Twenty-Five Stories

18 The road to a big-city daily and life at Ohio’s largest newspaper

Evelyn Theiss

In the 1980s, the dream of most journalists was fairly simple: get a reporting job at a major metro, preferably a union paper where the pay was excellent.

The Plain Dealer was one of those papers, and solidly among the top 20 largest daily newspapers in the country. Here’s why wages mattered so much: a reporter would be paid about 3½ times more than at a small paper, where 20 hours of unpaid overtime was not unusual, and you might have less than eight hours off between work days.

You worked at these smaller papers to pay your dues and get better at reporting and writing. You hoped and planned for something bigger and better.

As a journalism student at Kent State University, I hadn’t been sure that it was realistic to think of getting any reporting job. Thankfully, a journalism professor told me I was good enough to make a living as a reporter, and that I could work my way up to a metro. For me, that was a huge ‘wow.’ Most of us didn’t have the confidence in our worthiness that college kids today do.

We also knew it was pointless to apply at the PD until you had at least five years of experience at a smaller paper. The PD was the reward for proving your mettle, and the quality of the stories it ran seemed proof that the system worked.

Those small-paper years were also a way of learning if reporting was what you really wanted to do, because you were being paid so little for it. I got a reporting job at the Record-Courier in Ravenna, and I loved it – just driving my red Renault Alliance down rural roads to cover township meetings in Portage County was a blast. You never knew where you’d find a great story, but I found them everywhere.

Besides the exhilaration of being young and independent, my life felt full of professional possibility. I could accept making only $10,000 a year just starting out (even while a friend who was a mortgage loan secretary was already making $36,000, without a college degree.)

In 1984, $10,000 was enough for living in – literally – a garret apartment in Ravenna, where the rent was $125 a month and the furniture was extra small to fit under the eaves. It felt cozy, and I was happy.

 

 

 

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I’d been reading newspapers since I was 8. The Cleveland Press was delivered every afternoon to our home in Lakewood, right about the time I got home from school. We weren’t a morning-newspaper family. My dad preferred to read the paper after work, and that meant The Press.

But actually, wanting to be a newspaper writer would have been on par with saying I wanted to make a living as an actress. Ridiculous. I didn’t have any connections, which I thought you needed. Reporters and writers were exalted figures to me. I remember being 12 and going to a friend’s birthday party where guests flocked around The Press’ aviation writer, Charles Tracy, because he was a celebrity. I’d read his columns even though I had no interest in aviation.

I read everything: crime news, politics, Dick Feagler, and niche local and syndicated columns, such as Carole Turoff’s Feminesque, and Nancy Stahl’s Jelly Side Down. (When you fall in love with newspapers as a kid, you remember such details.)

The Press had been killed off in 1982, and The Plain Dealer was it in the mid-1980s and I was on my way. I got a reporting job at the Record-Courier (circulation about 20,000) before I even graduated from Kent State. After a year I moved up to the 70,000-circulation Lake County News-Herald, and then a few years later to Cleveland Magazine as a staff writer.

One cover story I wrote at the magazine had people warning me, “Now you’ll never get hired by the PD.” It was titled “The Violent Side of Your Morning Newspaper,” and it involved a Teamster boss at the PD, a death threat and Mafia ties.

Don’t believe people who say “never.”

So, my initial newspaper foray was from 1984 to 1989, then I briefly became a media relations manager at the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. That job, with mind-numbing writing that barely took me two hours a week to do, ridiculous office rules and blatant sexism, sent me into a depression. I mention this because I had a Scarlett O’Hara moment: “As God is my witness, if I just get a chance to be a reporter again, I will never, ever take it for granted – or give it up.”

Someone heard me – because I got a break. (You can have talent, but you always have to get a break, too. Some people never do.) My former News-Herald editor Ted Diadiun had been hired to staff a new bureau system at the PD and he remembered my work, so I was going to be brought on as a feature writer for the Lake County bureau. This was it – my second chance at journalism and I was so grateful, and wired, I could hardly sleep.

A pre-employment aside: Several of us had heard how one local woman was offered a PD job and gave her employer notice. The PD reneged, and she ended up jobless.  So, I bought a special device at Radio Shack and tape recorded the PD’s job offer on my office phone. I was dead serious – this was crucial to my future. I got the offer and I accepted. This all might sound crazy now, but my soon-to-be PD colleagues totally understood my fear.

This was in 1990, when the PD was going through an historic hiring frenzy. Nearly 70 reporters and editors were brought on to staff three new bureaus, in Mentor, Medina/Summit and Lorain. We couldn’t have known it, but it was the PD’s peak; after that, the paper eventually contracted, too slowly at first for us to notice.

Fast forward a few years, to the late 1990s at a publisher’s luncheon for a group of reporters, held in a room just off the dreary cafeteria in the old 1801 Superior Ave. building. There was talk of news going “online,” though that may not have been the word used then. Publisher Alex Machaskee said he knew one thing for sure: “The future is paper.” We reporters didn’t necessarily believe that – but we thought the future was further away than it turned out to be.

 

 

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The 1990s and 2000s were glorious years for reporting at the PD, when management put serious resources into reporting – sending a team of reporters to Oklahoma City, for example, when the federal building there was blown up by a home-grown terrorist and assigning half a dozen people to each of the national political conventions. I myself was sent to England to report a feature story on Dennis Kucinich’s new wife, Elizabeth. Five other reporters and I were sent to various spots around the world in 1999 (in my case, Ireland) to report on features that related to the upcoming millennium.  And, incredibly, a reporter and editor were sent to Kathmandu to report on the beheading of a Jesuit priest from Cleveland.

Back to my PD beginnings, though, during which felt like I’d been let out of a career jail for a fresh start. When I began working in the Lake County bureau in Mentor, I had a 90-mile round-trip commute between the office and my home in Strongsville. I was so grateful to be a reporter again, I would have driven to Erie, Pennsylvania, each day. I even bought a car phone the size of a brick, so editors could reach me as I drove. My most memorable scoop out of the bureau was the story of a Colombian drug ring being run out of Chardon. I was told that was the story that got me moved downtown after eight months.

My new assignment was covering Cleveland schools – mostly to do investigative stories. The Sunday night before I started, I went to my new desk in the newsroom with a small box of my bureau belongings. I looked around at the dingy space with its battered furniture – where two reporters had to share one “computer/word processor” the size of a dorm refrigerator, where the police scanner constantly squawked, and a switchboard of receptionists answered calls.

Euphoria. This was what I’d worked for, to be in a city room, where you’d write on deadline while the presses thundered two floors below.

I was 28, and I was ecstatic.

 

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The Cleveland schools beat in the 1990s served up a cornucopia of craziness that was just waiting to be exposed by a motivated reporter making her bones. I cultivated sources by spending several hours each day at the administration offices on East Sixth Street, where you could walk in and out at will and where people were dying to talk, behind closed doors anyway. (This is of course no longer possible in the secured warren of administrative offices now housed on a few floors in a downtown office building. Today there also is no one PD reporter, let alone two, dedicated to such a “narrow” beat. Also, the Cleveland schools have about one-half of the students they had then, and almost no one knows who the mostly-powerless board members are.)

By hanging around the administration building and meeting people, a reporter would become a familiar figure, one to whom people would inevitably pass on tips about one outrageous thing or another. This was the era when, on school board meeting nights, the Cleveland TV stations showed epic fights among the members of a politically divided board or the board versus administrators. Patronage jobs were regularly doled out, tax dollars were wasted, and absurd practices – business and otherwise – ruled.

For example, a teacher once took me up to the attic of the E. 6th Street administration building, an attic that few people even knew existed. There, in piles taller than I was, were old student records, dating back to the early 1900s. Their general categories were identified by a piece of paper hanging on a string over them – a certain fire hazard and a terrible way to deal with historic records.

Sometimes, when I told my editor about a tip or the details of the story I was working on, he’d say, “You’ve got to be shitting me.” I never was.

Some of the stories that got me on Page 1:

 

  • finding out about a theft of computers from a warehouse, the twist being that district leaders at first had no idea someone had even purchased these computers, or the 60-plus computers that remained.
  • learning that a dozen schools didn’t have working fire alarms, so “human fire monitors” were used. “Human fire monitors” were substitute teachers being paid $150 a day to walk the halls and sniff for smoke. The district had already spent $250,000 on this over several years, instead of simply fixing the fire alarms.
  • finding out that school cafeterias were overrun by cockroaches because the district had only one exterminator for 127 buildings.
  • learning that one administrator, a well-known political hack, had been on paid sick leave for nearly three months, but that his boss had not asked for documentation, or even an explanation. I got a tip that I’d find the “ill” operative hosting a political fundraiser at a restaurant and, yes, there he was, seemingly healthy and suddenly very angry.
  • on the classroom front, finding out that students were not being allowed to take home textbooks to study – there were so few books that students had to copy notes from shared books during class time to study at night.

 

Eventually, Cleveland Mayor Mike White ran a slate of hand-picked candidates who took over the school board – they were called the Four “Ls – but that didn’t end the craziness. One new board member – a minister – resigned after accusations of sexually assaulting a Head Start parent at his church; another board member, also a pastor, was a no-show for the commencement speech he was to give at a high school and was seen at a Blockbuster video store during a crucial school board budget-cutting meeting and lied about it; another married board member was audiotaped while having extramarital sex by a board adversary in a possible extortion attempt. You couldn’t make this shit up.

Today, it would be impossible for a reporter at the PD (or Cleveland.com) to find so many stories regularly exposing wrongdoing or negligence. Reporters aren’t given time – years, as we had – to develop a beat or the sources who will tell you what is really going on behind the scenes. That’s where the important stories are, and that is how corruption and stupidity are brought to light. For today’s “beat” reporters – and I use the term loosely, because they are given a disparate range of subjects to report on and have to crank out stories or re-write press releases every day – the emphasis is on short and fast, on feeding the machine.

Certainly, you will still see in-depth stories and special projects on Page 1. But the stories of local malfeasance are a tiny fraction of the number they used to be. They simply aren’t done, because the watchdogs are gone. There aren’t enough reporters to cover suburbs, schools and government agencies. (I’ll leave out the economics here. Let me just say that back in the days when the PD was investing in journalism, profit margins for the owners were well into the double digits. As of now, there’s still a profit at the PD and other papers, but not like there used to be. Hedge funds are buying local papers, and they wouldn’t bother if there wasn’t money to be made.)

In any case, the idea of what is now happening to public dollars without reporters’ oversight is mind-boggling.

 

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After three years, my beat changed to Cleveland City Hall, where the mercurial and vindictive – but often effective – Mike White was still mayor. Before a year was over, I was suddenly and unexpectedly moved up to become the PD’s politics writer.

That meant covering the 1996 Republican and Democratic conventions in San Diego and Chicago, respectively; interviewing President Bill Clinton in 1998 in a several hours long meeting during which, for the first time, he blamed the National Rifle Association for costing Democrats the House and Senate; and covering the race that turned out to be the comeback of Dennis Kucinich, who ousted incumbent U.S. Rep.  Martin Hoke, to Hoke’s considerable and everlasting shock.

To me, one of best things about being a reporter was that after a beat felt wrung out, or if I got a lousy editor on that beat who seemed to have no news sense about Cleveland (a flurry of these were hired in the 1990s, all from out of town), I simply looked for another beat that interested me.

That’s how I went from being the politics writer, to feature writer for the Arts & Life section, to a five-year stint as fashion editor and then, before I left in 2013, a medical reporter. I loved the hell out of all those beats, until a subject began to feel stale.

Being the fashion editor was a definite highlight – and I was lucky enough to be part of the last hurrah of the PD’s investment in this beat. I was named fashion editor in 2000, after the retirement of longtime Fashion Editor Janet McCue. What a job she had! In her day, she flew business class and stayed at five-star hotels in Milan and Paris. She also didn’t have to file stories while she was traveling, but rather wrote them several weeks after she came back, which allowed her take European vacations after the shows.

When Editor Doug Clifton came to lead the PD, he made it clear that those days were over. Janet decided to retire from a job she’d been identified with for 20 years. And I, who had studied fashion and its history, was asked if I was interested. I certainly was.

Happily, the PD was still willing to invest in this coverage – and there was plenty of local advertising to support the stand-alone fashion section we published each week. So, it was a logical business decision.

In 2000, I covered the ready-to-wear shows in Milan and Paris. No business class or five-star hotels for me, but I was immensely grateful to travel to Europe to cover the shows and, yes, I filed stories as quickly as the ancient Radio Shack laptop sending stories via phone modem from Europe would allow.

I covered the twice-a-year shows in New York, too, staying at first at the Marriott Marquis, where I had nine or 10 days to immerse myself in the city, report on fashion feature stories, and file stories each evening about that day’s shows, or at least the eight or so I went to. File story, sleep for a few hours, and do it all again the next day: it was exhausting, but I knew how lucky I was.

In 2001, I covered the New York and Paris shows in the spring, then went to New York again that September. That’s why I was on the 42nd floor of the Marriott Marquis on Sept. 11. My editor called me that morning and left a voicemail, saying something nonsensical to me about “Fashion week is obviously over,” and something else about a plane crash. Since I hadn’t turned on the TV, I had no idea what she was talking about. I called her back, and within a half-hour, I was down at Times Square, interviewing people who stood motionless as they read the rolling news ticker to learn something unimaginable had happened a few miles away. I then walked toward the World Trade Center on Sixth Avenue, before and after the buildings collapsed.

I didn’t get far, because I had to file a story in a few hours. So, I interviewed people who were walking back from what we later called Ground Zero, and they told me shattering stories of near-misses, of how they were not far from the buildings when they collapsed and of friends and family who worked nearby – or inside.

That night, the city shut down as it never had before. I looked down on Times Square at about 1 a.m. when not a single car, or person, could be seen. No movement at all. Every storefront and restaurant had its walled gates down.

An empty Times Square – that was unprecedented, at least in the past two hundred years. I was desolate, alone in my room, unable to make calls on either the hotel phone or my cell, which were not working.

The next day, several of my PD colleagues drove into the city. We unexpectedly met at the barricades near West 10th Street and became a team.

We were doing something we never thought we would in our lifetimes: reporting from an American city that had been under attack, where nearly 3,000 people had died. The family members of the missing and dead now were lined up outside the Lexington Armory to provide DNA samples from combs and toothbrushes, hoping the bodies of their loved ones would be recovered and identified.

I reported the saddest stories I ever had to write, talking to bereft families, or people who’d been walking down the stairs of the buildings as the firefighters who gave them encouragement headed up to their deaths, it would turn out.

I left the city four days later, riding back with my PD colleagues, reporter Michael Heaton and photographer Marvin Fong. We had an emotional debriefing in the car. I am sure it helped a little.

The news business, and the PD, changed immediately. As far as my beat, the trips to Europe were over, understandably, and who wanted to travel anymore? But the PD continued to send me to New York for the shows and remembering the trauma of being on the upper floors of the Marquis, I moved to the historic Algonquin.

I think I’m safe in saying the PD or Cleveland.com will not have a reporter staying anyplace like the Algonquin, on their dime, ever again.

Kim Crow became the fashion editor after I stepped down (at five years, it was my longest stint on a beat ever). She soon had to deal with the belt-tightening of this new era, which meant staying in NYC budget hotels and paying for her own meals on much shorter trips.

And then the PD stopped sending her even to New York for the shows. During the glory years, dozens of regional newspapers’ fashion reporters and editors would meet in New York twice each year, and even competed for a special fashion writing award. That ended long before 2010, as bloggers – who could sell merchandise through their posts – replaced the reporters whose papers no longer sent them.

 

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In the scheme of what’s happened to newspapers, the fact that the PD scrapped fashion coverage seems trite. And compared to the bread-and-butter local news that’s no longer being covered, it is indeed minor. Yet it’s also hard to believe it all went away so quickly.

But of everything I miss since I left the paper for a TV producing job in 2013, and then soon moved to a nonprofit writing job, it’s losing my colleagues and not working in a newsroom that is the hardest.

Reporters, for the most part, are well-read, scathingly witty, smart and irreverent – in short, delightful company. And because of the intensity of covering breaking news and tragedy and exposing wrongdoing, you have shared emotional experiences, and nothing connects people more strongly. Also, you get to be yourself – we were members of a tribe, one that included mostly interesting or downright eccentric people, and even weirder ones who would account for the bizarre anecdotes we still remember.

The Harvard grad who nearly caused a fire by heating his wet socks in the newsroom microwave. The high-level editor who assigned a reporter to write a feature on the woman he was having an affair with. The desk editor who was a ranting know-it-all who sometimes slept in his car after drinking with colleagues at the nearby Mardi Gras bar.

And the theater critic who vandalized a colleague’s car with a military-grade slingshot under the security cameras in the PD parking lot – in daylight. The sweet old-timer who covered the scent of his daily lunchtime vodka with after shave. A graceful writer who wrote less than a handful of stories each year – and kept getting away with it, editor after editor.

There were tragic stories too: a longtime reporter whose mental illness led to drugs and homelessness and the jazz-loving writer who was hopelessly miscast in the newsroom, and later killed himself.

Very few boring people work in newsrooms. If they were lackluster they didn’t fit in or last long (mostly), though some became low-level editors. Other people left and were only dimly remembered. Which made sense, because for a long time, we had about 300 people in the news department alone. It seems like a dream, but we did, and it wasn’t all that long ago.

And then there were your friends – who remain your friends, and even if you lose touch, you easily reconnect when you see them. Because you are all former reporters, and that makes you different and quirky, and probably an entertaining storyteller.

Most of us have moved on and the lucky ones – I am one – continue to work with smart, irreverent people in our new jobs.

We former reporters were there for the magnificent final years. I am sad for all the journalism graduates who will never be able to have this abundant of a newspaper experience, let alone make a decent wage at it. Like blacksmiths, the jobs we had are gone and will never be available in the same way again. The reporters who remain – outside of New York or Washington – may work at newspapers or lame websites with annoying pop-ups but will not make much of a living.

Next year – 2019, when the Newspaper Guild contract expires – will bring the final bloodletting of talent and experience.

Yes, the world always changes – in this case, for the worse. For all the reporters who might have been, for all the readers who will never know as much about their towns and cities and government as they would have, the days will never be as rich as they were in the last, great days of the Cleveland newspaper.

For those of us who know what we loved is gone, there will always be sadness. I am not just speaking for myself when I say that if you were meant to be a reporter, and you were a good one, you knew it. Your curiosity was insatiable, you knew what your purpose on this earth was, and that you were born for this role. Your adrenalin pumped just the right amount when you wrote on deadline, the words flowed from your fingertips, and you knew your story might change something for the better.

This is what is almost gone. Those who remain newspaper reporters, for now, are “beating on, against the current,” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words in “The Great Gatsby.” Eventually, soon, the current will overtake them.

And the stories that “old” reporters share will last as only as long as we do.