Saturday, January 20, 2007

Goodbye Doug Clifton

Grapevine Staff Ready to Step Up

It looks like we will probably be losing Kevin Cleary, the Grapevine's Managing Editor now that the PD Editor has announced his retirement. It is a natural progression to move from Managing Editor of the Grapevine to the more challenging job of Editor of Cleveland's only daily newspaper. We are all resolved to waiting for the call from Publisher, Terry Egger, to begin negotiations with our own Kevin Cleary on his ability to construct a smoking area for hard working reporters at Plain Dealer Plaza as Editor. One day covering the front lines of poverty at the Grapevine to "On the Road to Glendale" following a group of reporters as they party their way to the College Football National Championship Game in Arizona.

Doug Clifton, as was widely reported, is retiring in June from a long career at the Plain Dealer. He brought home the bacon by delivering a Pulitzer Prize, but there were bumps in the road during his tenure. Clifton was not willing to take on the government over a couple of stories that they had government sources, but were afraid to go to press because it was likely that their reporters would have been thrown into jail on contempt charges. He was never able to convince the editors to represent the interests of the Cuyahoga County community over the business interests of a few members of the editorial board and the previous publisher. As editor, he certainly must take responsibility for some of the editorial endorsements that did harm to our community. I am still waiting for an apology for the second Taft for Governor endorsement over one of our own local politicians, Tim Hagen. By any measure and according to both Republicans and Democrats, Taft was a horrible governor and he certainly did great harm to Cuyahoga County.

Some of the inside baseball moves made by Clifton have done harm to the mother city of Cleveland. In an effort to raise circulation numbers among people who can afford to pay for a daily newspaper, Clifton has redirected reporters to the suburbs away from Cleveland stories. This has allowed huge stories within the city to get little coverage that we will all live with for decades and given mundane stories from Gates Mills a forum. The possible closing of the Third District police station, the explosion in foreclosures that the PD only recently discovered, and neighborhood wars going on over gentrification vs. housing affordability. I do not understand why the national news stories reprinted from AP, NY Times, or Washington Post reporters never explain the impact on Cuyahoga County.

In Clifton's first few years, homelessness received a lot of ink, but that wore off. Homeless people protesting did not translate to increased circulation evidently. Clifton certainly had a soft spot for human services, but was never willing to take on some of these dinosaurs in the non-profit sector on for maintaining the status quo and never solving any problems. Clifton's biography will tie him to bringing the Pulitzer to Cleveland, but behind the scenes the editors were trying to get Shultz to move away from the very stories that she won the award for. The editorial policy was certainly slanted to the business community, but I would also argue that it was hostile and even cruel to those struggling with poverty.

Clifton has kept or attracted some very good reporters to the paper. There are some talented reporters who need more freedom to bring us good stories. The daily newspaper is the leader in local news, and it is a missed opportunity to ignore the television news. The daily newspaper could do a lot more to criticize and demand standards from the other journalists in Cleveland. Competition is fine, but allowing the line between news and commentary to disappear at some news outlets has caused great harm to our community. I like the opening of the newsroom that Clifton has tried over the last few years. Are the other editors listening to the voices of poor people because of this process? See the heart of the problem is that a substantial majority of the residents of Cleveland cannot afford to buy the paper, and so the publishers market to the people who can afford to pay for the service. This turns away the other residents of the poorest city, and eventually the paper has almost no relationship with its host city.

Kevin Cleary, as the new editor, needs to do everything in his power to reach out to those who live in Cleveland. He needs to take to heart the often cited but mostly ignored maxim, "As Cleveland goes so goes the region." It should be a point of pride for Kevin that the majority of Clevelanders read the paper. With support of those living in Cleveland, an editor will have a great deal of freedom and can help the city move forward. Residents of Cleveland need to find the problems with police response time, crime, graffiti, education funding, and health care frequent topics for the only daily paper in Cleveland. They need to read voices that reflect the diversity of Cleveland from the problems of the Latino consumers trying to get groceries in the Clark Fulton neighborhood or the African American residents in the East Side trying to figure out if their local churches have forgotten about the needs of the neighborhood in favor of the middle class driving in from the suburbs. Kevin, we need the Cleveland Plain Dealer to reflect the interests and needs of Cleveland.

Brian Davis


Blogger John Ettorre said...

Brian, with this entry, you're showing a deep ignorance of how newspapers operate. First of all, he has nothing whatever to do with the editorial page, including its endorsements. He's responsible only for the news side, with the editorial page (under Brent Larking) answering directly to the publisher. That's true of every paper in the land.

Secondly, on the two stories they held, again, he lost an internal debate with the ownership chain and their lawyers. He clearly wanted to publish the stories. And how do we know that? Because he essentially leaked the fact that he lost that debate by writing about it in his own column, which was a courageous thing to do, and something that could well have cost him his job. A little more knowledge and a little less self-righteousness would serve your mission well.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Clevehomeless said...

If Clifton is not responsible for the endorsements then why did he send this e-mail to us using the term "We":

"While we certainly wish Taft had lived up to expectations, I don't think we owe an apology for the endorsement. Again, people are free to take our guidance or not. Certainly we offer it in good faith but can't guarantee everyone we endorse will be a success. Often we endorse the best of a bad lot. That wasn't the case in this race because Hagen was a good man. We just thought Taft would be more likely to get things done given his party affiliation and that of both the House and Senate. "--Doug Clifton December 13, 2005.

It seems to me that the editor may not be in charge of the editorial page, but certainly has a position on that board and therefore some responsibility.

Regarding the publishing of government leakers. I heard his discussion on the NPR show "On the Media" and read his column about the issue both in the Plain Dealer and the interview in Editors and Publishers. He sounded wishy-washy on the reason for holding the story in both his written and oral defense of the action. Never did he say his publisher had held the story. I was only going on the information made public in that debate. What source are you using to claim that there was an internal debate that he lost?

I thought that the "S" of BLOGS was self righteousness. BLOGS=Blowhards Lording it Over Groups with their Self Righteousness. I could be wrong.


1:41 PM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

In using we, he's mostly being a good soldier and speaking on behalf of his colleagues. Editors are sensitive to attempts from outsiders to drive wedges between people internally at their newspapers.

As for your other question, what source am I using to determine that he lost a debate with the publisher (I actually didn't say with the publisher of the PD, I said it was a step above that, the ownership of the chain that owns the paper, the Newhouse family and their lawyers), all I can say is that I'm relying on about 20 years of watching, covering and writing about this industry and particularly this paper, and thus knowing how things work.

In addition, Clifton has been for some years chair of the national editors group backing defense of the First Amendment and defending the public's right to know. He's one of a handful of the most outspoken advocates in the entire national industry on behalf of the public's right to know. Everything about that background, plus the fact that he chose himself to disclose that the paper was holding stories (which editors would almost never do, and would only do for a reason) indicates that the scenario unfolded pretty much as I outlined. He may have sounded wishy washy (and I'd agree he did) simply because he was doing something that's at odds with how things usually work, and which took some courage to do: essentially talking publicly about internal decisions of his employer, decisions which don't make the employer look good. That, as you might imagine, is the kind of thing which typically gets people fired.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Clevehomeless said...

Thank you for the reply. Clifton was not a horrible editor, and I mentioned some things that we supported during his tenure. But there were so many incidents over his term in which the State or Local government shut down the free distribution of information and the Plain Dealer was silent. I will give you a few examples:

The Plain Dealer did not blast the Census over the holding of the number of homeless people counted in the 2000 Census. NEOCH led this fight on the national level and got a compromise that released half the numbers. Plain Dealer mentioned the issue once.

The Plain Dealer did not object to HB 3 voting law in Ohio, and there were a ton of things in there that would make it harder for newspapers to find out from the County about voters.

They allowed big non-profits that receive public money to keep their taxes private if they claim an affiliation with a church. The Beacon Journal did a lot of good work about Betty Montgomery's and Jim Petro's battles to open these records. The Plain Dealer was largely quiet.

There were many more examples that freedom of the press saw setbacks in the last 12 years and not just from the Anti-First Amendment Bush Administration.


5:30 PM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

That's all interesting. I didn't know any of that. Unfortunately, the Beacon Journal under its new ownership can be expected to all but collapse as a serious bastion of going after public records and the public's right to know. The new guy has a track record of far less lofty ideals when it comes to journalism than did the Knight-Ridder chain, the paper's former owner. As you may know, much of that activism begins by deciding to pay steep lawyers' fees as the paper attempts to pry open public records, and that budget item for the new owner, while perhaps not a zero, will be WAY smaller than in the past.

11:50 AM  

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