THE DYSFUNCTIONAL PLAIN DEALER

The Plain Dealer – and I use that name despite the division with the Northeast Ohio Media Group (which sounds like some ad consulting firm) – appears to display a dual personality disorder. A web site and a printed paper. Would Macy’s tell Gimbels?

Why the division within a newspaper?

And does the newspaper understand the confusion it displays?

If I go to the web site – which presumable is NEOMG run – the first thing I see is The Plain Dealer. Isn’t it the Plain Dealer? That’s been the name of the newspaper since the mid 1850s.

The newspaper is trying to find its way in the new digital world.

But the new world is getting the PD in trouble.

In the past week or so the paper has been getting whopped by news media critics. Rightly so.

The reason: The PD had the candidates for governor meet with its editorial board. It taped the meeting. It put the results up on The Plain Dealer’s Cleveland.com. It’s news, folks! You’ll remember that Gov. John Kasich has haughtily refused to debate other candidates, especially Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, his Democratic opponent. Indeed, in the taped editorial meet, the governor looked just as he is – a chip-on-the-shoulder wise guy.

The film went up on the paper’s website and became fodder for others.

The importance of the clip wouldn’t mean a thing since Kasich had already won the election. But the film clip will follow him for the rest of his political career. And that was the crucial thing.

The PD – or NEOMG – did the governor a great favor by censoring it. Took it down and threatened others for using it. It was bad journalism. It was Republican favoritism – not something the PD is unaccustomed to do. It does play favorites. And continues to lean farther right.

Plunderbund, a popular website that trends Democratic, picked up the film of that meeting. And ran it. It revealed a John Kasich that John Kasich and his campaign would rather the public not see – slouching, irritated, not answering questions and definitely not wanting to be in the same room (or city perhaps) as his opponent FitzGerald. This was the John Kasich that worried the PD when it originally endorsed him four years ago with, as it put it, “with trepidation.” He revealed his true self. And the PD gave him cover.

Whatever the ground rules for the meeting were the film got out but then the PD took it down from its site and threatened Plunderbund and others to also remove it.

The Plain Dealer apparently caved in to demands by the Kasich people to remove the evidence of the Governor’s bad behavior. They censored themselves, not for the first time.

But this one hit a national press nerve.

The uproar hit – from Jim Romenesko’s very popular site for daily visits of many journalists to the prominent Columbia Journalism Review to NYU Prof. Jay Rosen’s Press Think, a journalism criticism blog, and others.

The target, Chris Quinn, did what journalists often do, refused to talk. The day after the election he finally spoke via Ted Diadiun, the paper’s “ombudsman” and a very adept defender of anything the paper does. Ted is the paper’s defender, not the public’s truth teller, as he should be.

Diadiun wrote:

“When the governor’s staff saw the video on cleveland.com later that day, they were chagrined, and contacted NEOMG to ask what happened.

“Chris Quinn, vice president for content for NEOMG, found himself in a quandary. He had intended to disclose his plan to record and post a video before the interview got started, but had gotten busy as the candidates and board members arrived in staggered groups and never followed through.

“So now, as Thursday crossed into Friday, he grew concerned. Obviously, the video was news (so how does a newspaper not treat it as such; can it un-ring the bell?) But on the other hand, the candidates had expected an audio-only interview and had not been told otherwise.”

Quinn caved.

Quinn has the odd title for an editorial leader – vice president of content for NEOMG.

I had some contact with Quinn during the final days of the Michael White tenure when we were both at city hall. Quinn was an aggressive reporter. Doug Clifton, then editor, allowed Quinn to actually cover White critically, something that hadn’t been done by the paper for years. Typical Pee Dee. Quinn did the job.

The problem I see with Quinn now is the lack of seasoning he got to be essentially the top editor at the PD (even though he works for NEOMG). He is not a seasoned editor.

As I remember the PD from two stints there in the 1960s people were brought along by more seasoned editors (doesn’t mean they were good). There was preparation, however, that I don’t believe Quinn had the benefit.

Further, the editorial staff, including editors, has been sharply cut.

I looked at a 1996 media guide. At the Plain Dealer, in my days, the city editor was the person who really put out the daily paper. He was assisted, however, by quite a team.

There was a managing editor and another ME for production and another for personnel. There was an assistant managing editor and two more for features and metro news. And there was a special projects editor plus three deputy metro editors, along with a slew of other editors – 13 by my count. And there were copy editors, seemingly a lost art today.

I’d be the first to say that it was editor overload. Too many. Now too few.

I also suggest that this split of the news room between the web and the print makes little sense. If it’s, as many believe, a strategy to dump the Newspaper Guild (those who work the PD side) it is an approach that seeds dysfunction. At a time newspapers don’t need such division.

And the bitterness between the two is acidic and growing. You can hear it in the voices.

Finally, the whole manner of coverage of this gubernatorial race has taken a tone that seems to pervade this era of the PD.

It started with the Cuyahoga County Corruption case of the past few years. The PD, which failed repeatedly to root out any of the well-known corrupt figures, went at its coverage in crusade form. I believe they really thought they had exposed the corruption. It was the feds that did the work.

It took on this similar tone in this gubernatorial race. They went after one guy.

FitzGerald may have been a poor choice for the Democrats. But the PD took the issue of his lack of a driver license (a stupid mistake) and repeated it and repeated it in article after article. Like a dog with a bone they couldn’t leave it alone. As if it really mattered.

The paper used the same technique it applied to former County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora. Day after day it used its front page rarely without a photograph of the obese Dimora. Fat man. Look at his grossness. They just loved to claim how tough the PD was after it had ignored the cesspool for years, even endorsed most of the criminals time after time.

The Plain Dealer should be ashamed of itself. I believe it cost Dimora 28 years in jail for corruption. The crime didn’t fit the punishment. It was a death sentence for the man. He deserved a kick in the ass and a little jail time.

Quinn’s retreat makes him a marked man now. It reflects badly on his judgment and resolve.

The paper, if it is to recover credibility, will have to begin to cover Kasich with some vigor. His personality, revealed as petty, has to be part of the picture.

More important, Kasich’s political move to the center during the campaign after his disastrous beginning of trying to slash opponents, especially labor, and his desire to lower taxes for the wealthy, take revenue from cities, bestow corporate gifts, should be watched and reported with vigor.

The newspaper – owned by the money-grubbing Newhouse family – will also have to decide whether it wants a “happy,” effective editorial workforce or, simply high profits and a disgruntled workforce.

It has always gone for the money.

Cleveland and northeast Ohio needs leadership badly. It needs an independent, forceful press – and the PD really is the only entity that can provide it.

It has failed for so long that I doubt anyone would recognize a formidable press but we sure need it.

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