Twenty-Five Stories

17 The magic of a city and newsroom full of characters

Scott Stephens

The seeds of this profession are sowed in the bleak backwoods of Nova Scotia: wood pulp turned into a pale treasure called newsprint that is cheaper than glossy-grade paper, yet strong enough to run through high-speed presses and versatile enough to accept four-color printing. By the midpoint of the 19th century, they’re loading giant rolls of the stuff onto freighters and sending it south to eastern seaports. From there it is unloaded and placed on huge flatbeds, which then roll west through the republic to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit and beyond.

Soon, neatly folded piles of newsprint will land with a thud on front porches in Glenville, Lakewood, Cleveland Heights and Parma.

Just like magic.

Anyone who has worked in newspapers has their own story about that magic. For me, it begins on a warm June morning in Cleveland in 1981. The Plain Dealer newsroom on the corner of E. 18th Street and Superior Avenue is a windowless bunker of clutter and smells that include the pungent exhaust from idling newspaper delivery trucks, clouds of cigarette smoke and the odor, as my colleague John Funk would later describe it, of last week’s farts. I have been hired as a summer intern only after a presumably more able candidate reneged and headed off to a more prestigious gig at The Washington Post.

Although I had worked at newspapers since I was 16 and interned at the genteel downstate Cincinnati Enquirer the previous summer, I am not completely prepared for what I am walking into. There’s Rosie Kovacs, the taciturn day city editor, shouting into a phone while madly scribbling notes on a legal pad. Darrell Holland, an ordained minister and the paper’s religion editor, snatches up one of the three smoldering cigarettes from an ashtray and argues loudly with a caller about a Bible reference. Coffee in hand, reporter William F. Miller holds court in the back of the room, his baritone cutting through the quiet morning like a foghorn. A copyboy places a handful of typed copy into a pneumatic tube and sends it down to composing like a shot out of gun. Bob McGruder, the weight of being managing editor of the state’s largest newspaper on his shoulders, greets the new day with a scowl and disappears into his office.

I am guided to the desk of Leslie Kay, one the paper’s best reporters, who is out on maternity leave at the time. This is where I will reside. Directly behind me, the desk of investigative ace Walt Bogdanich is covered in a two-foot pile of papers. I soon discover that Walt, who would go on to fame and Pulitzers at The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and “60 Minutes,” didn’t really need a desk since he was rarely in the newsroom. To my right sits Judy Pennebaker, the paper’s fashion editor. “You’re going to enjoy it here,” she says in a sweet southern drawl.

And she was right.

I had always wanted to work on a big-city daily. As a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, I’d swing by the local Thrift Drug Store on my way home from school and sneak looks at the New York Daily News. Back then, the News was the best-written newspaper in the country, with Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill lurking like a couple of sluggers in the middle of the lineup. The allure of the news business — being where the action was, writing about it, and then talking about it over big drinks in some saloon at the end of the day — was irresistible. I would grow older, of course, and soon realize that my vision of the business — and of The Plain Dealer — were naïve and over-romanticized. But for a 22-year-old, walking into a real newsroom was like entering the gates to a magic kingdom. And — get this — they paid me for it!

So I spend the morning of that first day soaking in the sights and sounds and the people. But even 22-year-olds with stars in their eyes get hungry, and by noon I am on my way to lunch. The Headliner is a nondescript-looking tavern on the corner of E. 17th Street and Superior Avenue, a 30-second walk from the newsroom. Two reporters I have heard of, Bob Daniels and Jim Parker, are seated at a table next to the oval-shaped bar and wave me over.

Parker stares at his soup.

“What the hell is this?” he growls to Lillian Ameen Pigg, wife of one of the Headliner’s co-owners and sister to the other.

“Pea,” she says. “The soup is pea. It’s the special.”

“It’s special alright,” Parker says glumly.

I volunteer that this is my first time in the Headliner.

“Jesus Christ, your first time—that’s unbelievable,” Daniels exclaims. “When did you start?

“This morning,” I say.

Daniels throws his head back and laughs heartily. More than 35 years later we are still friends.

For better or worse, the Headliner was an integral part of working at The Plain Dealer — even if you didn’t patronize the place. A list of the most important telephone numbers on the city desk — the air traffic control tower at the airport, the National Weather Service, the after-hours number for the FBI — included the bar’s main line. Copy was refined and repaired over the pay phone near the jukebox. Editors and reporters mixed easily with pressmen wearing newsprint hats and television personalities encased in three-piece suits. The framed coats-of-arms of regulars covered the west wall, glowering over the festivities. On most any early evening, McGruder could be found there poring over proofs of the next day’s paper while Parker jammed a couple of quarters into the jukebox to hear Merle Haggard one more time before heading home.

The Headliner was Cleveland’s version of a dying breed of establishments that were known collectively as newspaper bars: The Pen & Pencil in Philadelphia, the Billy Goat in Chicago and the storied Lion’s Head in Greenwich Village, where the Clancy Brothers sang at a back table, Bobby Kennedy argued with Norman Mailer and a future actress named Jessica Lange was known, back in the day, as the second-prettiest waitress on duty. Like the Lion’s Head, the Headliner could be called, with some degree of accuracy, a bar for drinkers with writing problems. Decades later, I have mixed emotions about the place. In its warm confines, friendships blossomed and conversation flowed as easily as the 65-cent Stroh’s drafts. There were, as they say, a million laughs. It could also be a place in which marriages died, health declined and careers were derailed. “If you’re a man and you drink a lot, I can see the appeal,” my friend and fellow intern, Elaine Rivera, confided late one night. “If you’re not …”

The significance of the Headliner extended beyond a social spot for the newsroom. The bar had evolved into the de facto office of the Newspaper Guild, the union representing newsroom writers, photographers, copy editors and support staff. J. Stephen Hatch, a former Plain Dealer reporter, was the union’s executive secretary. Although many of us are hard-pressed to remember Steve being intoxicated, he was a fixture on a stool in the Headliner, and many a Guild strategy was hashed out as the clock crept toward closing time. Some in the newsroom complained, with some validity, that’s Steve’s fondness for the tavern unintentionally cut some members out of the union’s decision-making process — especially women. But as a young guy new to collective bargaining, I spent hours with Steve drinking beer and talking about unionism. His gruff exterior belied a keen intelligence and passion that would have a large impact on my life a decade later.

Cleveland was a lot larger back in those days, and living and working downtown put me in the center of the action. While glitzy new stadiums and fashionable restaurants were a futuristic fantasy, we made do and had fun. On Sunday mornings, you might spot Bogdanich and reporter Stephanie Saul whacking a tennis ball back and forth on the pavement of E. 14th Street, in front of the Reserve Square apartments where they lived. The Indians and Major League baseball were on strike that summer, but the music scene in the Flats provided ample entertainment. And while nobody was winning any James Beard culinary awards back then, nobody was going hungry, either. We had fun grabbing drinks and grub at Captain Frank’s, a creaky seafood house perched on the Ninth Street Pier, Chung Wah’s, a Chinese dive at E. 39th Street that stayed opened until 4 in the morning, or the Mardi Gras, a late-night joint near the paper that had live music, cold beer and customers of dubious repute. When the Headliner was closed on a Saturday night there was the 2300 Club, a no-nonsense gin mill at E. 23rd Street and Payne Avenue. One late night, a buddy of mine asked Nunzio, the aging proprietor, whether he worried about getting robbed. “Not at all,” he said, pulling out a sawed-off shotgun from under the bar and putting the question to rest.

Nunzio’s security system was probably a good idea: there were more than 300 homicides in Cleveland in 1981, a product of the toxic gumbo of drugs, guns and economic downturn. The nine blocks I walked every night from the paper to my apartment on E. 9thStreet was an adventure I do not wish on anyone. Once, I was at a housing project with then-Mayor George Voinovich for some sort of ribbon-cutting news conference. Despite our police escort, anger begin to boil over, and the crowd was becoming increasingly loud and hostile. “Get in,” a worried-looking Voinovich said sharply as he pushed me into the backseat of his car and sped away.

Appropriately, I spent a good deal of my summer at the police beat, a cramped room on the first floor of police headquarters in the bowels of the Justice Center. Here I had access to a steady stream of scanner noise, cigarettes, bad coffee and the police beat car — a junker sedan with a two-way radio, squeaky brakes and air conditioning that was on life support. There were two main reporters on the beat. John Coyne, a guy who had been doing this since the police pulled the plug on the Beatles’ Public Auditorium appearance in 1964, was a just-the-facts, Joe Friday kind of character. The other guy was Ed Kissel, a quirky and mysterious loner who was good on skates and has a piece of hockey equipment he gifted to a future pro player in Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame.

Both were incredibly well-sourced. While competitive to the point of not speaking to one another, both men were generous and kind to me with their tips, guidance and support.

On my first day on the beat John sent a tip my way about a hit-skip fatal that was botched by prosecutors, allowing the driver to walk. The victims were understandably outraged, and the authorities were embarrassed. After a half-dozen phone calls, I called in my notes to the rewrite desk. I was fortunate that William C. Miller, a young reporter with a nice writing flair and movie-star looks, happened to be working. To my amazement, Bill crafted my disjointed mess of reporting into a page-one story — my first in The Plain DealerTo this day, it’s one of the best stories “I” have ever written.

Competition from the afternoon Cleveland Press, as well as the city’s television stations, cast a long shadow over work at the beat. The sight of another reporter asking for an accident report was cause for panic. Missing a story that the competition broke resulted in a lump in your stomach and an uncomfortable phone call from the city desk. Consequently, snippets on the scanner about a shooting in West Park or a collision in Hough caused you to jump into the police beat car and pray that it got you to where you were going. When I began the summer, there was no Sunday edition of The Press, meaning that we at The Plain Dealer got a bit of a break Saturday night. That changed on Aug. 2. Struggling to stay afloat, new Press owner Joseph Cole launched a splashy color Sunday edition, spoiling our quiet Saturday nights and cutting into valuable socializing time at the 2300 Club.

But The Press’ last gasp didn’t last long. On June 17, 1982 — almost exactly one year after my internship began — the paper closed. I’m sure it made life a little more relaxing for other reporters in town, but relaxation never produced good journalism. The demise of The Press softened the edge of competitive journalism in Cleveland. It causes other effects as well, none of them good. For a couple of decades, The Press and The Plain Dealer had been battling for circulation. Although the Press was named one of the nation’s top 10 newspapers in 1964, The Plain Dealer surpassed it in circulation in 1968 — a product, in part, of the impact television was having on afternoon dailies. During the circulation wars, the two papers vied for talent, driving up salaries and benefits. The Plain Dealer even instituted a bonus “night differential” pay to help it attract or steal reporters, photographers and other talent. And, with The Press’ demise, there was one less authoritative news source for radio and television, diminishing the scope of news they reported.

My internship at The Plain Dealer prepared me well for a career in the journalism that would last nearly 30 more years. After stints at other newspapers in Ohio and Florida, The Plain Dealer hired me as a full-time reporter in 1990. At 32-years-old, I had a more jaundiced view of the business of journalism. The seeds planted during those long nights at the Headliner took root and I became more and more involved in the Newspaper Guild, the largest media union in North America. The turning point came in 1996, when my friend and colleague, Jack Hagan, then the Guild’s chair of The Plain Dealer bargaining unit, asked me to serve on the union bargaining team. The 10-year contract we negotiated — unheard of at the time — proved prescient.

At the time the pact was signed, The Plain Dealer was highly profitable, hired top-flight talent and built both a new, palatial newsroom downtown and a sprawling printing plant in the suburb of Brooklyn. The publisher threw parties for the staff at the Cleveland Zoo, passing out unlimited Dove bars to the kids and wine and hors d’oeuvres to their parents. In the 1990s, The Plain Dealer was one of a few newspapers that brought a “help wanted” sign to professional conferences. Interest in jobs at the paper was so intense that during a gathering of the Investigative Reporters & Editors Inc. in Chicago, the editor in charge of hiring switched her room to an anonymous hotel a half mile away to avoid being buried in resumes. John Griffith, an affable city editor at the time, held court in the lobby bar, buying drinks for any reporter who stopped by and running up a tab that exceeded the budgets of some small weeklies.

But the digital age was closing in. Craigslist was killing classified advertising, and media consolidation was putting profits over people and product. Newspapers were caught flat-footed, unable or unwilling to respond to a rapidly changing world. Soon, the salad days of the 1990s were becoming a fading memory.

My work with the Guild increased. I was elected to the union’s International Executive Council, a position I held for six years. I worked on organizing and contract campaigns at other locals. At The Plain Dealer, I succeeded Jack as unit chair, a position I held for 10 years.

When I think about this period, I am reminded of the tides at the Bay of Fundy. At low tide, you can walk for miles on the ocean floor and you think you can walk forever. But once you are a mile or two out and the water starts engulfing your ankles, you realize that you’ll never get back alive. The kicker is that you never really saw it happening.

Two events define the era for me. Just before Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton retired in 2007, we went out to lunch together. We had a long conversation but one thing Doug said really stayed with me.

“I don’t want to end my career dismantling a newsroom,” he told me.

A little more than a year later, I would discover that Doug knew what he was talking about. For the first time in its history, the newspaper laid-off people. A total of 27 writers, photographers, copy editors and support staff were given pink slips. Harlan Spector and Karen Long, two dear friends and Guild stalwarts, came into the office to be there for the 27 on the Saturday they were told to clean out their desks. It was the saddest day of my professional career.

These days, the profession I entered in the early 1980s is barely recognizable., the digital sister of the print Plain Dealer, touts nonsense like where to find the “best taco nights” or the smartest place to shop for “gluten-free hot dog buns.” The Plain Dealer staff, which still does real reporting, has been decimated by attrition, buyouts, layoffs, and theft of talent by the non-union digital product. In a final indignity, they were exiled from their own newsroom and consigned to office space elsewhere. The Headliner, of course, is also gone, its coats-of-arms, jukebox and colorful characters replaced by a low-end sandwich chain.

I’m gone as well. Ten years ago, my wife, the photographer Christine Stephens, and I accepted buyouts. She had worked there for more than 25 years. One morning, looking down the business end of 60, I am returning from a workout at the Lakewood YMCA when I stop to pick up The Plain Dealer at a nearby convenience store. It is about 9 a.m. and the rack was empty.

“Any newspapers?” I ask the young woman behind the counter.

“Never came,” she says. “I’m on the phone with them now.”

It is at least the third time in the last six weeks this has happened. The paper of record is missing in action.

So what about that magic, anyway. Is it gone?

It is tempting to say that it is.

And then there is this:

On a warm spring night a year ago, I walk into Nighttown in Cleveland Heights. The Society of Professional Journalists has gathered to give a young woman named Rachel Dissell a Distinguished Service Award for her amazing reporting on rape testing kits and other groundbreaking work. Rachel interned at The Plain Dealer when I was an established reporter there, and we became colleagues and friends. I would be inflating my own importance to say she was a protégé — Rachel didn’t need me or anyone else to succeed — but I like to think I had some positive influence on her career. This same night, SPJ is giving its annual Philip W. Porter Scholarship to Nora Spadoni, editor of the high school newspaper in the school district in which I now work. It’s the same scholarship Rachel received when was a high school senior. Together, these two women represent an inspiring and hopeful future for journalism, and seeing them together makes me feel good. But before the formal program begins, I have an odd sense that it’s time for me to go, so I get up to slip out the back door.

I slip out the back door. Rachel didn’t slip out. Rachel held her ground.

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