Journalist Mike Roberts Recalls Cleveland's Most Turbulent Decade in New Memoir

click to enlarge Journalist Mike Roberts Recalls Cleveland's Most Turbulent Decade in New Memoir (2)
Gray & Co. Publishers
Michael D. Roberts stands among Cleveland journalism's 20th century giants. As the first and longest-serving editor of Cleveland Magazine, Roberts created a vital city organ that published must-read narrative features from the region's premiere writers about issues of the day: the mob, the political scene, the culture.

"[Cleveland] prided itself on its appreciation of art and music," Roberts writes in the final chapter of his new memoir, Hot Type, Cold Beer and Bad News (293 pp., Gray & Co.), "but it deserved better in the written word."

Roberts drunkenly agreed to edit Cleveland Magazine in 1973, only two weeks after quitting his job as City Editor at the Plain Dealer. The bulk of his book chronicles his decade at the PD, during a time of local and national upheaval. In doing so, he paints a rich portrait of newspaper life in what is by now an antique era, the period "just before technology changed the way news was covered." 

And so, readers are treated to the sights and sounds of the profession at its noisiest. From chapter three:

The city room morphed from a semi-deserted space into a veritable madhouse. Scurrying copyboys clutched sheaves of paper or sour coffee in sullen cups, answering to cries of 'Boy!' ... Telephones rang ceaselessly, voices rising to be heard over the cacophony while cigarette smoke collected in a cloud beneath the unblinking fluorescence overhead. ... As the clock moved relentlessly toward the first deadline at 7:20 p.m., the staccato click-clack of dozens of manual typewriters reached a crescendo. 

Shortly after he arrived as a cub reporter in 1963, Roberts was pegged as a rising star, a potential "ace" (in the vernacular), a hot shot who could own a front page. He would go on to be the paper's correspondent in Vietnam — the book opens, in fact, with Roberts' arrival in Southeast Asia, coincident with the Tet Offensive — and to cover some of Cleveland's biggest stories during the 60s and early 70s, many of which he discusses at length: the Hough Riots, the Carl Stokes ascendancy, the Kent State shootings.

On these and other topics, Roberts weaves his first impressions with wisdom acquired later. He's able to pronounce with authority, for example, that "even the shock of the Hough Riots failed to awaken the town's slumbering political and civic leaders, who had trouble fathoming what had gone wrong. The business community was in denial and the politicos were casting seeds of blame."

The history of the city is textured and enlivened, in Roberts' account, by the history of its newspapers. Students and lovers of local journalism will appreciate the personal anecdotes and professional assessments of familiar names like Louie Seltzer, Dick Feagler, Phil Porter and Tom Vail.

Roberts is often unsparing in his criticism of the PD's business and editorial decisions. He describes a newsroom that was energetic at the top of the decade, emboldened by rising circulation numbers and a battalion of "young, aggressive journalists with neon-bright egos," but one that became riven by distrust and resentment. Roberts takes aim, among other things, at the paper's failure to effectively cover Robert Manry's solo trans-Atlantic voyage and the Kent State shootings, both of which had measurable effects on staff morale. 

Today's working journalists and news consumers may read much of Roberts' book wistfully, if not mournfully. The gathering and production of news, as conveyed, is almost unrecognizable. The distinction relates not only to technology, though it's true reporters seemed to have spent a good deal of their time hunting for pay phones and calling in stories to desk editors.

More importantly, the vigor of the local news operation, exemplified by the fierce competition between two dailies; and the sense of camaraderie among the press corps, competition notwithstanding; are by now just as antiquated as the typewriters and rotary phones.

Furthermore, from the police beat to the federal courthouse, Roberts' Cleveland of the 60s' was one in which the importance of the press was validated by the relative openness of public officials. Reporters would stroll into the offices of councilmen and federal agents — imagine! — unbothered by babysitting spin doctors from Media Relations, a hallmark of contemporary reporting.

Roberts, now 79, edited Cleveland Magazine for 17 years and went on to edit Boston Magazine. He was inducted into the Press Club of Cleveland's Hall of Fame in 1995. He lives in Cleveland's southeastern suburbs.