The Plain Dealer experience is a kind of Rorschach test. Reporters who sat side by side with the same editors for years have vastly different experiences, different stories, different opinions of editors and co-workers.
But for those from a certain era, there’s one commonality: Interviewing for a job at The Plain Dealer is still the stuff of legends. People sat for days, sometimes never being interviewed, or being interviewed on their way out at a bar. When I came up from Birmingham, Alabama, I didn’t realize until I was ready to leave that my return trip, arranged by the paper, was to Birmingham, Michigan.
I arrived in late October 1991 at the tail end of the great expansion years, when nearly one hundred were hired to add and beef up suburban bureaus.
I left a small paper and walking into that dark, dirty-looking newsroom stuffed with people and energy, I knew I had landed at a big city paper. But with that came issues that were a surprise. For example, I learned that the Newspaper Guild had just taken a strike vote. It was a little freaky to think I might be on strike days after starting.
There also was a generational fight going on at the paper over pensions and these new things called 401ks, where companies were not on the hook for guaranteed benefits. Some of the younger, newer reporters wanted them as they were being sold to Americans as great things. But older reporters, specifically Dick Peery, spoke of the dangers of getting rid of defined pension plans.
Ultimately, we had both, but the paper never contributed a dime to our 401Ks – and people didn’t realize then their shortcoming. At the same time, our pension payouts were small – especially compared with our high pay – though they were slightly increased after much wrangling. Before I left, the company contributions to them were frozen, meaning you weren’t accumulating more years for retirement.
I was hired to take over the vacant Metro medical beat – which differed from the health care beat in Features and the health insurance and medical beat in Business.
I came from a small paper, the Birmingham (AL) Post-Herald, where reporters worked together amicably and there wasn’t a lot of inner-office competition. That wasn’t entirely the same at The PD.
Soon after arriving, like nearly every other PD reporter, I worked the November elections. Reporters were sent to the board of elections in each of the seven counties with phones to plug in so that those writing stories back in the office could be in constant contact with them. Every update was called in until the final tally came through, sometimes too late for the first edition. We had stories on every election in the seven-county region. The PD was the largest paper in Ohio and thought of itself as the paper of record. What a change.
So except for a skeleton day crew, all the reporters were involved in the election coverage. It was a camaraderie-building event and afterward everyone went over to the Headliner, one of two bars near the paper. Reporters from TV and radio stations all joined us for a giant, rowdy but happy crowd where everyone talked shop about surprise wins and losses, and newly minted elected officials. (The other bar, the Mardi Gras was a favorite of the editors. So favored that the desk would call the bar to reach editors with questions on stories that were being readied for the next day’s paper.)
A week or so on the job, I started calling around to hospitals and other organizations to introduce myself, suggesting a meeting, asking about what new things were happening. Typical beat building. Much to my surprise the business reporter had started doing the same thing, calling the same people.
There wasn’t a shortage of medical or health care news. The Features department reporter covered health news –outbreaks, new discoveries and treatments and any local researcher or doctor publishing articles in medical or science journals.
My understanding of the beat – from the little direction I got (The Plain Dealer was a swim or drown sort of place) – was to cover the business of hospitals and health care, the competition of the facilities, in the region and Ohio. And there was no shortage of either. Ohio was still a “Certificate of Need” state, meaning that for a hospital to add a service, such as transplantation or a specialized piece of equipment, they had to show that there was enough population to warrant adding something that other hospitals already had and wouldn’t diminish the procedure at the other hospital. The old practice makes perfect – that if a surgeon does a lot of kidney transplantations they are better skilled than one who does one occasionally.
These CON documents gave me a great look at the hospitals’ plans for the future. At that time, the great consolidation hadn’t occurred. Most hospitals were stand-alone facilities, even the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. There was one group of smaller hospitals that had joined together – the Meridia Health System – that included the hospitals Euclid, Huron Road, Hillcrest and Suburban (which became South Pointe).
I had a great time. I remember spending hours waiting outside an office at a hospital to get a look at their 990s – the IRS documents that nonprofits had to file and which had to be available for anyone to look at. (Today, they’re all online at GuideStar.) But in those days, nonprofits had to show them. But they didn’t have to make copies so I had a legal sized yellow pad on which I would write down all the important items found, such as salaries for the highest paid employees and contractors. It took hours. I just sat there reiterating my right to see them, lawyers were called and ultimately I was shown into a conference room where I was watched while I reviewed the documents and wrote down the information.
I did that for the Greater Cleveland Hospital Association – now the Center for Health Affairs – and was shocked to see the executive director making over a quarter of a million dollars.
The hospital ground shifted a bit after a report came out showing that Cleveland area companies could save money by flying employees to the Mayo Clinic for certain treatments and surgeries. Seems illogical but all things considered – cost of the flight, the cost of the treatment at Mayo, and amount of time off work – was much better than at Cleveland hospitals, it worked out in the end.
After that, a local business group forced hospitals to come together and be part of a report card of sorts that would allow them – and patients – to compare the quality of certain medical procedures and surgeries. They agreed, begrudgingly. Companies felt the info would help them steer employees to the better-quality hospitals and that in the end it would be cost effective.
It fell apart – but not without the first report cards showing some surprises, including that Mt. Sinai Medical Center, now closed, had the best heart surgery outcomes of all. That revelation might have helped kill the reports.
The hospitals fought over everything. The report – which we got in advance copy to prepare our stories – used odd symbols to show whether they had done as expected, better or worse. We decided to use up, down and sideways arrows instead, so readers could understand. Hospitals freaked.
Hospital officials, and the executive director of the hospital association (the one making over $250,000) would come to see the editor, David Hall, who backed me completely. Hall noted that they thought talking to the “parent” would more easily control the story and me.
Not long after, the start of the merging and consolidation of hospitals began. More great stories to cover.
Health care was an issue inside The PD, too. A few months after starting, I was asked to join the health care board as one of two union reps. Management had its own health plan, but all the union members – which at that time included all reporters, copy editors, photographers, editorial board writers and assistant editors in Metro, Sports, Business, and Features, had a different plan that was jointly overseen by a guild and management board. The two sides jointly hired an attorney, an insurance consultant and other specialized consultants for advice.
Our health plans were in a crisis. When the Guild negotiated – it was for a lump-sum increase that would be divided up for wages, health insurance and pension funding. We were so big then, insurance companies bid for our business, and we offered several plans. But it had been many, many years since the amount of money for medical insurance had been increased, despite rapidly increasing health care costs.
We got out of the jam. But my position on the board for more than 15 years grew increasingly contentious – first with the management side as they replaced their board members with hard asses and later with the Guild when, after years of great insurance, the decline in staff and surge in prices meant some tough decisions about medical benefits had to be made.
The PD was known for having a number of married couples on staff. As out-of-pocket costs rose, some clever couples chose different health plans, so that whatever one plan didn’t cover fully, the other would pick up the difference.
The management reps were probably surprised, but myself and my compatriot on the board, Don Rosenberg, stopped that practice and required married couples to pick one plan for both of them. It wasn’t popular with all, because a set amount of money went to health care for each employee, so they felt they were being penalized and subsidizing others.
At the same time, unmarried staff were subsidizing families because more money went in monthly than the cost for a single person’s plan. The extra went to shore up the plan.
The changes and other cuts helped stave off for a good while the need for PD staff to reduce their pay to cover insurance.
But there was many a contentious guild meeting where health care and pensions were hotly discussed. Don and I sat and answered for the decisions we made.
I left the newsroom in 2010. My last few years at the paper, guild staff made tough choices, including transferring wage increases to health care. Ultimately, we voted to take a pay cut and 10 days of furloughed time off, which combined amounted to a 12 ½ percent pay cut. Those left at the PD are still taking the furloughs.
It seems crazy that a decade or so earlier, I marveled at how the paper was flush with money, sending reporters all over the globe, and more importantly flush with space, enough for everyone to write stories that were as long as they wanted. Reporters’ opinions, what they saw and knew from their beats, were respected, for the most part.
The Plain Dealer still had a society writer, Mary Strassmeyer, who wrote a column called “Mary Mary,” but the paper also hired freelancers to go to parties she didn’t want to attend. People vied to get into her column. I sat near Mary, and saw the near daily floral arrangements and gift baskets delivered to her and placed on her assistant’s desk for later decisions on which would go into her car.
It was a different time.
Our renowned rock critic, Jane Scott, was there. By the time I started, she was a senior, with a funky haircut and big, red glasses and a small, sweet voice. But soon a younger features reporter was there, to begin shouldering the load.
We still had a night police reporter who’d didn’t write stories but called in information. When it was your turn for nights, you’d answer the phone and Ed Kissell would start giving information mid-sentence.
I learned quickly about the “sleeve.” If you found out your story was holding, or it had already been edited around 4 p.m. or so, you might stand up and pull at your sleeve, making sure at least one person saw you. Then you’d get up, coat left behind, walk and talk to people as you made your way to light out the front door and walk half a block to the Headliner. The PD building was virtually windowless, by virtue of previous strikes, so there was no one to see you go for a beer. Soon enough, as others started tugging at their sleeves, a good number of other reporters would follow.
In the opposite direction, was the Phoenix coffee shop that PDers would amble to throughout the day. There was always someone from the paper there. For a small shop, it offered great people watching. It had a parking lot and enough on-street parking to draw politicians, business people and others for impromptu meetings.
It was a better time.
Woe to the reporter who wanted to meet up at the Headliner but got the conspiratorial line editor who barked orders when the story was done to find some offbeat, non-existent angle or link to something. Male reporters bristled over one particular editor, fighting over this last call he wanted.
Others simply agreed to find out (but didn’t) and then reported – nothing to report. But then there was the small number of copy editors who read each word and expected it to be literal. A hot day mentioned might get the question, what was the temperature?
The paper was big enough that you might not meet or really know people in other departments for years. The sports department was nearly vacant. Business was in a different area, Features, Business, all had big robust staffs. Metro, of which I was a part, was the biggest and the queen bee at the paper, which rubbed some the wrong way.
But no department had better work stations than the others. Two to a terminal (now computers). Fights did erupt when someone wanted to take notes on the terminal, hogging it for hours.
No windows. Only the library had a small window so we could see whether there was a giant snowstorm or a beautiful day.
Looking back, it was definitely the time to be a reporter at The Plain Dealer, maybe everywhere. When the new building opened in 2000 and we moved in with a new editor, a new vibe took over. More insurance-like for sure. But we tried to keep the things that made working there great and added to your knowledge and skill as a reporter and writer.
Some editors saw reporters walking around talking as loafing, and a bad thing. I can’t tell you how many times someone came up to talk to me or vice versa and in mentioning the story you were working on that they or you didn’t know some fact, big or small; I can’t tell you how many times casual newsroom conversations about stories and other things led to learning information that would provide a new angle for a story or improve it in some way.
Institutional history. We had it in spades for a while.
The new vibe included moving people around if they thought they were too chummy with their cubicle mates. After having no windows, the new building had giant floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on Superior Avenue. But sun glare for those sitting nearby, and complainers, meant these giant shades were rolled down blocking out most of the view. I got into a fight over the shades.
Reporters were moved around to different beats, sometimes because their fortunes were rising, or sometimes as punishment. In that newsroom at that time, someone always knew and had the phone number of a person you needed to reach. We were wired in; covering beats, developing sources, and coming back and telling editors this is the story I have.
For my first 15 years there, I now feel fortunate. Reporters are the biggest bitchers and moaners but love the work, love knowing things and love trying to get that insight into stories that would help, or inform, or shock readers.
Readers would call. Some reporters didn’t like to talk to them. I loved it, even those who were complaining. I met an elderly gentleman by phone who had gone to elementary school with my father and my aunt, his twin sister. (Yes this was my hometown paper).
Reporters now working at the two companies that once were The Plain Dealer don’t see each other much. For younger reporters, this is a real loss. Based on reading (I still have the paper delivered even though they keep giving away their product online for free), they don’t seem to avail themselves of the library system to see what’s happened before and include some actual context. And there are no older reporters there to tell them the back story on a politician or a topic of any kind.
Beats have almost disappeared and with them the power of the reporter to stop an editor from dictating a BS story – because your sources, your reporting, doesn’t back that up. That may be the greatest loss of all.