Who Will Light the Way?

Louis B. Seltzer and The Cleveland Press had it right: Deliver a newspaper that's friendly, reliable and willing to fight for the everyman. But is it possible for a one-newspaper town to reclaim that intimacy in an ever-threatening digital age?

he two calls came the same day. The first was from John Tidyman, a writer researching a book on the late Cleveland Press. Then an editor at The Boston Herald wanted to know what life was like in a one-newspaper town.

The Press has been gone for nearly 24 years now. A full generation.

I told the editor from Boston that, if anything, the town has suffered from its demise. The Press, an afternoon paper, could not survive the change that television news brought or the increasing flight to the suburbs.

There is a melancholy about The Press — one that will exist until the last of its former staffers passes. At one time, it was considered one of the top 10 newspapers in the country, a blue-collar journal that championed the guy-on-the-street, elected mayors, solved murders and stood tall against evil, deceit and The Plain Dealer.

At its zenith, The Press ran the town. Its longtime editor, Louis B. Seltzer, was easily the most powerful man here in the last half of the 20th century.

He didn’t start that way, though. As a cub reporter covering the West Side for The Leader in the early part of the century, he walked the 15-mile “beat” nightly from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., stopping at drug stores, shops and bars along the way between the police and fire stations. When he took over as editor at The Cleveland Press in 1928, he set out on a similar quest — this time hitting the neighborhoods to discover what kind of paper Clevelanders wanted.

“People wanted a paper to be close to them, to be friendly — a paper that they could call on in emergencies and that would fight for them when they had trouble,” Seltzer wrote in his memoir “The Years Were Good.” “I learned, likewise, that the thing people want most of all is attention, to be recognized, to have someone to call, to talk with.”

Because of his approach, The Press could influence just about any issue.

It influenced me to become a newspaperman, a decision that falls under the “where did I go wrong” category. As a youth, I delivered the paper and was enchanted by its bold, beckoning headlines that made the city seem as if were the most important place on earth.

I especially liked its portrayal of crime. It was best at covering neighborhood murders, and to this day I can visualize the search through dark and misty streets for the missing Beverly Potts, a young girl who vanished on the West Side and has never been found.

The Press fought crime like a comic-book hero. The arch villain was a man named Shondor Birns who controlled the numbers game in town and was always brushing against the law.

His picture was familiar to Press readers, and years later when I would meet him, the memories of those Press stories made it seem as if you were making the acquaintance of Dr. No or the Joker.

The Press that I knew as a kid was distinctly different than the one I would know as a young Plain Dealer reporter. The Press that I delivered had a reach that was warm and neighborly. The Press that I competed with daily was, for the most part, fierce, unrelenting and had reporters with the astonishing ability to appear from everywhere and anywhere if a story was to be had. In short, it could be an opposing reporter’s nightmare. Especially embarrassing were those Page One scoops that could cause a city editor to rise from his desk and roar with a yowl of discomfort that today would be reported to human resources as a disturbance in the workplace.

I had been on The Plain Dealer for three days in fall 1963 when I was told to report to the old Criminal Court Building on East 21st Street. I was instructed to go to the press room and inquire whether important things were occurring that day in the criminal justice system. I opened the door to a darkened room — a cubicle, really — flipped the light switch and was startled by a cursing voice.

It was 2 p.m. and before me was a man lying in bed. Not just a man, it was legendary Press reporter Bus Bergen.

I knew Bergen’s byline from delivering The Press. Everyone knew him. “The Big Story,” a national TV show (sponsored by Pall Mall cigarettes) that dramatized an extraordinary newspaper story each week, had featured Bergen twice.

Bergen lay there, his eyes blinking in the harsh light, and asked who I might be. I told him and he nodded, noting that Plain Dealer reporters, with their tweed sport coats and rep ties, were looking more and more like fraternity pledges than newspaper guys. “If you want a drink, there’s a bottle in the desk, and shut the lights off,” he said.

And hey, kid, don’t beat yourself up running around the courthouse looking for a story. “All the judges call me right on that phone. You don’t have a chance.”

Bergen was right on both counts. I did look like a pledge that day, and I didn’t have a chance, let alone a clue. Neither of us knew it at the moment, but time was running on The Press. The 6 o’clock news and a changing city spelled doom. It was not long before the tide began to turn and the morning newspaper passed its rival in circulation. I remember the day it happened and the jubilation in our city room, but it was really a Pyrrhic victory. Years later on June 17, 1982, after having lingered in death’s throes, The Press ended its 96-year run.

There was no celebrating then. The loss of The Press nearly a quarter century ago is worth measuring in terms of its impact on the community. That is what The Boston Herald wanted to know.

With two newspapers competing, it is unlikely that a significant story will be ignored or missed. In fact, one paper often broke a story and the other advanced it, trying to get a new lead or angle on it for the next day.

It would be hard to imagine that Nate Gray could operate a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme for 10 years in the city and it go unnoticed if there were another newspaper in Cleveland. Issues like the convention center and county government would be far more transparent.

The loss of The Press cost Cleveland the intimate, honest and painful vigilance that a city requires to cope with its problems. The town is too small and friendships too easily accumulated for the news not to be affected when there is only one paper.

And over time a lone newspaper in a town loses its soul, slowly, silently, but surely. Circulation and advertising gains prove to be fickle come-ons. News judgment dissipates. Articles grow stale and unpublished in overset. More stories go uncovered.

The craft of reporting loses its edge, then its credibility and finally the confidence of its readers.

There is a serious price a city, its people and its future pay when a town dwindles to a single newspaper. One wonders whether the price will even be greater. Something even worse looms dark over the newspaper business these days. The fate of the whole industry appears at risk as the Internet erodes into readers and advertisers.

It’s reminiscent of Seltzer’s fears during his early days as editor of The Press: “Modern facilities have made newspapers bigger” with “vast networks of wire services, syndicated features and ready-made material from which to create themselves each day,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Modern newspapers had separated themselves from the people for whom they were really being published.”

Is it possible that the newspaper as we know it will morph into some electronic device that Googles restaurant reviews, movie times, used car ads and death notices, but can’t offer the news to support the Scripps motto: “Give light and the people will find their own way”?

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