Alternative Reality

With journalism at a low point in Cleveland, a weekly newspaper under new ownership has an opportunity to make a difference.

For all its devotion to art and music, Cleveland has never encouraged writers. Since Time magazine moved from the city in 1927, writers have had few places to work here. The good ones have often sought careers elsewhere.

Even in their heyday, The Plain Dealer and The Cleveland Press were not particularly creative environments. They regimented young writers through a series of beats, producing serviceable reporters who watched over the city in terse sentences and short paragraphs, with little commentary or insight. To be sure, there were moments of brilliance and the occasional Olympian, but neither occurred in enough abundance to make the city a magnet for writers. Editors frowned on personal observations that made for rich reporting.

Other cities had alternative newspapers that drew storytellers and presented the opportunity to write long, controversial stories that painted different pictures of urban life. Called underground newspapers until they reached a level of acceptability, they began to flourish in the 1960s as the Vietnam War and civil rights protests crescendoed.

In 1970 in Cleveland, a former service station owner named Rich Kabat started Scene, a weekly paper devoted to rock music, fledgling clubs, the sexual revolution and aging hippies. Kabat is a smart man who preferred good cash flow to good journalism. I remember arguing the merits of truth, justice and the First Amendment with him in shabby Ontario Street bars. He would remind me that those were thoughtful considerations, but they couldn't pay for the beer.

Kabat sold Scene in 1998 and spent his time traveling the world, leaving others to debate the merits of journalism. Since then, Scene has undergone many incarnations, changing editors, publishers and owners with the seasons and finally merging with a competitor. It endured all of this just in time for the digital revolution to add to its woes.

In December, amid gloomy rumors, Scene was sold again. For the first time since Kabat's days, a Cleveland company, the Euclid Media Group, purchased it. Its head, 31-year-old Andrew Zelman, personifies the hoped-for youthful revitalization of the city.

Zelman grew up in Beachwood, studied sports management at Ohio University, worked in the family chemical business and is anxious to make a difference in the city's media. He is single and lives in a downtown apartment. He intends to get involved in Scene's day-to-day operations while overseeing the Detroit, Orlando and San Antonio weeklies the company also purchased for an undisclosed sum from Times-Shamrock Communications of Scranton, Pa. His partners are Chris Keating, the publisher of Scene, and Michael Wagner from the San Antonio Current. Keating did not respond to a request for an interview regarding the business climate in Cleveland.

"I wanted to be the general manager of a sports team, but going through the minors is a long trip," Zelman says. "I'm a news junkie at heart. I love following politics and wanted to get involved with the city. Scene was a perfect place."

Zelman acknowledges he has no journalism experience, but he does have a background in marketing. He intends to spend time in each of the paper's departments and focus on good journalism and improved business practices. The paper, which has already expanded its website, will continue to feature strong music and arts coverage, Zelman says. Every month 350,000 readers either visit Scene's website or read its printed edition, which has a circulation of 40,000.

Vince Grzegorek, who has worked at Scene for six years and became editor in late 2012, says his editorial staff of six will more aggressively cover substantial stories that affect the area. He thinks the revamped Plain Dealer is vulnerable to a kind of hit-and-run journalism that takes advantage of its weaknesses.

Scene showed as much this fall when it beat The Plain Dealer by revealing the reason behind the Cleveland Museum of Art director's sudden resignation. Scene's website reported that the director had been involved in an affair with an employee who later committed suicide.

That forced The Plain Dealer to match the story, re-examine its coverage and publish an account that described its reporting as more careful and calculating than Scene's. But in the small world of Cleveland journalism, it was clear who triumphed.

Grzegorek says he knew The Plain Dealer had assigned the wrong reporter to the story, so he picked that moment to unleash Scene's limited but able resources.

Both Zelman and Grzegorek say they want Scene to become a more significant player in the city. Zelman arrives when Cleveland journalism is at its lowest point in 50 years. If Scene can identify and focus on relevant stories that affect the future of the city, it will be a valuable arbiter of urban life.

Some of its work has been uneven and even aimless, but Scene can be a powerful instrument. I was one of the writers who covered the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority for Scene when it was able to scuttle a half billion dollar boondoggle to move the port. It was the only media outlet that opposed a 400 percent tax increase for the port, which was soundly defeated.

A strong Scene is vital to Cleveland's interests. Scandals at City Hall and in county government in the last two decades eluded the mainstream media until prosecutors made the facts public. Because the Democratic Party dominates here, our political system does not safeguard the citizens. That leaves the local media, often reserved in confronting issues and late in identifying villains. This reticent media culture gives Scene an edge, but it must be aggressive and thorough.

Critics of Scene have called it a faceless publication run by out-of-towners, claiming its most dynamic quality was turnover in personnel. Zelman intends to be the "face" of the paper. He wants to position its business operation more in the mainstream of the marketplace. That will take a fine balancing act, for part of Scene's attraction is its bawdy advertising and voice.

Zelman's interest in the city, the paper's irreverent manner and its desire to compete should attract more readers and young talent. The need for an alternative newspaper in Cleveland has never been greater. Its challenge is surviving a time when even the best of its genre has a fragile page count.

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