Twenty-Five Stories

14 Catching a ride into the newsroom – and history

Jack Hagan

My first visit to a newsroom was not unlike my first day working at the U.S. Steel McDonald’s Works just outside of Youngstown, where I grew up. It was noisy in both places. Everyone seemed to be in motion and everyone seemed to know where they were going. No one walked; everyone was heading somewhere – fast. The roar of the presses in the basement was deafening in the newsroom, much like the rumble of the steel mill.

I was fortunate to enter the newspaper business when I was hired as a copy aide at The Plain Dealer in the mid-1970s. I had worked on my college newspaper – The Jambar – at Youngstown State University, but I had no professional experience in the trade. Still, my days as a college reporter and editor gave me a taste of the journalist’s life, a profession populated by a smart, idealistic, caring, quirky, band of misfits who chronicled daily life and were the watchdogs of democracy. During the Vietnam War era and all the social and political upheaval that went with it, journalism gave me a front row seat to history. I wanted more.

When I arrived at The Plain Dealer, copy aides were basically gofers; we fetched coffee, sharpened pencils, and otherwise helped move copies of stories from reporters to editors and finally to the composing room where stories were pasted up on light tables. A few older editors and reporters still yelled out “Boy!” when they needed something copied or someone to perform some menial task. I ran across the street from The Plain Dealer to pick up dry cleaning for reporters and editors and was summoned a couple of times to run down the street to the nearest liquor store to purchase booze.

It took a while but with help from several editors I was offered a tryout to become a reporter.

It was the summer of 1975 when I entered that newsroom and I was there for nearly 30 years.

Newsrooms were being flooded with hard-driving reporters, fueled with high expectations after having witnessed how two Metro reporters for The Washington Post latched onto a second-rate burglary and stayed with it until their reporting set in motion the resignation of a U.S. president, Richard Nixon.

Reporters on staffs across the country realized that you could make a difference as a journalist. You could uncover graft and corruption and help put bad people in jail for doing bad things. We were out to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as the saying goes. That guided many reporters as they went about covering their beats. I know it guided me.

In all my years at The Plain Dealer, there was no better craftsman in the newsroom than Lou Mio. He was one of the most humble guys in the business, a master storyteller and, to this day, one of the funniest guys I know.

Without him noticing, I tried my best to copy his demeanor and writing style. I thought it would be easy to write in a way that seem effortless, as he did. That was, until I tried it. I didn’t realize how good he was. He could take a complicated story and shave off all the nonessential elements, introduce it with a great entry and end it with a zinger. His secret: stay the hell out of the story. He allowed the subjects of his story – many of them military veterans – to have a voice.

Mio was as close to Mark Twain as you could get. He wrote gracefully without mucking up the story. Too many journalists want to show their hand as the story unfolds. Lou let the story do the unfolding.

Others – too many to mention – guided me by carefully editing my copy, pointing out inconsistencies, eliminating clutter, checking for errors and otherwise challenging me to support the story with reliable attribution. Many were a pain in the ass, for sure, but they saved me too many times from making errors.

I was an active member and a leader of the Newspaper Guild, Local No. 1, the very first unit in the nation. It brought me great satisfaction and some frustration. The members were largely very supportive of the union and realized the challenge we had dealing with an old-style management. We once proposed job sharing and labor relations said that was a communist idea. We were a proud bunch and not afraid of throwing up an informational picket line if we believed management wasn’t supportive of our reporters. The Guild will always stand for justice in the newsroom. I’ll forever be grateful for having won the trust of the union which selected me to be part of the Guild leadership.

My favorite moment in negotiations was when during a break in talks one of our bargaining reps got sick and threw up in the wastebasket. When management came back to the table we told them what happened and that it was the answer to their latest proposal.

Those of us in the editorial end of newspaper operations had little understanding or appreciation for the business end. Advertising revenue flowed into newsrooms, which allowed the editorial division to expand staffs, open outlying bureaus and send reporters across the country and overseas to chase stories.

I used to tell newcomers, in my role as one of the union leaders that they had a job for life at the paper unless they shot an editor and even then they might still keep their job.

What I didn’t see coming was that the gravy train that supplied the money would run out. It started about the time America was celebrating a new millennium, when I had about 25 years in the newsroom. And it has gotten worse with each passing year. These are among the toughest times for journalists. Newsrooms are shrinking and newspapers are on shaky economic ground. Each day seems to bring another story about newsroom layoffs, buy outs or both. This is not just sad for the journalists. Smaller staffs mean less news gets covered, despite what you might hear from newspaper owners and high-end editors who carry water for their bosses.

In my early years at The Plain Dealer, our newsroom and others across the country were filled with reporters and editors, all concentrating on providing accurate reporting. We had teams of reporters and stringers who kept a close eye on the suburbs checking in regularly with city halls, boards of education, municipal courtrooms and police and fire departments. Now the coverage appears to be happenstance. Today, reporters now take photos to go with their stories and photographers write stories to go with their photos.

Don’t get me wrong: Reporters are working harder than ever and good journalism is happening. Reporters are unmasking years of haphazard handling of rape kits. Reporters are revealing a lackadaisical approach to lead poisoning.

Nationally, reporters are facing challenges from a White House that has cast them as purveyors of fake news. But they persist.

I covered all kinds of demonstrations while at The Plain Dealer, but none that affected me like the one I was sent to report on in Forsyth County, Georgia, in January 1987. It drew more than 20,000 civil rights marchers in what became the largest civil rights rally in the south since the 1960s. It was a response to a racial disturbance a week earlier at a nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.

The rally also drew about 1,200 white supremacist counter protestors. About 1,700 Georgia National Guardsmen clad in riot gear stood between the groups.

It was the first time I saw the Ku Klux Klan in full-dress and in great numbers. Klan rallies in Ohio generally included a couple a Klansmen with a bullhorn while hundreds of counter demonstrators yelled at them.

This was different. The Klan was certainly outnumbered by demonstrators and law enforcement but their presence in large numbers shook me.

Klansman David Duke, who was later arrested, told the crowd of Confederate flag waving supporters that he had come to Cumming, Ga., as a spokesman for white people. The crowd erupted into anti-black chants, including “No Niggers” and “Go home niggers.”

Several hundred counter demonstrators donned Klanswear and military fatigues and made their presence known. Bill Brown, 35, sat in his car outside a McDonald’s across from where the march began. His wife and 8-year-old daughter were with him. He made no effort to disguise his hatred for blacks, telling me that he was there because of “these niggers.” His daughter sat attentively in the back seat. “I’d rather move out if they moved in,” he said.

The Rev. Charlie Greene looked on in disbelief at the scene. Greene, a Cincinnati native, was white and the pastor of the Pleasant Valley United Methodist Church nearby. “I really didn’t want to come. But I felt compelled to,” he told me. “It’s hard to stand up in the pulpit and preach brotherhood and let this go on.”

The guardsmen took their positions, gripping their baseball bat-sized riot sticks. “I know a lot of my parishioners would side with the counterdemonstrators. I tell them we are supposed to do as Jesus did. All week I wrestled with it and concluded that Jesus would be here. Jesus is here.”

At one point a car pulled up and a family of Klan members, white robes and all, stepped into the street. I was aghast when that included a boy, maybe nine or 10 years old, wearing mini robes and hood of hatred. I stood next to an African-American news videographer and watched as Klansmen and their supporters casually stepped in front of his camera, shouting vile, racist utterances. “How do you handle this?” I asked him. He told me that he just had to concentrate on the job.

One of the saddest stories I covered was the 1986 Berea homicide of a 13-year-old girl, who died at the hands of a 15-year-old boy who strangled her in his home and, with some help, dumped the body in the Cleveland Metroparks Mill Stream Run Reservation. She apparently told him she wanted to end their relationship.

Few stories had me near tears like this one. I talked many times to the girl’s mother in the days that followed. Her grief was overwhelming. She invited me to her daughter’s gravesite and I watched as she carefully removed dirt and overgrown weeds from the marker. She didn’t seem to care that her white cotton gloves had gotten muddy and wet in the process. Back at the house, she showed me her daughter’s room, where months after the killing, she hadn’t changed a thing.

Her assailant, now in his 40s, is still prison.

And I remember a man getting shot right in front of my eyes in the middle of the day on Cleveland’s East Side. Police were standing in front of house where a man was thought to be holding a hostage. I thought it was going to be a long day just waiting out the standoff. But suddenly, a barefoot man wearing only a pair of blue jeans, busted onto the porch holding a sword. He ran from the porch to the street as dozens of cops and neighbors looked on in disbelief.

He ran in the direction away from the cops, his sword swinging before him. Inexplicably, he came roaring back heading into a sea of police officers. One of the officers yelled out, “Don’t shoot,” but another officer fired a shot, striking the man in the lower left chest. There was momentarily silence as no one was sure what they had just seen.

Amazingly, the man lived. I stood over him and noticed the small hole in his chest. The bullet struck no major arteries. Later, police said he was high on drugs.

In 1972, I hitchhiked with a friend to Miami Beach to attend the Democratic National Convention. I was the editor of The Jambar at Youngstown State University and our administrative assistant had secured the passes. I recently wrote about that experience for The Plain Dealer.

We stuck out our thumbs and hoped for the best. We got rides in the back of a pickup truck, road in the cabs of diesel trucks, crowded into a two-seater sports car and felt the warmth of travelers willing to pick up a couple of rag-tag college kids looking for an adventure.

That experience and others like it that followed became a part of who I was as a person and as a reporter. That sense of adventure continued throughout the years I wrote for The Plain Dealer. Along the way, reporters and editors took me under their wings and I learned from the best of them. I cherish those days and bless those still hammering away at their keyboards, hoping there is someone looking over their shoulders, offering a bit of advice and encouragement.

Journalism is an adventure, a search for the truth and for reliable information. You never know where it will take you until you stick out your thumb. I am forever grateful that I accepted the ride.

Share This Book