I started working at The Plain Dealer in August 2000 as a Metro reporter.
I was a journalist who had worked at a string of smaller dailies and weeklies in the Greater Cleveland area for about 15 years. I was always envious of The Plain Dealer reporters I met on the job and so longed to work with them. I had unsuccessfully sought a college internship and several jobs at the PD. Finally, in 2000 I got the paper’s attention.
The Plain Dealer was an odd and endearing place from the moment I first walked in the door for my interview.
Everyone who worked in editorial has a hiring story. They are told humorously in retrospect, with elements of exasperation, miscommunication, desperation or bewilderment.
Like many job candidates, I had to do a “tryout,” a rite of passage in the hiring process in which the editors would give you an assignment and then judge your work.
My assignment: Find and write a story – any story – that had to do with the suburb of Brooklyn. It was a sleepy suburb that no one at the PD had written about in months, from the looks of the clips. I was desperate. I called the mayor’s office and tried to enlist the help of the secretary by explaining my situation. She HAD to help me come up with a decent story or I wouldn’t get the job.
The only thing she could offer was that it was the first day of a hockey skills class taught at the city ice rink by a semi-pro hockey player who grew up in the community. It didn’t sound like much, and I didn’t have a clue about hockey. But I had a moment of sudden inspiration. I would call a PD reporter whom I’d worked with at another paper. He was a rabid hockey fan. I would pick his brain and come up with another story.
I thought my friend would be happy to help me get on board at the PD. But when I reached him, he heaved a big sigh. He was really busy with a story, sweating it out on deadline and clearly did not want to talk.
I pressed him anyways because I knew the guy, and I was determined to get a job offer. After many more sighs, he did reluctantly talk to me, and even warmed up to the subject. Because of his insight, I was able to broaden the story to include the struggles of older communities to keep expensive ice rinks and hockey programs running. It was a better story than a quick feature on a semi-pro hockey player. But it felt like pulling teeth to get it. Welcome to the Plain Dealer, I thought.
Last batch of hires
I came to the Plain Dealer during what would be its last big hiring spree. I didn’t realize it then, but I know now that I was hired at the beginning of the end of the fat days for the Plain Dealer – what would become a long slide of decline and painful contraction that continues to this day.
Although a hiring freeze was announced a few weeks after I came on board, no one thought it would last. In that era, it seemed like the paper was constantly hiring people, sometimes groups of them at a time.
The paper had expanded greatly in the 1990s, opening three well-staffed bureaus in neighboring counties and beefing up the copydesk, layout desk and metro desk downtown to handle the influx of copy and the multiple zoned editions the paper was putting out every night.
When I came on board, Editor Doug Clifton had been gradually expanding the staff in the year and a half since he had arrived, much of it on the suburban desk.
The goal was to increase readership in the outlying areas by doing stories that were intensely local. That meant assigning reporters to cover more than 75 cities and townships. Be at every council meeting. Write about every city hall, school district, police force and fire department.
The plan was to zone page B3 four ways in the Cuyahoga County edition of the Metro section. B3 would be like a second front page, filled with suburban news originating from groups of northwest, southwest, northeast and southeast communities that ring Cleveland.
The goal was to have four to five local stories in each zone every day, which took a significant amount of news staff to accomplish. I was among a group of five reporters hired during that period and was assigned to Metro, covering a group of southwestern suburbs.
Although the paper hired editorial employees after the year 2000, never again would the staff see large numbers of reporters and editors hired at the same time. And when people left, positions began to go unfilled.
The non-management editorial staff, which peaked at around 350 when I was hired, had shrunk greatly through buyouts in 2006, and then layoffs and buyouts in 2008. Vacant positions went unfilled. By 2012, the non-management editorial staff numbered around 170. Almost another 70 positions would be gone through buyouts and layoffs in 2013.
The New Building
When I joined the PD, though, it appeared the paper was continuing on a wave of expansion and prosperity it had been riding since I moved to the Cleveland area in the mid-1980s.
There was the massive staff hirings, of course. But perhaps the most visible expression of what appeared in 2000 to be a bright, prosperous future was what we called The New Building.
In 1994, the company built a $200 million state-of-the-art printing and distribution plant on Tiedeman Road in the suburb of Brooklyn. When I joined the paper in mid-2000, the company was preparing to move in a few months into another new building, this one constructed downtown, which eventually would rise four stories in parts and span three city blocks. The building was to provide a modern, spacious home for about 1,000 employees who worked in the paper’s news and the business divisions.
Since 1960, Plain Dealer employees were crammed into a multistory building at 1801 Superior Ave. The newsroom was dark, cramped, windowless and airless and had a jerry-built feel to it.
For example, the metro desk, where the editors sat, was a string of desks arranged in a circle atop a raised floor that concealed the cables and wiring necessary for computers. The metro reporters’ small desks were arranged nearby in narrow columns of two desks each, and pairs of reporters seated closely together shared a computer.
If you had a desk mate who liked to read on the internet like I did, you had to find a vacant computer somewhere else to write your story. I usually sat up on the metro desk rim nearby so I could hear my desk phone ring. Working on deadline one afternoon, I was puzzled why I wasn’t getting any calls back. I checked my desk phone to make sure the receiver hadn’t been knocked off the hook.
“What the hell? My ringer is off.”
“I shut it off,” asserted the old-timer reporter who sat in front of me. “It was too loud.”
When I joined The Plain Dealer, its editorial reach was extensive: Anything north of Columbus was considered fair game for coverage. Stringers were an important part of making this happen, and the paper had a wide network of them.
Stringers were freelancers who were the eyes and ears of the paper, paid to attend government meetings and check police and fire logs. They could earn more money if a tip turned into a story and even more depending on where the story ran – like on the Metro cover, for example. Stringers also worked on Election Day, calling in updated results from outlying boards of elections and providing quotes for stories that reporters would put together at the office.
Most of the stringers did this work as a side job. One of the more industrious stringers was able to do enough work to make it a full-time job. Either way, when I joined the paper, the Plain Dealer was relying heavily on its vast stringer network to keep its ear to the ground throughout Northeast Ohio.
A few weeks after I started, the suburban reporters were called into a meeting in a small conference room by the assistant managing editor for metro. He told us that the paper was no longer going to pay stringers.
The reaction among the reporters was surprise, disapproval and a bit of disbelief. Most of the reporters were assigned to cover a number of communities and several wondered aloud how they would cover them properly without stringers. Some worried about taking earnings away from people they had worked with for years. And why was the paper making these cuts when we were getting ready to move into a state-of-the-art multimillion-dollar building?
The AME couldn’t answer that but suggested we keep in touch with our communities through follow-up phone calls. Still, the reporters worried about missing out on news that might not be in a local official’s interest to reveal.
Elimination of the stringer network was a money decision that eventually affected the paper’s editorial reach, influence and quality.
Other money-saving cutbacks would come later, some of them quite devastating. But this, I believe now, was my first glimpse of what the future would bring.
Leaving the paper
When I started working at the Plain Dealer, I truly thought I would retire from the paper. It had been such a long-held goal of mine to work there. And I loved it so.
There was the absorbing, challenging, endlessly fascinating and often frustrating work of newsgathering. I liked the huge responsibility of reporting the news accurately and fairly, and I enjoyed the visibility that working at a large metro daily brought.
Then there was the delightfully varied mix of people working in the newsroom. Some were friendly and funny, some were kind and warm, some were whip-smart and others were petty, arrogant or competitive. Almost all were well-read and had an enduring interest and awareness of what was going on in the world. Many were great storytellers or people who loved to laugh. It was a culture that valued that question Why? even in the workplace.
I left the paper at the end of 2010. With the advent of the internet in the 1990s, then the rise of social media in the early 2000s, I had become convinced the paper would not be there in another 10 years.
The Plain Dealer’s parent company had already started an online affiliate, called cleveland.com, with a separate, growing staff. I felt a shift was coming.
I left to work for a local news company owned by AOL, and, three years later, was laid off. That was it for me and the news business. With the industry clearly in contraction, I felt lucky to get an offer to join the marketing division of a Cleveland-based health care system as a writer and editor.
I was at a large gathering of former Plain Dealer staffers recently. At these get-togethers, we tend to do what other people do who have been through an intense shared experience. We tell stories.
I was standing next to a woman who had been a Plain Dealer reporter and had left the paper long before I arrived. She turned to me after one of a long string of tales from the old days and said, “I think we all tend to romanticize the paper.”
And I said, “No, it really was that way. And I miss it terribly.”