Hell to the Chief

The PD's new editor faces mixed reviews and an uphill battle

When cleveland.com revealed in October that Debra Adams Simmons would be the new editor of The Plain Dealer, the news was greeted by readers with a round of compliments, advice, and conspiracy theories.

One commenter handed out congratulations and best wishes to the new editor's predecessor, Susan Goldberg. Another welcomed the resident of Copley Township, near Akron, while wondering whether "anyone at The PD lives in Cleveland." Still another wanted to know the "real reason" that Goldberg was heading to Bloomberg News.

In the newsroom, there were no sighs of relief or moans of disappointment. The sound was the hmm of the curious. Despite having spent three years at the paper as managing editor, Adams Simmons was still an enigma to the folks she would supervise.

"A lot of people here don't know her that well, because she hasn't been engaged in the newsroom to the level of previous managing editors — there's no doubt about that," says one employee, who, like other current staffers, spoke for this story on the condition of anonymity.

Opinions differ on why that was. Some believe Adams Simmons was overshadowed by her predecessor; others say she watches her employees but trusts their expertise. Either way, she faces a wait-and-see attitude from a staff that's been demoralized by the uncertainty of their profession.

Newsroom critics have muttered about the new boss' low visibility ever since she came onboard in 2007. Stuart Warner, a former projects editor, says Goldberg wasn't the type to turn the newsroom over to a managing editor while she dealt with the corporate community.

"Susan was the most hands-on editor I've ever worked with; she was involved in everything," Warner says. "If Debra had been equally involved, you would have had that conflict."

But one employee offers a more dubious assessment: that Adams Simmons' power was usurped by Goldberg.

"Susan sort of took on many of the tasks that the managing editor would do: running the day-to-day stuff ... prodding editors," the staffer says. "Consequently, not a lot of people here at the ground level know her that well."

The low profile is surprising, given her credentials. Adams Simmons is the only minority female running any of the top 25 newspapers in the United States; nationwide, only three minority women head a major newspaper at all, according to industry sources.

Adams Simmons boasts another first: She is the only editor to have held the top job at The Beacon Journal and The Plain Dealer, the region's most influential papers. Her credo, she says, comes from the three years she spent in Akron.

"Among the important lessons: set clear goals, articulate a vision, believe in talent, be the last read on a big story or project, live within the budget. With a number of years of experience behind me, I think I'm poised to do those things better this time around."

Those who have worked with Adams Simmons say her vision includes increased attention to investigative and community journalism. But newsroom employees wonder how the paper can fulfill that goal with staff members flowing out the door.

"We don't have the chops that we used to because we've lost so many talented people between attrition and layoffs," one staffer says.

Still others have been wooed away recently. Patch.com, AOL's foray into hyper-local journalism, has launched 17 sites in Cuyahoga, Summit, and Medina counties. (Full disclosure: This reporter freelances for a Patch site.) The company hired several Plain Dealer staffers and alumni as full-time or part-time employees, including editors Jean Dubail and reporter Kaye Spector.

They joined a stream of reporters leaving the big building at 1800 Superior Avenue. Sandra Livingston, a 22-year reporter, was recently named vice president of external affairs at the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Port Authority. In October, NBA beat writer Brian Windhorst left to chase the LeBron saga for ESPN. Mark Puente, who helped expose corruption in the county government, left for The St. Petersburg Times in September. Elizabeth McIntyre, a high-level editor for years, left abruptly just three weeks after Adams Simmons' promotion. (McIntyre declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Adams Simmons calls the staff's local expertise one of the paper's greatest assets. "Of all of the organizations in town, we're the people who can best tell readers about the success of our schools, or the strength of our businesses, or the effectiveness of our local leadership," she says.

But that's a tall order when the paper's institutional memory is disappearing as experienced employees bolt.

"From the conversations I've been having with those who are leaving, they would have loved to have found something else in our industry. But they were concerned about what is going to happen in our industry," columnist Connie Schultz says. "You don't see a lot of young people yet; it's the boomer generation for the most part who has been taking a leave."

Adams Simmons herself belongs to a certain generation: upper-level managers who have become inured to steering through crises. She came to The Beacon as managing editor in February 2003. A month later the top editor resigned, and she took over later that year. New ownership in 2006 slashed 25 percent of the newsroom staff; by November, Adams Simmons had been restructured out of a job.

"I know that every single day she was at that paper she was dealing with layoffs, and the threat of layoffs, and the paper being sold, and people reassigned because we were having to fill holes in the dike," says David Giffels, a former columnist at The Beacon who now teaches at the University of Akron.

"She was very good at protecting us in the newsroom from all the difficult business stuff that was going on ... in particular a publisher whose apparent function was to drastically reduce the staff. Ironically, that's a really valuable skill for a manager to have right now: how to deal with a shrinking product and a reduced workforce, and how to move things forward."

The Plain Dealer's condition may not be as severe as Akron's was, but waters are still choppy. In 2007, when Adams Simmons became managing editor, the paper had a daily circulation of 334,195. That number has plummeted to 253,000, according to the latest figures released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Nevertheless, Adams Simmons will meet her challenges, says James Crutchfield, her former publisher at The Beacon.

"In Akron, she wasn't just the editor; she was a member of the management team and was almost ideal in that tough financial situation for helping figure out how we would go forward," says Crutchfield.

But Adams Simmons' biggest test will take place right in her own newsroom: winning over and inspiring a staff that is looking for leadership, and a reason to stay put.