When the Press was News
The Cleveland Press was more than a newspaper. It was Cleveland -- from its emphasis on community to its homegrown staff. Twenty-five years after the final edition, our affection has not faded. Here, reporters, editors, and local leaders share th
It was a simple Wednesday afternoon call to the sports desk at The Cleveland Press. A call Paul Tepley, a photographer, had made countless times on his days off.
The Press was Tepley's lifeblood. Being out of touch with the newsroom was not an option. He didn't miss a beat.
Tepley covered sports like only someone who watched — no, studied — every player during every game, season after season, could do. He studied the coaches and players, knew their strengths, their weaknesses, their tendencies.
It paid off during a Cavaliers game on Oct. 29, 1971. Tepley was shooting the game that night when he saw a pretty nasty call by the officials. Head Coach Bill Fitch barely reacted. Everyone else turned away, but Tepley knew Fitch was hot. Fitch grabbed a chair and hurled it at the referee. Tepley was the only one who got the photo.
And while he made his name in game-action photography, he knew when the game was secondary to the story, such as 10-cent Beer Night at Municipal Stadium. He kept one eye on the Indians, and another on the increasingly rowdy fans. When the brawl started, he scooted to the middle of the field. The Plain Dealer photographer had already left and missed the shot. The Press' front page, however, had the melee captured by Tepley.
Those were the kind of scoops he lived for. That's why he was calling the Press on his day off. He never wanted to miss a call or make a tipster wait too long and feel ignored. He was connected to this community.
But when he called this Wednesday, he learned that this time the news was a bit more personal.
A tearful clerk told him about the WJW-TV reporters poking around the office. He hung up the phone and stared straight ahead from his living-room chair.
He felt like he had been hit in the gut.
He didn't say a word to his wife, Karen, who was preparing supper just two rooms away.
They were going to the Metroparks for a picnic, and Karen was happily packing up the baskets so they'd be ready to leave after the news aired.
He just stared. Thirty minutes, maybe an hour, passed. The television was off. No radio was playing. It was just Tepley and his thoughts alone in his living room. Silent.
The six o'clock news was about to start when he finally forced himself to speak.
"Come in here and watch this," he called to Karen. "Once it's over, I'm not going to be able to say anything."
They watched the news together in silence. He sat in his favorite chair and his wife sat in hers. After the story was over, they left the television on for a few more stories, then clicked it off. He didn't say a word. Neither did she. There wasn't a way to say what needed to be said.
There it was on the screen. It was real.
There it was on the screen. It was real.
"At that moment," he said, "I had a pretty good idea that my career as a newspaperman was ending, and I probably wouldn't work for another paper."
There had been talk about the paper closing for a long time, but he had hope. A lot of people had hope. The new owner, Joe Cole, seemed to be making an honest effort at keeping it going. Cole had added color to its pages and a Sunday edition to compete head-to-head with The Plain Dealer. Tepley never expected this day to come.
Yet, here it was. The Press was closing June 17, 1982, after 103 years of service.
The Press wasn't just a job. It wasn't just a newspaper that was at one time ranked among the 10 best in the country by Time magazine. It was an institution.
The Press prided itself on telling stories its own way, with its own brand of journalism. Competing with The Plain Dealer caused some ethics rules to be bent — or just plain ignored.
Despite its big-city size, it never abandoned the things it did when Cleveland was a small town without a skyline: Printing the most minute, local news, whether it was an anniversary or an obituary of someone well known (but far from famous).
The paper shaped the city and was run by people who grew up here, people who cared about Cleveland.
The Press called itself "the newspaper that serves its readers." It tried to live up to that moniker. Anyone could walk right in and talk to anyone they named. Didn't matter if it was famed longtime editor Louis Seltzer, a member of the copy desk or a reporter. The city desk was instructed to give out the home phone numbers of any reporter to anyone who called and asked for it.
Twenty-five years after its closing, those intimately involved with the Press still can't get the scrappy, blue-collar paper off their minds.
Getting the scoop
With two newspapers in town, waiting a day meant getting beat. Reporters battled each other over stories.
Take the murder of John Cremer Young Jr.:
Mariann Colby was a Shaker Heights homemaker who had fallen in love with another man. In 1952, the 27-year-old woman obsessively took an interest in a man named John Young, even following him on a date. It got so bad that Young asked Mariann's husband, Robert Colby, to step in and put an end to this unrequited love. He did, and all seemed to be well.
Six years later, the Colby's moved to a house just down the street from the now-married John Young. The two couples' sons became buddies. Over time, the Youngs didn't want their son to spend so much time with little Dane Colby. Tension grew as Mariann wanted to remain friends.
On Aug. 24, 1965, Mariann Colby called and spoke to John Young, the man she used to love. She said she believed his son's jacket was left at her house, so he sent John Cremer Young Jr. to go collect it.
She shot the boy in the head and hid the gun in three pounds of ground beef in her freezer.
Dick Feagler at the Press and The Plain Dealer's Doris O'Donnell were all over the story, canvassing the neighborhood and talking to anyone who would speak. Feagler talked to Mariann Colby every day, and eventually learned what happened. The competition remained strong for follow-up stories.
DICK FEAGLER, Press reporter and columnist: This was before journalism became a "profession" and everyone was supposed to behave as if they took Holy Orders. The Press didn't want you lying, I'll give them that. Most importantly, they didn't want you lying to the public.
DORIS O'DONNELL, Plain Dealer reporter: I kept knocking on doors and he kept knocking on doors.
Dick kept bugging this lady, but I didn't get anywhere with her. She was more attentive to Dick, a nice, good-looking young man.
He got the scoop, but one night I got a call. I was at the Plain Dealer late, 5 or 6 o'clock. The call came from Cuyahoga County Sheriff Jim McGettrick. He was not a good man. He said, "This woman wants to speak to you." I said, "I thought she only spoke to Dick Feagler." Well, he said, she asked for me.
I was a little skeptical, but I wanted to get the story before Dick did, so I went to the jail.
When I got there, instead of producing the woman, the sheriff produced a tray of martini shakers and glasses.
I almost got a story, but McGettrick was pulling a fast one. He was trying to woo me.
TONY TOMSIC, Press photographer: Bus Bergen, the criminal courts reporter, and Jim McGettrick, the sheriff, were real close. They drank like hell.
The city editor, Louis Clifford, says to me: There's a woman [Mariann Colby] accused of murder. She's in an isolated room. We're going to have access inside the jail. Go in there and take her picture. We want it for first edition.
We go into McGettrick's office and the first thing he does is open up a shelf and take out a bottle of Canadian Club or something. They have a drink. I decline. Bergen gets a piece of paper from McGettrick and he hands it to me. It says she's on this floor, this spot.
He opens up the back door of his office, which gives me access to the jail. It's not the normal way to get in. There she is in a room with a light bulb hanging down on a string. Hell of a scene. I make some pictures of her, and I go to leave. The sheriff told me just go out the normal way. Whoever is at the door is pissed off at the sheriff because I don't have a pass. So I couldn't get out of the jail.
Clifford is going crazy: Where's Bergen and McGettrick?
I spent the whole damn day in the jail — not in a cell or anything. We missed getting it into the paper that day. They found Bergen and McGettrick on a bar near Public Square. Barrister's, I think. They're in there and McGettrick calls over so I can get out. The next day the Plain Dealer still doesn't have it, and we get it first.
FEAGLER: I would have to go out to widows and get pictures of their husbands. This would be someone whose husband was shot or died in an accident on the Shoreway in the middle of the night.
What you wanted to do is, first of all, con your way into the house. You're pounding on the door at 6:30 in the morning.
When I came in, if they ever asked you if wanted a cup of coffee, you always said yes. Always take it. Now you got them working for you. Then you'd say, "I'd like to have a recent picture of your husband." She'd get you one, and I'd say, "You know, ma'am, I'll tell you what: This is probably the last picture ever to appear of your husband in any publication. I'm not a photographer. I'm not qualified to make judgments on what will reproduce well. Have you got any more?" If I was really doing it skillfully, I would walk back to the office with a cardboard box full. I would send her to the attic.
The idea was, you didn't want the Plain Dealer to find any when they came poking around.
DENNIS KUCINICH, Plain Dealer copy boy, politician: Every day one of the city editors would read the Press with a red crayon. They would circle stories and ask, "Why didn't we have this?" There was a real sense of loss when the PD was scooped.
FEAGLER: The Plain Dealer beat us to a picture. We didn't have one. They ran it. An editor on the city desk told me to go over there to The Plain Dealer and tell them that I'm Cousin So-And-So of Mrs. Jones and, goddamn it, they told Mrs. Jones they'd have that picture back by 10 a.m.
We had the picture in time for the final edition.
TOMSIC: I remember there was a tragedy. Two or three kids died. We didn't have that much time. We couldn't get pictures of the kids.
I'm standing by the house, and there's an open window. I see the pictures on that wall. This wasn't very nice, but I didn't hesitate. I went right into the house and got the pictures. It's illegal. Nowadays you wouldn't think about doing it. But I knew if I didn't get it, the PD would. They would do the same thing. That was my rationale.
A different kind of journalism
The Cleveland Press was a different paper. The stories were quick and punchy. It wrote less about the rich and more about the regular folks and the poor than The Plain Dealer did.
It was a crusading paper that took a stance on some issues. It is perhaps most famous for its coverage of the murder of Marilyn Reese Sheppard.
The paper tried to be fun to read, staff members said. They went undercover, sending reporters to the Police Academy to write stories about their experience after joining the force. They sent a reporter to be hired as a teacher. They sent another young-looking reporter in as a student. They gambled at illegal underground casinos and wrote about it.
The Press devoted whole beats to topics in which other papers expressed only a passing interest: immigrant life, the environment or health and welfare.
TOMSIC: If you had some harebrained idea, no matter what harebrain it was, they would let you go for it.
FEAGLER: When Bill Tanner was city editor, Louis Clifford had died, we were doing some stuff on gun control. The way the laws read, there was nothing wrong with carrying a gun openly around the city, so long as it wasn't a pistol. So Tanner asked me to take a hike with one. I went and found a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, which happened to be the same type of rifle that killed John Kennedy.
I set out at lunch hour. I had a great deal of malicious fun, because everybody did their best to ignore that I was doing this. The cops finally caught up with me around Hamilton and asked me if I'd tell them who I was. I said, "Sure, I'll do anything you want me to, but you can't take this away!"
That was the stunt. If I tried that today, I'd be shot, if not by a citizen, [then] by the cops. The Press always wanted to do things like this to prove a point.
NICK MILETI, sports owner: The Plain Dealer had the stories. They would write the obvious stuff.
The Press, coming out in the afternoon, had to write the more interesting stories, because everyone already knew the stories by the time their paper hit the street.
There were great writers on the Press. Guys like Bob August. There were reporters on the Plain Dealer.
MAURICE "BUD" WEIDENTHAL, Press reporter: The Press was the USA Today of its time, graphically at least. The stories were short. Why do you think USA Today is the best-selling newspaper? It's easy to read. So were we.
KUCINICH: The Press had a different mentality. It was a lot more aggressive in news-gathering.
They were at your front door. They were in your face.
BETTY KLARIC, Press reporter: I don't even remember this for fact, but I'm told this story time and again: Apparently I was covering the County Commission. I was trying to get Bob Sweeney to comment on something, and he claims I followed him to the men's room. He was trying to get away from me, but I wouldn't let him.
WEIDENTHAL: We were biased toward Cleveland. There was no question about it. Biased toward the city. Biased toward the readers.
KLARIC: Certainly some of the focus on the environment was a result of our coverage at the Press.
We developed the Save Lake Erie Now Campaign. The river caught fire, and while we didn't pay much attention to that, because it wasn't that unusual, the national media began to pay attention. Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River became the symbol nationally of what was wrong with the environment.
WEIDENTHAL: Sometimes we'd run a whole page of stories on desegregation and the background of what happened in different cities and how you shouldn't let your emotions get in the way. And there wasn't major violence.
You hate to take credit for that, but I'd like to think the ordinary folks understood what was happening because of the coverage, and that it prevented some violence.
GEORGE FORBES, politician: The Press was more available. You could talk to the editors. You could walk across the street if you had something to discuss. You could walk right in, and they would talk with you. I felt more comfortable with the Press than the Plain Dealer.
In the 1970s, there was a carnival that traveled throughout the city of Cleveland. The Plain Dealer wrote that I had taken some money. The prosecutor indicted me.
The Plain Dealer broke the story, but the Press asked if I would come and talk to them. The Press said, "We don't believe what happened was right." We went through an extensive conversation on it.
Ultimately, the judge threw it out, but it helped to have another paper. I could sit down and say, "Here's what happened." And they wrote it. Their editorial page said, "We believe you." That helped. I got my side out. The Plain Dealer wanted to write what they were going to write.
BILL TANNER, Press reporter and managing editor: Editor Louis Seltzer was symbolic of the kind of paper we were. He made it a paper that really cared about its readers.
We talk today about reader participation. Well, the Press was doing that for some 40 years before it folded. It invited its readers to participate. We put out a cradle roll for new mothers — each month they'd get a pamphlet telling them what to do with their little babies. When they die, we had a very knowledgeable obituary writer. They didn't have to be real prominent. If they were active at all, we'd give them an obit.
In between, we gave them a foreign friends club. Kids would sign up and have pen pals all around the world. That was one woman's job. Her whole job was to supervise the pen pals.
Every year we had a nationalities day. We had a nationalities editor, because Cleveland was and still is an ethnic community: a melting pot.
LOUIS SELTZER, Press editor, from his autobiography "The Years Were Good": On the morning of July 4, 1954, Mrs. Marilyn Reese Sheppard, a pretty Bay Village housewife, was found bludgeoned to death in her bedroom. The newspapers began to lose interest — except one. The Press kept the Sheppard murder case in the top position on Page One. On July 20 with the investigation lagging, the Press published on Page One an editorial. The eight-column heading said: "Somebody Is Getting Away With Murder."
Later, Sam Sheppard was indicted by the grand jury, tried in a courtroom crowded with newspaper, radio and television representatives from all over America, convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to the Ohio Penitentiary.
The Cleveland Press was both applauded and criticized. It was criticized on the ground that the Press inflamed public opinion by its persistent and vigorous pounding away at the case. It was criticized by some who expressed the belief that the Sheppard case had been "tried" in the newspapers before it reached the courtroom.
The question confronting the Press, as a newspaper properly concerned about the whole structure of law enforcement in the community, was: Shall we permit a protective wall to shield a solution to this murder by saying and doing nothing or shall we move in with all of our editorial artillery in an effort to bring the wall down, and make it possible for law enforcement authorities to act in their normal and accustomed way?
There were risks both ways. One represented a risk to the community. The other was a risk to the Press. We chose the risk to ourselves.
KUCINICH: In an early point of my [political] career, I was upset about an editorial that was written. I ended up talking to Bill Tanner, who was city editor. I told him it was a bad editorial and that it hurt me.
Tanner just laughed. He looked at the editorial page then flipped to the front page. This is the real editorial page, he said. He was right. That's what shaped public opinion.
TOMSIC: The first casualty of the Vietnam War in this area was a family out at Bradley and Lake. He was a medical corpsman. He was on one of those boats on the river with regular Army guys.
I went there early in the morning with a reporter. They let us in the house, and they even gave us breakfast. It was almost like nothing happened. The family was big. I found going out on these casualties, the bigger the family the better they handled it.
Finally, after about 30 minutes, the mother starts talking about her son, and I felt like sliding under the table. I felt like I shouldn't be there. But they accepted us.
KUCINICH: I don't want to get too nostalgic here. When I was mayor, both papers beat the hell out of me.
It was impossible to be too uptight in a newsroom where the revered editor in chief, Louis Seltzer, would throw firecrackers under reporters' chairs to get a rise out of them.
The open-door attitude to the newsroom kept the writers honest. The questionably sane (and documented insane) would wander through. If a source had a beef about treatment in a story, he could walk right into the newsroom and confront whomever they wanted. There was no security, except the other staff members.
It wasn't quite a newsroom out of movies like "The Front Page," but it was darn close.
FEAGLER: The newsroom was loud. There was a certain amount of noise just from the typewriters. Every once in a while you would yell.
Times were different. You walk into the Plain Dealer today, and you might as well be in a bank.
TOMSIC: Strippers would come up. There would be a new act at the burlesque. We'd take one in the studio and take a few pictures. We'd take all these pictures and the paper would just run a headshot.
There was one stripper, she was better with the tassels. She could spin her breasts in opposite directions. We thought that was a big deal. We were always creative. Well, maybe just stupid or childish.
WEIDENTHAL: I always hear stories about the hijinks. It was very rare. To me it was a very serious newspaper that knew what it was about. It knew who its audience was.
TANNER: I remember when I was first there, a guy came in and he'd sit down at the typewriter and start typing away.
I said, "What are you doing?"
He said, "I'm writing my story for The New York Post."
I'd look, and you couldn't read the damn thing, it was gibberish. He said, "My name is Kid Jublin." He was just kind of a dreamer who would come in, pound away for 20 minutes on the typewriter, take his stuff out and leave.
FEAGLER: We had a guy who was an inpatient at one of the mental institutions. He would come down with great regularity and sit on the rim of the copy desk. In the course of a month, he might be there four or five days.
I talked to him outside one time when I was going out and he was coming in. I asked him what he comes in here for. He said, "You ought to see that place where I am. You stay in there, you'll go nuts."
TANNER: There was this other guy who came in, by the name of Kalashnikov, like the rifle.
He'd stand up and make a speech. You couldn't understand what the hell he was talking about. He thought he was at Hyde Park in London or something.
After a while, we'd say "that's enough," and he'd leave.
KLARIC: As a copy boy — yes, even the women were called copy boys — we answered phones after hours. We were the people who were the face of the Press at night. People would call with all kinds of weird questions. We'd settle arguments.
People always wanted to know what the numbers were. I can't remember how the numbers racket worked, but they used the final stock numbers to divine the winning numbers. At that time the lottery was a private, illegal enterprise.
TOMSIC: So Louis Clifford, the city editor, wants to fire reporter Bus Bergen. He was pissed over Bergen's drinking. But Bergen was editor Louis Seltzer's favorite. Bergen was the kind of guy: He couldn't even write worth shit. When he did a story, they had the rewrite guy take it, even if he was physically there to write it.
Clifford and Seltzer brought Bus up to work in the city room. He was going to be under their thumb in the office. They took him off the streets. This was a huge deal for Bus. He was a fish out of water.
I don't know how it happened, but all the lawyers and judges around town thought Bus got a promotion, so they threw a party for him. No kidding! These judges were serious. Anyone who was anybody in town was there.
Not long after, they put him back on the streets.
A Cleveland paper
Part of what made the Press different was who it hired. Staff members said a preference was given to native Cleveland residents who already cared deeply for the city. They weren't very interested in people who went to school to write. They'd much rather hire someone who had some other type of specialty. The desk would fix the copy.
During World War II, many women were given promotions and were able to write more serious news, including about those who died in the war. Before, many of their bylines were reserved for the women's pages. When the men returned from the war, many of the women were able to stay in more prominent positions.
WEIDENTHAL: We were almost all Clevelanders. That's very important. Newspapers don't do that anymore.
People who were Clevelanders knew and understood what they were writing. They had the good of the city in mind. They knew what the city needed. They didn't have stereotypes of what a big-city newspaper should be.
The Press had some wonderful things like the Golden Wedding — printing those anniversary pictures — and all sorts of stuff big newspapers don't bother with today.
Louis Seltzer was at the story meetings a lot of the time. He would admonish people to remember that this was a local paper.
TOMSIC: We had a variety of people who worked for the Press from all walks of life. We didn't have anyone who went to journalism school. The backgrounds were varied. What made it work was we were allowed to think for ourselves.
FORBES: They were Cleveland's paper. The Press advocated urban renewal. They wanted to make sure the town was revived. They were interested in that. They supported buildings and changing the skyline downtown.
WEIDENTHAL: The Press was enormously powerful in its influence in Cleveland and wasn't always on the right track.
The worst example was the downtown urban renewal. What you got downtown was an ugly green building and a wind tunnel.
We didn't have the greatest mayors in the world. Ralph Locher. Tony Celebrezze. Thomas Burke. They were nice guys but they weren't good mayors. They weren't visionaries. There, Seltzer's hands could be seen. I think he liked the idea of being a kingmaker. I think he enjoyed that.
FEAGLER: The guys who were my mentors in 1963, Louis Seltzer, the editor, never graduated from high school, let alone got a journalism degree. Louis Clifford, who was the city editor and the guy who everyone was in awe of, I'm not sure if he graduated from high school. They learned the trade by just doing it. Yet, they were very literate people and very good at what they did.
If you wrote a lead that said three armed men robbed a 7-Eleven, you'd be called over to the city desk, and they'd say, "Did these men come from Mars? They have three arms? Don't you mean three gunmen?" They didn't need to go to school to know that.
TOMSIC: There was a guy named Theodore Andrica. He was the nationalities writer, but he really knew the nationalities. He spoke six languages.
When you went into a neighborhood with him, he was like the pope. He could get things out of people that no one else could.
It was good to work with people like him.
Scripps Howard sold the newspaper in 1980. Classified advertising was all headed to the morning papers around the country, and the same was true in Cleveland. The company announced that if it couldn't find a buyer, it would close the paper.
Businessman Joseph Cole purchased the Press. Some thought he had other intentions. Some thought he'd give it a go and if he failed, a joint-operating agreement between the Press and The Plain Dealer would keep the city's two remaining papers operating.
The economy was rough in Cleveland and the country. Afternoon papers and those that only published six days a week were being hit hard by a decline in advertising. The Press was both.
The Press lost its status as the bigger paper in town, but still had a strong circulation when it closed in 1982. That year, 316,417 copies of the Press hit driveways and paper boxes every morning, making it one of the 25 biggest papers in the country.
TOMSIC: I'm down in the Cotton Bowl in Texas. I'm shooting it for Sports Illustrated. When something was on deadline, you would hand-carry the film into New York City.
I take the film in there on a Saturday. The picture editor is a guy named John Dominis. He was an old Life magazine photographer. He had The New York Times on his desk. He said, "What do you think about this?"
It was a story about the Press closing. It wasn't final then. The Press was the very first Scripps Howard paper, so there was a lot of interest in it. I said, "It's got to be bullshit." He asked me if I'd like to come work for him. I said, "No, I want to work for the paper."
It went in one ear and out the other, but on the plane ride back, I got to thinking: The New York Times wouldn't throw just a rumor on their front page.
FEAGLER: I got a call from Herb Kamm, who was editor then, about a week before they announced it was closing. He said, "I don't want you to spread this around, but I'm going to tell you if you want to make other arrangements, the time has come."
I don't know how many people got that call. I know he didn't call many people.
It's like when you have a relative that's been sick and has been getting worse and worse. You get that phone call and it doesn't surprise you, but you lament it.
FRED McGUNAGLE, Press reporter, from his Elyria Chronicle-Telegram column: Some staff members cried. Some joked hollowly. Some started making calls in search of jobs. Some sat down at their video display terminals to work on the final edition as though nothing had changed. Most stood around numbly.
WEIDENTHAL: The writing was on the wall. Those who didn't see it coming just didn't want to believe it.
KLARIC: I had laryngitis when the news came over the TV the night before. I had to gather up my strength.
It was such a horrendous time. It was unexpected as far as I was concerned. We knew the Press was teetering on unfirm ground, but I think we always thought we'd merge with The Plain Dealer and survive.
I remember that I was home. I went in the next day and I contributed to one of the stories on the closing of the Press. It was a sad day.
As often happens when a business closes, they begin to treat the employees like criminals. They had guards at the doors. I don't know if they thought we'd steal the files. They were worthless. I did take my personal items out, but it is unsettling to be treated as if you're a thief.
It was a sad day for Cleveland. Competition was healthy, and there's very little of it left these days. Cleveland lost a voice.
Paul Tepley didn't want to go into the office that next morning. He barely slept. He woke up without the alarm clock. The reality lingered: There would be no Press the next day.
As a sports shooter, he worked nights. But if he went in at night, there would be nothing to do. There was no paper the next afternoon. He came in around 9 o'clock.
The Plain Dealer didn't carry the story that morning of the Press closing. The Press wouldn't be scooped on their last big story by the other paper, even if TV had reported it already. A classy move, Tepley said.
It took all he had in him to go to the office. Now, 25 years later, he looks at a picture printed in The Plain Dealer the morning after his last visit to the Press. He had forgotten about it. He squints closely at the box he's carrying. "Those must be my negatives," he
12:00 AM EST
May 24, 2007