Creativity in the journalism business is not necessarily in the writing of stories, but in the finding of them – observing and pulling together compelling narratives out of ordinary human happenings.
It’s about finding the stuff of color, character and emotion – the stuff that rarely comes from a press release, a politician’s mouth or a news conference.
It could be the story of Cynthia Lawrence, an elderly homeless woman working all night in a labor crew, cleaning up trash at Jacob’s Field after a ballgame.
Or the underground economy of poor and disabled people doing piece work out of their homes, slipping thousands of plastic washers over metal screws for less-than-minimum wage.
Or the underpaid, half-starving Filipino sailors working and living in poor conditions on a ship unloading steel wire in Cleveland.
These stories, published in The Plain Dealer, didn’t come from official channels. They came from me, snooping the environs of Cleveland with an open notebook.
They are stories featuring places and people; stories of who we are. The story of Bob Woodworth, a distinguished looking, white businessman who dressed in conventional suits and ties and voted Republican. When he died, he willed a rental property he owned to his tenant, Hilda Rojas, a Latina single mother struggling on little income.
The story of a black Catholic congregation that moved into an abandoned Bohemian church on Cleveland’s East Side and painted the faces on the statues of Christ and the saints black.
The story of Kate Kearny and Norma Rodriquez, friends since the second grade, who never left the tough, impoverished, Cleveland neighborhood in which they were raised. Kate, whose ancestors came from Ireland in 1911, is one of the last of the Irish in the area of Bridge Avenue and West 65th Street. Norma, whose family came from Puerto Rico in 1960, is of the earliest Hispanic families to move into the once heavily Irish neighborhood now dominated by Latinos.
I found the story in 1996 when I spotted an Irish flag flying on a pole in the front yard of a house on Bridge Avenue. Odd, I thought, in this neighborhood?
I stopped the car when I saw a woman on the front porch. It was Kate, a good talker who dragged her friend Norma into the chat.
I soon learned that the two women were in their 40s. Irish Kate spoke street Spanish and knew merengue and salsa steps; Latina Norma knew Irish step dancing — “slap, hop, heel toe” — taught by the Irish nuns at St. Colman’s where the two women met as kids in the second grade.
And Kate’s dad used to call Norma “Chiquita.” She called him “Old Irishman.”
They kept talking. I listened.
As kids, they played kickball in the street until dark. As teenagers, they were a winning team in dance contests. One night, they got tattooed together. Another night, drunk on cheap wine, they threw bricks through the windows of a white supremacy group’s headquarters at West 96th and Lorain Avenue.
At this point, I’m already writing in my head.
And the story of Kate and Norma soon appears on the Metro cover of The Plain Dealer with a color photo of the two women in a pew at St. Colman’s.
Unfortunately, we see too few of these kinds of stories today in daily newspapers – stories of inner-city history, poverty and culture told in slice-of-life narratives.
One reason, I believe, is that newspapers are looking away from covering urban life, in favor of suburban news. A PD editor once said about the city’s Hispanic community: “Those people don’t read.”
Also, stories like Kate and Nora would take too much time, editors would say, to find and flush out.
Daily newspaper reporters in 2018 – sadly too few of them left — are under tremendous pressure to feed websites, whether the feeds meet the standards for quality news or not. Few reporters have the freedom to wander and hunt selectively for stories as I often did during my 23 years at The Plain Dealer, beginning in 1990.
One late night in August of 2000 (having sneaked into Jacobs Field after an Indians game), I discovered hundreds of homeless people with plastic bags and leaf blowers picking up postgame litter under the tens of thousands of seats.
They were hired by a temporary work agency and were earning take-home pay between $25 and $30 for a seven-hour shift. Most of them were African-American, some wearing bandanas, bent over as they moved through long rows picking trash by hand – a vision of early American slavery.
I found 60-year-old Cynthia Lawrence taking a break, sitting in a box seat that would have cost her $35 during a game. The Trinidad native, who had no bank account or address, told me she was saving her money and hoped to get off the streets soon. “Not much longer,” she said.
On this night, she worked 7.25 hours, grossing $37.34. After taxes were taken out, she got a check for $30.81. The temporary job agency charged her $1 to cash her check.
This story came to me from a tip by my colleague Dale Omori, a Plain Dealer photographer. In the days of film cameras, Dale and photographers covering Indians games had to leave about the seventh inning to get back to the photo lab and process the film.
Dale, on his way out of the stadium, noticed people, many of them looking impoverished, gathering around the closed media gate.
He assumed, rightly, that they were cleanup crews waiting for the game to end. He told me, “Maybe we can find a homeless person” in the group who we could follow for a possible story.
So, on an August night, we gathered with the tattered crew and discovered they were all homeless. We waited with them as the fans filed out of the other stadium gates. And when the media gate opened, we shuffled in with them.
Dale had two cameras strapped around his neck along with media credentials, so when a security guard walked by us, he assumed we were doing some postgame coverage.
But then the main stadium lights went down. To avoid any possible inquiries, we hid behind a concession stand until the coast was clear.
Eventually, we mingled with the cleanup crew and, fortunately, the big boss, Mike Justice, had no idea we snuck in. We told him we were from The Plain Dealer and he figured we were interested in how the massive stadium is cleaned, so he gave us all the details, including how the workers are divided into color-coded teams, each wearing a numbered sticker the color of his or her team.
The Red Team works the lower box seats from foul pole to foul pole. Blue works the upper deck; Green the bleachers.
Mike Justice told us that sometimes workers are given free hot dogs if there are any left over from the concessions. “They’re leftovers. They’re going to be thrown out anyhow,” he said.
Dale and I stayed all night with the workers who were being paid by Minute Men, a temporary work service. With the job done and the sun rising, we followed the workers as they shuffled up Carnegie Avenue about a mile to the Minute Men office where they would get their pay for an all-night shift of back-breaking work – about $27 clear.
Dale had shot 17 rolls of film that night. We never told the editors we snuck in.
Our story, featuring six pictures, hit the front page, but not before a debate among editors about the newsworthiness of it.
My immediate editor, John Funk, saw the story as a “Holy shit!” Poor blacks barely out of slavery conditions picking up peanut shells and trash at a major league ballpark attended mostly by white fans.
Others were not so moved. “At least they’re getting some money,” was the argument by those trying to kill the story or keep it off Page 1.
The debate was not unusual. Over three decades of newspaper reporting, I often focused on urban poverty and social justice issues and those stories often drew debates among editors.
In 2000, I received an award for social justice reporting from Greater Cleveland Community Shares, a nonprofit agency helping needy people.
The recognition prompted the executive editor, Doug Clifton, to give me a kudo in writing, but I believe he did it out of a professional sense of duty, not for my work, for he eventually pulled me off urban coverage and put me on a beat in the suburbs.
Exposing local institutional poverty, exploitation and social injustices can make some newspaper editors – and some readers — uneasy.
A story I wrote in 1996 about poor and disabled people in Cleveland doing piece work out of their homes, snapping metal screws and plastic washers together for way less-than minimum wage, was met with the same editorial criticism as the Jacobs Field story:
“What’s the story? At least they’re getting some money.”
Well, here’s the story:
A local company, RP Coatings Corp., dropped off boxes of screws and washers weekly at dozens of households on the city’s lower West Side. The assembled pieces were used by automobile manufacturers throughout the world.
The piece workers earned $1.50 per 1,000 screws they assembled with washers, earning less than $1 an hour.
The story, published on Page 1, triggered the federal Department of Labor to investigate, resulting in the company being charged with violating minimum wage and child labor laws. The screw workers were reimbursed with back pay and the story received an Excellence in Journalism Award for Public Service from the Society of Professional Journalists. That’s the story.
Back in the 1990s, The Plain Dealer hired a consultant to study its news operation for possible improvements. Overdramatically, the consultant said she had never seen a paper like this. “You are a reporter-driven newspaper,” she said, noting that we were the last of a breed of dinosaurs. “You need to be editor-driven.”
Soon, editors on all levels were jotting “ideas” on legal pads, assigning “stories” and hunting for “sources.”
How the hell, I thought, would an editor find the stories I write? Reporters find stories and write them. Editors edit.
How would an editor find a story I once wrote about a neighborhood saloon that was closing after a half-century?
I happened to be driving along West 105th Street when I spotted a very clean picture window lettered “Glunz Café.” Just the outside neatness of the place, nestled in a declining neighborhood, told me there was a story in there.
Here’s my lead and what I saw when I entered: “At the corner of the bar near the big picture window, Sparky the electrician lights a long, black cigar as ‘Father Rick,’ raising a beer goblet shaped like a chalice, offers a toast to a chorus of laughter.
“It’s a typical Friday night at Glunz Café on Cleveland’s West Side. Fred and Irene Glunz are working the taps and coolers; the bar top is cluttered with bottles, ashtrays and elbows; and laughter as thick as incense hangs like the smoke from Sparky’s cigar.
“But there’s also a sadness here that touches the hearts of Glunz regulars.”
I learned that night that Fred and Irene Glunz, husband and wife, were selling the place they opened 46 years earlier and retiring.
Now I’ve got a story, no thanks to an editor.
Editors need to edit. Reporters need to dig.
How would the story of Watergate have happened without the digging of two hungry reporters?
During my days at The Plain Dealer, I had the good fortune of working with one of the best investigative reporters in the business, Dave Davis, who now teaches journalism at Youngstown State University. Dave and I, through sources, digging and old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism, nailed down award winning stories of inner-city residents being exploited by ruthless contractors and slum landlords.
We exposed a shady scheme by a company that sold and installed home alarm systems, duping hundreds of inner-city homebuyers into buying systems they couldn’t afford.
The homes, some new, some rehabbed, were part of an affordable home program that gave lower-income families a piece of the American Dream.
The ruthless alarm company approached contractors when the homes were under construction, saying it would install the systems’ wires while the walls were open at no cost to the contractors.
Once families moved in, the company said, they could decide whether they wanted the alarm systems activated at a monthly cost.
But we discovered that a family that refused the system was told by the alarm company that it wanted its system back and to get it back it would have to break holes in the walls and rip out the wires. Most families signed a contract with the alarm company to avoid tearing their new homes apart. And most of them soon discovered they couldn’t afford the systems and they ended up in Small Claims Court. A number of families were slapped with liens on their homes.
Following our series of stories, a Cleveland court ruled that the alarm company’s business practices were “unconscionable” and “illegal.”
And the scam was halted.
Dave and I also exposed the crooked workings of a giant slumlord, Associated Estates, which owned three inner-city apartment complexes subsidized by tax payers through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The company had been sucking subsidy payments from HUD for years but failed to put any money back into the places, resulting in deplorable living conditions, including infestations of roaches, high levels of lead (which were poisoning children), no smoke detectors, no window screens and leaking pipes. Associated Estates even collected subsidies on empty apartments, telling HUD that they were occupied.
The three properties – Longwood Estates, Rainbow Terrace and Park Village – were all on Cleveland’s East Side, housing thousands of low-income African-Americans.
In 1996, the city cited Rainbow Terrace and Longwood for more than 8,500 sanitary and safety code violations. And, eventually, living conditions at the properties got so bad that HUD declared Associated Estates in default of its contract with the government.
Dave and I kept these stories on the front page for months and in our reporting we discovered that HUD in Washington, D.C., was working on a secret deal to oust Associated Estates from its ownership of the properties.
The deal, which we discovered through a leak in the Cleveland HUD office, was that HUD was paying Associated Estates $1.7 million of taxpayers’ money to walk away from the properties.
Dave and I kept digging, exposing a large criminal scheme operating at the peril of poor people, while fleecing taxpayers. HUD was embarrassed. Associated Estates threatened to sue us.
William C. Apgar, an assistant director at HUD in Washington, D.C., called The Plain Dealer editorial page editor Brent Larkin, asking for a conference-call.
Dave and I and Brent took our seats in Brent’s office where we hooked up with Apgar through a plastic voice box on a small table.
Apgar cackled away at how our stories were unfair to his agency and to the bad landlord that was getting paid in taxpayers’ dollars to walk away.
“You guys are writing all this stuff,” Apgar groaned. “But those places are not that bad.”
That’s when Dave Davis stood up, walked over to the little plastic box and spoke. “Mr. Apgar, this is Dave Davis. Have you ever seen these places? Have you been to Longwood or Rainbow Terrace or Park Village?”
Apgar responded “No, but. . .
Then Dave let loose. “Hold it! Mr. Apgar, are you saying these places aren’t that bad when you have never seen them? I suggest, Mr. Apgar, that you get your fucking ass to Cleveland and I’ll show you these places, Mr. Apgar.
“How the fuck can you say these places are not that bad when you’re sitting in fucking Washington?”
Brent and I looked at each other nervously as Dave went nuclear in the room.
I can’t remember how our meeting returned to a more normal decorum, if it did at all.
But I can still see Dave’s blood-pressured face, his jabbing finger and the fire in his eyes.
A ferocious blast at a blow-hard bureaucrat.