added to a growing schism between Greer and I, and between Machaskee and the two of us.

At one point, Machaskee called Greer and I to his office to complain about a story in the paper. I defended the story and myself.

Machaskee exploded and hurled the newspaper over our heads and into a corner of his office.

Greer later told me I wouldn’t get a salary increase that year.

The atmosphere had become toxic and I was convinced it couldn’t last. I became concerned about my job – as was my wife, although she was supportive through it all.

I also knew that Machaskee’s priorities and demands concerning zoning were taking my attention from other areas of news coverage. Zoning was a major cost and coverage initiative, and I knew that Machaskee had to answer to the Newhouses for it.

But planning was suffering, and too many reporters and editors were left to sort things out on their own. Zoning was important, but other important coverage issues were being ignored.

Machaskee removed Greer as editor in 1992 and named him a vice president, moving him to an office far from the newsroom.

David Hall, who had worked at the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun Times, replaced Greer. Hall had been executive editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and editor of the Denver Post and the Bergen Record in New Jersey.

I thought I would be replaced as managing editor, but Hall kept me on and treated me well. I thought his hiring would calm Machaskee and it seemed to – for a brief period.

But the same pressures from Machaskee returned. Hall would keep most of his relationship and discussions with Machaskee private, but as the years passed I could see he was becoming stressed and brooding.

Some thought the relationship soured because Hall’s hiring had the blessing of the Newhouse family, but didn’t have Machaskee’s approval.  Hall never confirmed that to me.

I, too, was becoming angry and exhausted. After working from 9 a.m. until 8 and sometimes 9 p.m., I would often go to the Headliner to decompress. I had become a regular during my reporting days.

While a few editors complained to Machaskee that newsroom business was conducted at the bar to the exclusion of others, it really wasn’t the case. Bartimole also once wrote that the Headliner was a reason the paper wasn’t better.

I thought the complaints were disingenuous. Every major newspaper has a nearby newspaper bar, where reporters and editors socialize. Anyone was welcome at the Headliner, although Greer and some senior editors preferred a nicer joint near Public Square. Some politics and government reporters preferred a joint on E. 9th Street.

At some point, I did stop going to the Headliner. A small number of us stopped at another bar for a period, but it wasn’t the same.

But the damage had been done. Not to the paper, but to Caryn.

Caryn was raising two kids almost on her own, plus often baby-sitting other kids for extra cash. While I was able to make many of my kids’ school events, I was often not home.

Caryn was hurt by the many nights I was away. She was lonely and angry that I seemed to prefer the company of people at the paper. The issue affected our marriage. She still reminds me of it.

Through all of these years, I was fortunate to have the strong support of many of the reporters and editors at the paper.

Among them were Griffith and Parker. John was a bulldog reporter who at one point covered the federal beat, where he broke stories nobody else could get. Later, I would ask him to be city editor and then projects editor, where he helped the paper win lots of awards, including those two Pulitzer Prize finalists for investigative reporting.

Parker was a Special Forces veteran of Vietnam and one of the best writers I ever met. He was a reporter and, as a columnist, developed a following. But he hated Greer and fought him. He eventually was forced out.

I knew by the late 1990s that the conflict between Hall and Machaskee was negatively affecting the paper. It was certainly affecting me. Coverage was affected. Some editors became worried that their careers might be on the line.

People would stop by my office just to ask me the latest on Machaskee and Hall. A few would make appointments to talk to Machaskee to promote themselves or to criticize others. I occasionally heard about those complaints from Hall or Machaskee.

It prompted some on the city desk to suggest people were panicking because “they didn’t know whose ass to kiss.”

Hall was clearly exhausted – and angry, too. He had a run-in or two with Mayor Mike White about White’s refusal to be open with our reporters. It apparently turned ugly.

I later read that Machaskee was furious about the meeting because he was friendly with White, but I was never told that.

In early 1999, Hall left the paper.  I applied for the job. The interview was short. Machaskee accused me of delaying a management training plan proposed months earlier by Hall, but I actually had little to do with it.

Machaskee hired Doug Clifton, who had led the Miami Herald.

A few months later, I returned from vacation and Clifton took me to lunch. I thought he wanted to discuss coverage, but he said he wanted to name his own managing editor and offered me the job of managing editor for administration. (It wasn’t even Friday!)

On the drive back from lunch, he also asked whether I had ever considered leaving the paper and trying fresh at another newspaper.

I remember Caryn and I standing on our front porch on a lovely evening and talking about what to do. I really didn’t want to be an administrative editor – I liked news.

I told Clifton I would leave. (As a last act, I introduced Clifton to David Kordalski, a designer who had applied for a job before Clifton arrived. Kordalski would turn the paper into a visual powerhouse.)

Clifton seemed to have a good relationship with Machaskee.

That was good. I had firmly come to believe that newspapers worked better if the publisher and editor were not at war.

I still think about my years at The Plain Dealer. I think I improved the paper – with the help of lots of others. I have dozens of emails from people I worked with, thanking me for doing just that and for helping their careers. A PD section editor years later said the staff still talked respectfully about my time at the paper.

But maybe that’s all defensiveness on my part. I also recognized my failures to better manage up, to rise above the open warfare and to better focus on important issues instead of nasty memos.

I do miss The Plain Dealer.

And if anyone should ask, I’m willing to do it all over again.

                                      

Postscript

 

After I left The Plain Dealer:

  • ~The paper began dismantling the zoning operation; staff reductions would follow.
  • ~John Griffith, who was concerned he would be targeted because he was my friend, asked to be moved to a bureau to get away from the newsroom. He was later laid off. (My dear friend, Jim Parker, died in 1998).
  • ~Arlene Flynn, who was my administrative assistant and a wonderful friend who would “mother” my kids when they called me at the office, died in 2003, leaving a hole in my heart.
  • ~Machaskee was named by the Press Club of Cleveland in 2006 to the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame.
  • ~Greer died in 2011.

As for me, I first interviewed at a couple of Cleveland PR firms, but nobody offered me a corner office with a view of Lake Erie. And I avoided applying for government jobs. I didn’t want to work for people we had covered.

I first went to work at The Columbus Dispatch as city editor.

After two years, I jumped at the opportunity to join The Denver Post as managing editor. The Post had a fine history. I loved the paper, the staff and Denver, which is a wonderfully vibrant city.

But I had some disagreements with the top leadership and was axed after six years.

I spent a very lonely year unemployed, trying to find another job in newspapers, but the newspaper recession was in full bloom and nobody was hiring.

We sold our house, found a place to rent, and I eventually found a job at the Department of Veterans Affairs, editing for a small office that ran health care programs for the widows and children of deceased or disabled veterans.

I worked with nice people, but the VA Inspector General forced two consecutive directors of the agency into retirement for nepotism and contract illegalities. The agency also had a very difficult time properly spending taxpayer dollars. As a former newspaperman, it made me feel awful.

I retired in 2016.