A Day in the Life of Tom O'Hara

Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2001

8 a.m. Some days scream out the next morning's headlines — O.J. Simpson, Princess Diana and Monica Lewinsky are the types of stories certain to receive heavy ink on the front page. Today starts with barely a whimper. Plain Dealer managing editor Tom O'Hara logs onto his computer and begins sifting through 60 or so new e-mail messages. The newsroom is quiet.

10:35 a.m. "I was given this number for if I would like to become a delivery person," says the caller. New on the job since November, O'Hara isn't sure how to transfer the call to the correct department and asks his assistant for help.

O'Hara, 53, came to the PD from the Palm Beach Post where he'd served as managing editor since 1990. He was recruited by PD editor Douglas Clifton, whom he knew from their days together at The Miami Herald. Over the course of his career, O'Hara has covered beats from sports to politics and served as everything from copy editor to metro editor.

O'Hara's current title, managing editor, means he's responsible for the daily operations of the paper's news coverage — a job O'Hara describes as "keeping the balls in the air and the plates spinning." The bottom line is that the paper has to be accurate, informative and interesting to readers.

"It's looking thin at this moment." So far, the most promising story for tomorrow is Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan's prediction that the financial slump will be short-lived, leaving O'Hara a bit concerned about the front page. "It's looking thin at this moment," he admits.

10:45 a.m. Editors gather at their daily meeting to take early guesses at what will fill tomorrow's edition. There's a congressional report on tainted seafood, Israeli missile strikes, a tattoo parlor that's suing the city of Cleveland to lift its ban on such shops, and PD Capitol Hill reporter Tom Diemer's story on aging water lines. "So we're hurting," assesses O'Hara. Amid this pack, the water-main story stands out as at having the most potential. "Tell Diemer I'm excited — and desperate," O'Hara quips. "But don't say desperate; just say excited."

3:03 p.m. O'Hara is anxious for a good story — which, in this case, happens to mean abused animals. Cleveland City Council has proposed a law to make animal neglect a jailable offense. O'Hara discusses the idea with other editors.

"I'm sitting there this morning and thinking," he says. "There's poisoned cats here and chained-up dogs. There's abuse and neglect going on out there on the lovely streets of Cleveland that prompted this [councilman] to get the ordinance passed. The question is: How bad is it out there?"

To find out, reporter Michael O'Malley has been sent to spend the day with a cruelty investigator for the Animal Protective League.

span class=h2red>4:20 p.m. "O'Malley! Dogs! Cats! Are they back? Have we heard from them?" O'Hara yells across the newsroom. He finds O'Malley at his workstation and asks for an update. The reporter and the APL investigator heard rumors of neglected pets. "But we couldn't get ahold of the people," O'Malley explains. "We couldn't find the dogs." Halfheartedly, he offers: "There were two pit bulls."

"I go on the theory that if you put a pet story on the front page, people will read it." Rumors and pit bulls aren't enough for a story, so O'Hara sends O'Malley out for two more days of dog chasing with the APL and a photographer. The hope is for a tearjerker story to run with images of half-starved dogs or caged kittens. "I go on the theory that if you put a pet story on the front page, people will read it," O'Hara says. "Three or four days out there on the mean pet streets of Cleveland would be just a fabulous story."

But none of this helps tomorrow's paper.

4:55 p.m. "Late-breaking news!" announces metro editor Mark Russell as he strides into O'Hara's office. Turns out yesterday's double fatal accident on the Ohio Turnpike has an interesting twist. The mother and daughter who died after a semi hit their car were on their way back to Cleveland from the airport in New York City. As O'Hara tells it, "An old woman from Russia finally comes to the promised land," and is killed before she can see her daughter's home or meet her friends.

5:10 p.m. Reporter Susan Ruiz Patton types slowly, contemplating how to lead the crash story. "Separated by a continent," she writes. "Reunited for only a few hours."

5:29 p.m. "Am I gonna weep?" O'Hara asks Patton, who is finishing up the article. He wants to know details of the story and the reaction of the local Russian community.

"That's the disadvantage we're working with," Patton replies. "We don't know. We've been scrambling trying to find people.

"Keep plugging away," O'Hara tells her.

5:33 p.m. O'Hara checks the mock layout of the next day's front page. The bond issue, Greenspan and a Boston Globe story about love's effect on the brain make the cut. The turnpike crash is out, unless Patton manages to find some friends or relative to humanize the story. O'Hara explains: "That's losing altitude. All she's got is cops. It's not looking good." This day started slow and is ending the same way. "I can see a desperate day early," O'Hara says.

"I can see a desperate day early." 8 p.m. After tying up some loose ends, O'Hara leaves for his Cleveland Heights efficiency, where a glass of Merlot and leftover prime rib await him. He may read a magazine or some newspapers; he generally watches little TV, the one exception being "Survivor." "Because my family's watching it in Florida," he explains. And he likes to call his kids afterward to talk about the show.

Tomorrow morning, he will return to face the same blank slate that only daily newspapering can offer. "A job like this," he says, "you never know what the hell is going to happen."

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