I felt like crying when I first sat down to write this, only three days after it was announced that the Akron Beacon Journal had been sold to Gatehouse Media, another vulture capitalist group picking over the remains of the industry I love.
But perhaps the good intentions of the newspaper’s patriarch, John S. Knight, had indirectly created the monster that was devouring the Beacon.
Akron was the first of Knight’s newspapers. He inherited it from his father, and then he and his brother James transformed his family’s hometown publication into a journalistic empire. JSK wasn’t the first to create a newspaper chain – Scripps, Hearst, the Pulitzers all preceded him – but nobody did it better, as he proved that you could produce both profits and Pulitzer Prizes. Knight-Ridder newspapers had won 85 of journalism’s most coveted awards by the time the chain was sold for $4.5 billion in 2006, when the value of daily newspapers already had begun their steep decline.
Knight had been dead for 25 years by then, but his legacy still oozed from the walls at 44 E. Exchange St., in downtown Akron.
“Passing by the John S. Knight Room every day where his typewriter sat in that glass case was powerful for me,” said Regina Brett, a two-time Pulitzer finalist and New York Times best-selling author. “We were a Knight paper, and writing was all that mattered. To see that instrument that he hammered out editorials on made me appreciate the great foundation he laid for us all.”
Now, that foundation has crumbled. The new owners have gobbled up around 150 daily news organizations and hundreds more weeklies, consolidating where they can, selling property and parts and pieces to the highest bidder. They are owned by a hedge fund. They have one mission: making money. Their first order of business in Akron was to fire the remaining staff – a newsroom that once numbered 190 had fewer than 50 members at the time of the sale – effectively disbanding the union. Quality be damned. They did end up rehiring all of the reporters, a group of talented veterans, but there were plans to consolidate page design, copy editing and digital functions elsewhere. Two photographers were lost. We’ll see what happens.
But journalists aren’t allowed to shed tears. We must stand back without emotion as we report on the misery of others. And I’ve had the opportunity to view the Beacon from many perspectives – as executive sports editor, religion writer, columnist, assistant managing editor for features, assistant managing editor for the region, deputy managing editor for news, deputy managing editor for operations, associate managing editor, acting managing editor, spurned lover, competitor and, finally, as an aging, nostalgic journalist.
So, from the latter point of view, I will look back at the good times, the best of the best for me, the 1990s, when the Akron Beacon Journal was doing things that no paper its size had any business doing. We won the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for Meritorious Public Service in 1994 for “A Question of Color,” our groundbreaking series on race relations in Akron. We produced a 52-week series on the history of rubber in Rubber City then turned it into a 100,000-word book, “Wheels of Fortune.” We cultivated a remarkable crop of authors. And we made lots and lots of money.
There was a sense in Akron then that there were no limits to what you could accomplish through journalism, acclaimed author Thrity Umrigar told me during a 2011 interview.
“You felt you could take chances, try anything,” added Umrigar, who reported and wrote columns in Akron for 15 years.
Longtime friends Umrigar and Brett, who both came to the Beacon from the Lorain Morning Journal in 1987, were among a group of writers who worked at the paper during the ’90s that is probably unmatched at any newspaper in the country outside of New York, Washington and LA.
Journalists who worked at the Akron Beacon Journal during that decade have produced somewhere close to 150 books – I keep losing count because it seems every time an angel gets its wings, either Terry Pluto or Mark Dawidziak have published another.
Those two word machines have written more than 50 books between them. Pluto’s “Loose Balls” about the defunct American Basketball Association is considered a classic among sports readers. Dawidziak is equally prolific writing about Mark Twain or TV detectives like Colombo or Kolchak.
Among the other celebrated authors who came out of Akron in that decade are New York’s literary bad boy Chuck Klosterman (“Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, But What If We Were Wrong”); the Bard of Boston sports Michael Holley (“Belichick and Brady, War Room”); Michael Weinreb (“Bigger Than the Game, Game of Kings”).
Umrigar (“The Space Between Us,” “Story Hour”), Brett (“God Never Blinks,” “Be the Miracle”) and David Giffels (“All the Way Home,” “The Hard Way on Purpose”) all earned an international reputation without leaving Northeast Ohio.
Two writers from the Beacon’s powerhouse sports department in the 1990s, Brian Windhorst and Chris Broussard, have turned their writing skills into national TV gigs at ESPN and Fox Sports.
Current columnist Bob Dyer and former columnist Steve Love both wrote successful books with sports legends Omar Vizquel and Gerry Faust, respectively. Former copy desk chief Kathy Fraze has published nine mystery novels featuring detective Jo Ferris. Longtime reporter Bill O’Connor just finished his fourth novel. Investigative reporter Roger Snell, who won a Silver Gavel for his reporting on the Ohio Supreme Court, has written two non-fiction books, including a biography of Chicago Cubs pitcher Charlie Root. James Beard Award-winning food critic Jane Snow wrote the definitive book on Akron cooking.
But none of them, perhaps, have received any more attention than a man who wasn’t even a writer at the paper. Artist John “Derf” Backderf’s graphic memoir “My Friend Dahmer” has been translated into dozens of languages and the movie version was an indie house hit.
It was almost as if good writing at the Beacon was infectious.
“I know that working around all those people inspired me and challenged me,” said Giffels, whose latest nonfiction book, “Furnishing Eternity,” was called “a page-turning drama” by The New York Times. “You looked up to those other writers … and had to rise up to their quality.”
The quality writing in Akron during the 1990s had its genesis in a corporate decision made in 1980.
The Akron Beacon Journal had long been a quality newspaper. Knight won a Pulitzer for his editorial writing in 1968 and the paper’s remarkable coverage of the Kent State killings in 1970 won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize.
But after the retirement of legendary Executive Editor Ben Maidenberg, “Mr. Akron,” in 1975, the paper’s stewardship suffered from rapid change at the top.
At the same time, Editor Gene Roberts was transforming the Philadelphia Inquirer from a bloated local rag to one of the most respected newspapers in the country. The company took notice and began dispatching some of Roberts’ young guns.
In 1979, hotshot war correspondent John Carroll was sent to the Lexington Herald-Leader, a mediocre paper where I was the sports editor. In 1980, Knight-Ridder vice president Jim Batten sent Inquirer Associate Managing Editor Dale Allen to Akron, telling him he wanted the city to have a newspaper that Knight could be proud of before he died.
During the 1980s, both Lexington and Akron won Pulitzer Prizes. Carroll, of course, went on to lead the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times. Allen settled in Akron for 17 years, where he developed one of the best mid-sized newsrooms in the nation.
But it took some work. I was hired as executive sports editor in Akron in October of 1979. I was only 27 but I saw a newsroom that seemed behind the times. Allen noticed the same thing when he arrived a few months later.
“I had already concluded the paper was deplorably out of date. It looked like a newspaper from the late ‘50s or early ‘60s, and it read the same way,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir that he shared with me. “The bulk of the news columns were filled with rather simplistic news stories, usually involving single sources for the material presented. The writing was pedestrian, too, sadly reciting facts with little effort to put them in a context that might make them meaningful to readers. The logical reaction to a daily edition was one big yawn, followed by a nap.”
Allen brought some of Roberts’ philosophies to Akron, which was an editor-dominated paper when he got there. “If all ideas are coming from the top, then you’re going to have a very limited newspaper,” Allen told me in a 2011 interview. “If they are welling up from the bottom, the breadth of your coverage is going to expand.”
He was also an avid reader and had an eye for writing talent. When he saw writers he appreciated, he found positions for them.
Brett was hired as a business writer, even though she had no business writing experience. Dyer and Sheryl Harris, who were key reporters on the Question of Color team, were both brought in as copy editors until Allen could find reporting jobs for them. Giffels was hired as a part-time society writer. He covered gardening for a while, too.
They, like others, were attracted by the paper’s reputation.
“I had received job offers from both the Plain Dealer and the Beacon on the same day and as a young reporter, didn’t quite know how to decide,” said Umrigar, a native of India who moved to the U.S. in 1983 to study at The Ohio State University and pursue her dream of becoming a writer. “My former editor (Rich Osborne of the Lorain Morning Journal) ordered me to accept the job at the Beacon because of its reputation as being a hothouse for cultivating writers. And that truly was the case.”
Giffels said that reputation is also what got Klosterman interested. Of course, he was working in Fargo, North Dakota, at the time, so even Akron’s weather was also an incentive.
They also enhanced their own writing climate in Northeast Ohio.
“When Chuck came, he and Mike Weinreb and I would go out drinking, talking the whole night about books, projects, ambitions,” Giffels said. “We fed off each other.”
Brett, Umrigar and some of the others often organized brown bag lunches for any reporters who wanted to attend. They would bring in speakers or discuss writing topics among themselves.
“Bill O’Connor used his pen like a paintbrush,” Brett said of her former reporting colleague. “He was my first mentor. I still have the fountain pen he gave me with his initials on. He always said, ‘Don’t set out to tell a great story. Just tell the story. Release it like Michelangelo released the figures from the marble.’
“Everyone raised the bar and set it so high, you wanted to be better,” she added “But it never felt competitive. There was a rare organic camaraderie. Everyone cheered for you when you hit one out of the ballpark.”
Not always, though.
“As someone who cared a great deal about writing about marginalized communities, I never quite felt a full-throated support extended to me by the powers-that-be about unearthing these stories,” Umrigar wrote in an email to me. “In fact, it was often the opposite – I felt marginalized myself for wanting to write about forgotten people, like I had to beg to do those stories and even when permission was granted, support could be pulled out at any time.”
Dale Allen believes that Knight-Ridder’s push for diversity helped him recruit a wide-range of writing and reporting talent.
“We … made good use of the Knight-Ridder minority hiring program, which was overseen by Al Fitzpatrick, the former deputy editor in Akron who had taken the job as assistant vice president for minority affairs at corporate headquarters,” Allen wrote in his memoir. “Working with Al, we secured three minority-hiring positions on our staff, which were paid for in the first year by Knight-Ridder. After the first year, we absorbed the staff members within our own budget.”
However, he was cautious about making the minority hires too obvious to everyone in the newsroom.
“I instituted a new policy of not making the distinction known to employees. In that way the new minority hires became part of the Beacon Journal family, irrespective of the hiring method used,” Allen wrote.
The Beacon became an island on the way to bigger things for many of the minorities Allen hired.
Bob Fernandez, Vernon Clark and Rich Henson all went on to work for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Lornet Turnbull moved to the Seattle Times, Leona Allen became a top editor at the Dallas Morning News and Glenn Gamboa is the voice of Music in New York at Newsday. Chris Broussard earned a measure of TV fame at ESPN and Fox Sports. Andale Gross is an editor for The Associated Press in Chicago.
Glenn Proctor became the first African-American editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the former capital of the Confederacy. He’s also written several books, his latest a self-help missive: “750 Questions: Worth Asking Yourself or Your Significant Other.”
Mizell Stewart rose to become managing editor in Akron and then a top executive in Scripps-Howard and Gannett. Holley and Cindy Rodriguez both became stars at the Boston Globe. Carl Chancellor became a fellow at the Center for American Progress and Cristal Williams Chancellor is the Director of Communications for the Women’s Media Center, a nonprofit founded by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem.
David Lee Morgan Jr. is the author of seven books, including “LeBron James: The Rise of a Star” and “More Than A Coach: Jim Tressel.” Andrea Louie, author of a novel, “Moon Cakes,” has been awarded artist residencies at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, Djerassi, Hedgebrook and the Fundacíon Valparáiso in Spain and is the executive director of Asian American Arts Alliance in New York City.
Thrity Umrigar, art directors Susan “Mango” Curtis and Terence Oliver all pursued careers as academics.
Later minority hires like Betty Lin-Fisher and Malcolm X Abrams remain stalwarts in the newsroom today.
And more than a dozen minority journalists – Curtis, Oliver, reporter/editor Yuvonne Bruce, reporters Chancellor, Holley, Leona Allen, Carol Cannon, Holley, Collette Jenkins, Kevin Johnson and Will Outlaw, and photographers Jocelyn Williams and Mike Cardew – were major contributors to perhaps the paper’s seminal moment, winning the 1994 Pulitzer Gold Medal for Meritorious Service.
They gave the project a diverse and distinct voice.
On a Saturday night in early May 1992, a young assistant city editor named David Hertz took a report about an incident near Canton. Apparently, a black man had attacked a white man who yelled, “That’s for Rodney King.”
Only two days before that incident a white jury in Los Angeles found four white city cops not guilty of beating King, even though the whole world had watched the video of King getting almost thrashed to death.
Hertz saw a story that touched the place where we lived.
“We’ve got to do something,” he told me the following Monday morning.
“What?” I responded.
“I don’t know. Something,” he said.
“Why don’t you call a meeting and ask people to talk about it?”
“Nobody will come”
“Sure they will.”
Twenty to 30 staff members showed up in the John S. Knight room to talk about race and the implications of the conflict we’d seen. Many told personal stories. Some wept.
We called another meeting a week or so later. And even more staff members showed up. And the conversations got even deeper.
“Race is tough to talk about. It’s real touchy,” reporter Carole Cannon said in an interview in 1994 and. “It got difficult because I’m black, and I felt the same way a lot of them did. It was one of the most difficult topics to deal with.”
And the topic was immense. How could we get our arms around it?
Managing Editor Jim Crutchfield, an African-American, was skeptical we could. He had seen so many attempts to approach the topic. None had been successful, he said.
Nevertheless, he suggested forming a committee of six staff members, and let them attack the topic out of view of the top editors and the rest of the newsroom.
So we put Hertz, Weekend News Editor Deb Van Tassel and Investigative Editor Bob Paynter, who are all white, together with editorial writer Laura Ofobike, reporter Yalinda Rhoden and columnist Carl Chancellor, who are all black, and let them have at it behind closed doors.
They debated for two weeks how to approach covering race relations in Akron. I had some insight into their discussions because Van Tassel is my wife. Let’s just say the talks often got heated, sometimes personal.
Yet they emerged with a plan as bold yet focused as anything I’d ever seen in journalism. A team of two reporters and a photographer would be assigned to each of five topics, which ultimately emerged as:
- Thirty years After the Dream: Where race relations stand in the 1990s.
- The Streets Where We Live: How does skin color affect where we live.
- School Daze: How race influences where our kids go to school.
- Jobs and Progress: Does skin color play a role in who gets them now, who’ll get them later.
- Crime and Punishment: How race impacts the commission, investigation and prosecution of crime.
Each team would spend up to three months on their topic, overlapping the previous team by a month. The series would be rolled out over a year in three-part segments, 15 days of 4,000 to 5,000-word stories in all. In addition we would poll extensively and use focus groups on each topic.
(We later added a 16th day of the series with an internal focus group that examined attitudes on race within our own newsroom. As with every focus group, we offered the participants the option to remain anonymous. The newsroom focus group was the only one in which no one would go on the record. It also shows that there was as large a divide in the newsroom about race as there was in the community at large.)
That was all very expensive but Publisher John Dotson, an African-American, wasn’t fazed by the cost. Just do it, he said. Or something like that.
But who would lead it? Hertz had sparked the initial conversation and brought us all to the table, but he was inexperienced … and had just been promoted to deputy business editor. We selected Paynter to lead the reporting effort. He was a whiz with databases, winning national awards for his groundbreaking work on campaign contributions. Could he put a face on those numbers? His work that freed an innocent man from prison convinced us he could.
Assistant Managing Editor Doug Oplinger was selected to direct the focus group operations, working with Chancellor and Dyer. Oplinger had been a key editor working with Managing Editor Larry Williams and Metro Editor John Greenman on the 1987 Pulitzer-winning coverage of the attempted takeover of Goodyear Tire and Rubber.
Van Tassel directed the production process, working with the photo department and designers and Bruce, who copy edited the entire project.
The teams were ready to go immediately. But other editors reminded us that we had made a commitment to cover the 1992 election, both national and local, like never before, devoting a full-page to politics five days a week.
So we decided to delay reporting until 1993 even though we knew through a spy in the Cleveland newsroom that the Plain Dealer was embarking on a similar project and had two to three times the resources that we did.
The PD published its eight-day series of long stories and lots of graphics and photos in late 1992. “Race: Attitudes Divide Us” took a second place in the state The Associated Press contest for community service.
We published our first story in the “A Question of Color” series on Feb. 28, 1993. The last story was published on Dec. 29.
It wasn’t easy. Our newsroom was strained. Twenty-nine reporters, editors, photographers, artists and page designers worked on the project. But so many others helped in ways that made the in-depth coverage of race possible.
And there were legitimate disagreements within the newsroom about our approach. We focused on Akron and Summit County, excluding Canton plus other more rural communities in our circulation area. We also limited the discussion of race relations to blacks and whites.
“One other thing that has always struck me is that as one of the only Asian reporters at the paper, I was not recruited to work on the Question of Color series,” Umrigar, a native of India, recalled recently. “In those days, race was so narrowly defined that it only included blacks or whites. I could’ve brought a whole different perspective to that debate. Even if we’d done just one story about other races that made up the Akron community, it would’ve broadened the conversation so much.”
We knew going in we had our limits and made our decisions based on them. But undoubtedly she is correct. We could have been more inclusive. And better. Besides the commitment of time and resources, though, one other decision made our series stand out. We didn’t stop with just reporting the problem. We facilitated an effort to do something about race relations.
That came out of an argument between the men and the women on the team before we published the first installment. After discussing the initial stories, the women, led by Van Tassel and Curtis, insisted that we weren’t doing enough, that we needed to go beyond the reporting. The men said that wasn’t our job. Our job was to report the facts.
“Mango and I felt very strongly that the project had to make a difference, have community impact, go beyond the traditional news package of photos, infographics, and stories that largely confirmed what we already suspected about race relations,” Van Tassel said.
The debate ended when the women stormed out of the room.
I sat back and watched it all without comment, then reported to Allen what happened.
The next day he had a Solomon-like brainstorm. We brought in a group of community leaders and activists and asked their advice. They suggested we facilitate a larger conversation. “Don’t tell us what to do,” Akron Deputy Mayor Dorothy Jackson said. “Just bring us together and let us decide what needs to be done.”
And that was the beginning of totally separate second phase of the project, Coming Together, which evolved into a community organization by the same name that worked on improving race relations in Akron and several other cities until the newspaper was sold in 2006.
The dueling projects …. A Question of Color and Coming Together … were awarded the Pulitzer Prize’s Gold Medal for Public Service on April 12, 1994.
There was great joy in the newsroom that day.
“This goes way beyond my dreams and expectations,” publisher Dotson said as he popped the cork on some nonalcoholic Champagne in the newsroom. “The community deserves a big piece of it, the way it responded and got all wrapped up in this.”
Added Hertz: “The project changed the lives of the people who worked on it.”
How much did it accomplish?
“I’d like to hope we made a difference, but I don’t think we did,” copy editor Yuvonne Bruce said. “But maybe we touched one person and changed one opinion.”
Well, the project certainly did touch at least one person – President Bill Clinton.
On Dec. 3, 1997, Clinton cited A Question of Color/Coming Together as the reason he selected Akron as the site for his first national town hall on race.
“The reason we came to Akron, as — as was said earlier, in part is because of this Coming Together Project you’ve done here,” Clinton said. “And I believe if we can find constructive ways for people to work together, learn together, talk together, be together, that’s the best shot we’ve got to avoid some of the horrible problems we see in the rest of the world, to avoid some of the difficult problems we’ve had in our own history, and to make progress on the problems that we still have here today.”
Seems like a long time ago.
The beginning of the end of the 1990s at the Beacon came for me in early 1997 when Allen took early retirement. He never explained why. I never asked.
But he left us with one last item on his bucket list … a 52-week series on the history of the rubber industry in Akron. It was a project he had been talking about for years. Few newspapers had ever tackled anything of that kind of depth and breadth.
He even had a name for it: “Wheels of Fortune.”
He selected Van Tassel to direct the effort. She had left the paper before the completion of A Question of Color to become business editor of the Seattle Times and I followed her to the Pacific Northwest, without a job, as soon as Coming Together was underway, fully funded at first by the Beacon and Knight-Ridder. Allen enticed us to come back in 1995, me as deputy managing editor of operations with the promise that I would get first shot at managing editor should that job become available and Van Tassel as special projects editor.
And this was some special project. Managing Editor Glenn Guzzo was named interim editor after Allen’s departure. He made sure Van Tassel had a squadron of reporters rotating on and off her team, anchored by David Giffels and Steve Love, two of the paper’s most accomplished writers, with many others rotating in like Glenn Gamboa, Katie Byard, Charlene Nevada and Jim Carney among others. Art director Mango Curtis coordinated the design before she left for a position at Northwestern University. Deputy photo director Susan Kirkman Zake unearthed hundreds of historical photos.
Looking back, I’m not sure how they accomplished it. Fifty-two weeks, four open pages per week, more than 300,000 words in all. They gave us stories about people like Violet McIntyre White, a scrappy, 100-pound woman who worked in the factories while the men were away fighting World War II, as well as those of the industry giants, the Seiberlings, the O’Neils, the Firestones and E.J. Thomas.
And after all that, they weren’t finished. Van Tassel, Giffels, Love and Zake spent several months revising and refining the initial series down to a 100,000-word book published by the University of Akron Press. It sold almost 15,000 copies, the most ever by the university press, won a national university press award for the use of photos and led to a four-hour community forum.
“‘Wheels of Fortune’ … unpacked the history of Akron’s rubber industry and laid it out for better understanding,” Love said. (It also) allowed me to work with the best of the best, fellow writer David Giffels and project editor Debbie Van Tassel. It did not win a Pulitzer, but it remains, in my mind at least, the most important and lasting work of my career.”
As “Wheels of Fortune” was in progress, sucking up resources, the Cleveland Indians, who only won 86 games during the regular season, surprised the baseball world by reaching the seventh game of the World Series before losing in extra innings to the Florida Marlins.
The Beacon Journal newsroom never flinched, producing a special section for each of the 29 days, including off days, of the playoffs. The sports staff, built by editors Tom Giffen and Bill Eichenberger and led then by Larry Pantages, proved why they were not only regarded as the best in Ohio, but one of the best in the nation year after year. Their playoff team included beat writer Sheldon Ocker, who later would be awarded one of sports journalism’s most prestigious honors, the J.G. Taylor Spink Award; author and columnist Terry Pluto, Chris Broussard, Greg Couch, etc. They provided unmatched coverage of the games. Michelle LeComte, editor of the quick response team, led a group of reporters who followed the baseball team’s fans. Michael Good’s photo team and Terence Oliver’s art department provided not only game coverage but produced a full-page poster for A-1 every night.
As associate managing editor, it was my job to pull it all together for each edition. That included reconfiguring the section each time the Indians won to allow for additional advertising.
It was exhilarating. It was exhausting. And it was deflating, when the Indians lost the final game in the 11thinning after blowing a 2-1 lead in the ninth.
But we sold lots of papers and made lots of money.
Newspaper chains generally don’t publicly reveal the profits of its individual units, but I was privy to the numbers that year. We made 27 percent profit on $100 million in revenue in 1997, an all-time record for the newspaper. Daily circulation was at a 30-year high of 165,000 even though the Plain Dealer had made a major circulation and editorial push into northern section of the Beacon’s prime territory.
We were all giddy. So giddy in fact that corporate gave us $1 million over budget for 1998 to redesign and expand the Sunday newspaper, a project for which art director Terence Oliver, assistant managing editor Geoffrey Gevalt and I spent long hours producing the prototype. Knight-Ridder’s acceptance of the proposal meant hiring seven more full-time journalists, bringing our news room full-time employees to 189.
But none of us saw what was coming. In hindsight, it was obvious.
Almost 50 percent of our profits that year – $12 million – came from the Sunday classified ads section. It was almost like printing gold. Yet most of the newspaper industry badly underestimated how competition from the internet would affect classifieds.
Actually, Knight-Ridder had been a pioneer in digital journalism. “K-R was quite aware of the threat posed by the internet, warning those of us who were editors and publishers on many occasions that hard times were ahead,” Dale Allen said.
The company’s emphasis on the Merc Center in San Jose, California, and its push for database dominance through subsidiaries like VuText made it one of the nation’s leaders among newspapers. But much of that died when CEO James Batten died in 1995 and was replaced by Tony Ridder.
“The sombitch (Ridder) had no appreciation for anything Batten and his folks had done trying to move K-R into the 21st century,” Allen recalled. “From my perspective, Batten had the right ideas but was at least a half-decade ahead of the technology available to carry them out.”
As a personal aside, I almost died from pneumonia in early 1998. The stress of the playoffs and the Sunday redesign project had left me with the immune system of “a 90-year-old,” doctors told me. I was in the hospital for 10 days, out from work for a month.
By the time I returned in February, an outsider from Gannett, Jan Leach, was named editor even though just before I got ill, Publisher John Dotson had promised me an interview for the job. Soon it was apparent I was not going to be part of Leach’s management team even though I had been lured back to Akron with the promise I would be promoted into top management. After I declined a demotion, I was given a buyout of 13 weeks pay for 29 years of service with Knight-Ridder and “the opportunity to pursue other interests.”
So I only know the paper’s financials for 1998 through hearsay. Profits dropped to ONLY 21 percent that year, I was told, and the bean counters began slicing and dicing. All of the jobs from the expanded Sunday section – and more – were eliminated.
That same year, a piece of all of us died, when Fran Murphey, a reporter and columnist for 55 years, passed away. “… she had something they can’t teach you in journalism school,” Thrity Umrigar wrote in Murphey’s obit. “She had a passionate heart. And a love for people and this community that never dimmed.”
Meanwhile, several months after my dismissal, I returned to journalism with the The Plain Dealer, first as a reporter in 1999 covering Akron and Summit County. That left me in the weird position of competing against two of Ohio’s best, Bob Paynter and Margaret Newkirk, on the investigation of corruption in Summit County government, which had begun near the end of my watch at the Beacon. I was no match for those two, but proud still that eight people connected with the county were convicted.
Later I became the paper’s writing coach. New Editor Doug Clifton, also a refugee from Knight-Ridder, arrived a few months after I did and began raiding the Beacon Journal’s talent bank, recruiting Van Tassel as business editor, Paynter as an investigative editor/reporter, columnist Regina Brett and consumer reporter Sheryl Harris among others. At least 15 in all made the 45-minute trip north. Columnist Pluto and basketball writer Brian Windhorst were among the last to leave for Cleveland after they were hired by Clifton’s replacement, Susan Goldberg, in 2007.
Steve Love and longtime art director Art Krummel, who had designed the award-winning Page 1 graphic for Question of Color, were among a dozen or so who took hefty buyouts from Knight-Ridder. Umrigar left to write books and teach at Case Western Reserve University. Stars like Chuck Klosterman, Gamboa, Mike Weinreb and Broussard pursued careers in New York City. Giffels eschewed big-city offers, choosing to become the literary voice of Akron while also teaching at the University of Akron.
In 2006, after a decade of Ridder’s leadership, Knight-Ridder was sold to the McClatchy Corporation. McClatchy shed itself of several papers in aging cities like Philadelphia, Detroit and Akron. The Black Press Group of Canada paid a reported $160 million for the Beacon Journal, 10 times what the paper would sell for 12 years later, when GateHouse Media bought it.
Layoffs and buyouts continued until the number of full-time employees dipped below 50. Circulation fell to around 60,000.
On Nov. 11, 2013, Beacon printed its last paper in-house in favor of printing at The Repository in Canton, now also owned by GateHouse.
My hat is off to Editor Bruce Winges, former Managing Editor Doug Oplinger and veterans like Bob Downing, Jim Carney, Katie Byard, Jewell Cardwell, Paula Schleis, Doug Livingston, Yuvonne Bruce, Betty Lin-Fisher, Cheryl Powell, Amanda Garrett, photographers Lew Stamp and Cardew and many more who maintained the paper’s high standards of journalism despite the many downturns. In fact, as I was finishing the last words on this chapter, the Akron Beacon Journal was named the best newspaper in Ohio for 2017 by the Press Club of Cleveland.
Columnist Bob Dyer, one of the key writers in the Question of Color series, is among those still standing. His investigation of televangelist Ernest Angley should have received Pulitzer consideration. He survived the first round of cuts by GateHouse. He speaks for a lot of us when he reflects on his 30-plus years in Akron.
“We thought we could do anything and everything – and we had the money to try,” Dyer wrote in in an email.
“The reporting, writing and editing were superb across every department. We were considered one of the best mid-size papers on the continent, for good reason, and I was damn proud to work at the place.
“Although comparing today’s newspaper industry with what we had in the 1990s is extremely discouraging, I feel fortunate to have lived through what I consider a golden age of journalism. We did things right, and we would spend whatever it took – in terms of both time and money – to bring a major story home.”
It wasn’t a perfect time, of course. Women managers didn’t get the same bonuses as men until the middle ‘90s. The threat of a strike in 1993 almost derailed the race project. A dispute between Dyer and Carl Chancellor over the word “niggardly” divided the newsroom and became part of The New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning project on race in America.
But it was a damn fine time to be a journalist in Akron, Ohio. And that’s why I’m sad that so much of that is gone.