No Nose for News

Today's media doesn't pass the sniff test: There are more outlets but there's less real news.

The first man I worked for in the newspaper business was Joe Vaclavic, a fellow who had thick arms, chewed on a cigar and never lingered. He swung the bundles of newspapers from a shiny blue Cleveland Press truck, leapt down, snapped the baling wire with pliers and ordered us to deliver our routes.

We received the papers about 4 p.m. and he wanted them delivered in the next half-hour. I did not understand this urgency then, but even though television news was just a few years old, there was a sense of fear about its impact on the future of the afternoon newspaper.

In those days, The Cleveland Press drove Cleveland. It elected mayors, campaigned for good works, championed citizenship and combated crime. Its appearance and flavor made the town exciting.

The newspaper was run by Louis B. Seltzer, a short, well-groomed, mild-mannered man who possessed such a sharp sense of moral outrage that he sometimes exercised it to a fault. The Press did not pine and whine about people and issues in the city. It thundered in bold, 72-point type until something was done about the problem.

Its reporters even solved murders — a practice that came to an end when the U.S. Supreme Court held that the newspaper had gone too far in the Sam Sheppard case. The court ordered a new trial for the doctor, who'd been convicted of murdering his wife in 1954, and the second jury acquitted him.

The Press has been gone now for nearly a quarter of a century. Its anemic but energetic competitor The Cleveland News, resplendent with its pink sports page, has been gone for 45 years.

Gone, too, is the competitiveness that drove those papers. Competition meant that stories would be covered in more depth, with follow-up and analysis. The revelations that competition brought showed how the city really worked as opposed to the way public and business officials claimed it did.

I remember one day when the then-city editor of The Plain Dealer reflected upon what he called the darkest day in the morning newspaper's history. On that day, the Press had scooped The Plain Dealer with all seven page-one stories. If you were a reporter, the message was clear: You had to work and worry about the opposition all the time.

In those days, nobody thought it possible that The Cleveland Press would cease to exist.

Today, newspapers face the threat of extinction from the Internet. In fact, those in traditional media wonder how to keep readers and viewers. Many books and articles have been written of late proclaiming that network television news is dead, a relic of the past, killed off by cable programs.

Newspaper editors talk and write fearfully of their craft's future as circulation plummets and advertising departments offer more and more inducements to advertisers to compensate for loss of audience. Newspaper executives consider giving the newspaper away free, ponder greater use of the Internet for delivery and grimace over polls which indicate that young people and minorities do not read their product.

In Cleveland, there are more media outlets than existed when I began in journalism, but there is less real news.

There were no alternative newspapers then, no magazines — only a handful of suburban and ethnic newspapers dedicated more to neighborhood advertising than news. Most people had never heard of FM radio, let alone listened to it. There were only three television stations.

Now, we have more television and radio stations than one can count, and publications dedicated to the arts, business, lifestyle, the suburbs, music, youth culture and minorities, to say nothing of the Internet.

But lost in these diverse voices is community focus. As society fragments and focuses on self-interest, the media covers the parts and has lost the sense of the sum.

The region's sprawl and the fragmentation of interest, culture and taste have made it nightmarishly hard to grasp what is occurring around us.

A community needs information to find its way — and Cleveland has lost its way. People often blame a lack of leadership for Cleveland's condition, but the media's free fall has played a role as well.

Fewer and fewer people in Northeast Ohio care about what happens in Cleveland. The city is losing its identity, yet the officials who run the town remain in deep denial.

In these dark times, the media are caught between community responsibility and the need to survive. How do you devote coverage to something the readers no longer consider interesting or relevant?

Media outlets also face an even more challenging question: Have they lost their ability to cover the news?

An editor I once knew often warned that, if not careful, a publication will publish itself. He meant you could always find something to fill space, but only hard work produced the kind of news that made the paper truly informative.

It is easy to report events, meetings, court proceedings, police matters and press releases. It is far easier to write about the plight of the poor than plunder by the prominent.

What is not easy to report is what really occurs in a city like Cleveland: the misdeeds of important civic figures, the corruption of government, the misuse of public funds and the business self-interest that feeds on a dying town. Citizens need this information to make judgments on such things as a new convention center.

Today, news stories languish or even go unreported. I doubt Louie Seltzer would have waited 10 years for the government to investigate the widening Nate Gray public corruption case or watched as University Hospitals dug itself into a financial hole in an ego-centered battle with The Cleveland Clinic. I know he would have delighted in digging into McDonald and Co.'s investment into a steel mill that vanished in Thailand.

What I describe here is a trend, not a conspiracy of silence. Technology, loss of revenue, diverse interests, a changing culture and a waning public interest have made the traditional media less and less viable.

News coverage will never be the same. Citizens who want to be informed are on their own except for arts and restaurant listings. They must pick and choose wisely from the variety of available information. This is no small task.

A friend who travels often to Vietnam on business observed that people there do not rely upon the media for information. They don't trust the media because the government controls it. People learn about the realities of life by word of mouth.

In a way, the same is becoming true here. Maybe gathering places such as Starbucks, Arabica, Caribou and other coffee and doughnut shops, aided by the Internet, will become the new information emporiums, where ideas and the soul of a community's interest are examined. Regardless, when it comes to knowing and understanding what is happening in our community, we are increasingly on our own.

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