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Goldberg's Way 

The Plain Dealer editor promised changes and delivered. But not all of them have gone over so well

The California transplant was seen by some as a golden ray for a paper with a cloudy future. The newsroom had just been dealt major cuts. Its website looked like an afterthought, circulation was dropping, and morale had been ebbing for years.

Unlike her predecessor, Doug Clifton, a stern Vietnam veteran and New York native who'd arrived eight years earlier, Goldberg immediately made herself accessible to the reporters under her charge. One small group at a time, she invited them to fine-dining lunches where she chatted them up about the paper's role in the community. She promised principled excellence: civic journalism at its finest, delivered by a newsroom in which women and minorities had a voice as valuable as the white men who had dominated it for decades.

By all accounts, the Michigan native was charming, intelligent, and accomplished: savvy in the newsroom, in the boardroom, and before crowds. Forty-seven at the time of her arrival, she had excelled in her ten years as an editor at USA Today, bookended by two stints with the San Jose Mercury News, where her front-page makeover became the Knight Ridder company's golden standard. Her newsroom earned a Pulitzer for coverage of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.

But over three years in Cleveland, many of the same qualities that made Goldberg and her paper successful have led staff to question her priorities. As the newspaper world has changed, so has The PD: A shrinking staff has been pressed to produce more stories for a continually shriveling paper and an expanding website. The transition has drawn accolades and arrows from PD writers and national pundits.

Goldberg has been the subject of debate for what some consider questionable judgment here. Editorial employees say she has diluted the paper's front page, opted not to support her own staff, and acquiesced to powerful institutions. Moreover, they say, she's given to self-promotion and prefers style over substance.

"I had high hopes for her," says one former staffer. "I think we expected someone with more depth and humanity than Clifton had. She definitely has more humanity, but the depth of reporting is not there. The most valid criticism [of Goldberg's tenure] is that appearances matter more."

Only one PD staffer, past or present, agreed to be quoted on the record about Goldberg and the paper for this story. Some cited the terms of their buyout contract; others mentioned fear of repercussions. When discussing the editor, the word "vindictive" is used nearly as often as "charming."

A passionate pep talk was a welcome reprieve at the time of Goldberg's arrival. Under Clifton's direction, 20 percent of the union newsroom staff had just been let go — the paper's biggest cuts ever and its first in recent history.

Goldberg employed a five-point manifesto for rebuilding the paper, most of it grounded in the need to provide peerless local coverage in the age of 24-hour international news cycles, and to do it around the clock.

Clifton had resisted the migration to online news as long as possible, treating cleveland.com as the print edition in a sleeker wrapper. Goldberg helped bring the site into the 21st century: For the first time, stories and updates appeared online before and after the print version, and Goldberg worked to ensure that writers were filing them around the clock. Video, reporter chats, and increased use of social media followed. The result was more work for fewer people.

"In the fat years, the newsroom felt like a cocktail party," recalls a former editorial employee. With the number of cushy gigs slashed, many writers felt overworked, when perhaps they were merely being worked for the first time. But hopes were high. Goldberg had resisted staff cuts at the Mercury News; maybe she'd be an ally for the writers she was pushing so hard.

From the start, the PD front page under Goldberg often traded news-lead photos for eye-catching graphics and mixed hard news with infotainment, like a recent onstage kiss between Sandra Bullock and Scarlett Johansson. And local news would be king, with a regional story every day, even if it was trivial. The shift in content and presentation hasn't been haphazard: Staffers report that Goldberg's editorial meetings are far more organized than Clifton's ever were.

As the new boss settled in, she did what she could to make those who remained feel valued. The inflated talk and expensive lunches helped. In California, she had boosted newsroom morale by hosting dinner parties at her home — opportunities to mingle informally with local newsmakers. But some of the personal touch that made her a newsroom sensation in Silicon Valley didn't fly so well in the Rust Belt.

In December 2007, Goldberg invited the PD staff to a gathering at her 15-room Cleveland Heights Tudor, where she lives with her husband, a real estate attorney. Writers and editors came in staggered shifts, and each seemingly came away with a different read on it. The soiree is still a topic of conversation. "The 'Come Look at My Mansion Party,' it's been cast as," recalls a former writer. Afterward, the editor's shoe collection became a permanent part of her mythology.

"The perception is she's out of touch," says one newsroom employee.

There was no year-end gathering at Goldberg's home in 2008. By then, a series of controversial episodes at The Plain Dealer had made national headlines.

The paper and Goldberg are in court over the matter of music critic Donald Rosenberg, who was reassigned after decades of chronicling the Cleveland Orchestra. The switch was the result of blowback from what the orchestra and conductor Franz Welser-Möst viewed as excessively harsh criticism. Clifton had been a vocal supporter of Rosenberg's right to his opinion. In January and February 2008, Goldberg and other PD reps met with the orchestra's bosses, who wanted Rosenberg out. Rosenberg didn't change his tune, and seven months later, Goldberg reassigned him.

Rosenberg, who remains on the PD payroll, has brought a lawsuit against the paper, the orchestra, and its conductor. (See the Scene story "The Orchestra Pit," from the May 5 issue.)

"She's a fantastic politician," says a former writer. "Maybe she'll say she picks her battles, but the battles she's decided not to pick have led people to question her loyalties."

Some of the paper's finest journalism of 2008 resulted in another blow to its reputation and may have pushed one of its best writers out the door. In October, at Goldberg's behest, The PD ran a two-part series about a disparity between drug sentences for white and black Cuyahoga County residents, written by Bob Paynter, who had helped the Akron Beacon Journal win a Pulitzer Prize before joining The PD. After the story ran, Prosecutor Bill Mason began howling. According to a Plain Dealer follow-up news story, Mason and staff met with the editorial board and objected to the stories and Paynter's methodology. The follow-up presented the prosecutor's objections, but ran without comment from Paynter. (Paynter did not return Scene's calls for comment. Goldberg and the reporter who wrote the follow-up, Leila Atassi, declined to discuss the episode.)

The same day, the paper ran another piece that looked like a public spanking for the journalist — an op-ed by Mason in which the prosecutor called out Paynter, claiming he "got it wrong — very wrong." One former PD employee calls it the most extreme example he ever saw of a writer being "thrown under the bus."

"An editor has to tell people to fuck off," says a current staffer. "And there's a sense it's not happening enough. Acquiescing to the powers-that-be — that's her. The Paynter situation, that was the perception."

If one of the paper's top performers could receive such treatment, it seemed everyone was fair game. "I saw Bob Paynter being treated that way, and he's well respected in the industry," says another former writer. "[And I thought] What's going to happen to me?"

The episode made a national splash among media geeks: Columbia Journalism Review sided with the writer in a January 2009 story, declaring "The Plain Dealer's failure to aggressively back its reporter risked allowing Mason's gripes to overshadow the outrageous injustices revealed by Paynter's strong and painstaking work." Paynter immediately accepted a contract buyout from the paper.

As writers' workloads have risen, so have Goldberg's standards. She's patient to a point with workplace mistakes like factual errors, but newsroom employees say she's been faster to suspend writers than previous leadership. They feel the three-to-one ratio of manager-editors to writers is high — "editors on editors on editors," as it's often described — and union members feel targeted and treated harshly. As one former writer describes it, "The worker bees feel like Susan shits on them." Another major episode after the Paynter incident set the feeling in stone.

When the 2006 contract buyouts didn't solve The PD's cash problems, a second round of editorial cuts were announced two years later. When not enough workers accepted voluntary buyouts, Goldberg issued a memo to union employees on December 1, 2008. Each of them was instructed to stay home the next day and wait by the phone. If they were to be cut, they would receive a phone call. If not, they were to report for duty. Goldberg says delivering the bad news was a lose-lose situation, but that her approach minimized the workers' public indignity. Once again, others had a different read of the situation.

"You work for them for how long, and this is how they treat you?" says one of the employees let go in the pre-Christmas cuts, which knocked out 50 more union employees while managers were spared, in accordance with corporate policy. To many, the move seemed to cement the editor's role as the velvet glove on ownership's iron fist.

As Goldberg's in-house popularity soured in 2008, good news also surfaced: The FBI's public corruption investigation of Cuyahoga County gave her newsroom its first chance to martial a full-blown investigative strike force. In July, the sudden raids on the county administration building and other offices resulted in a swarm of writers descending on the story, perhaps as a reminder to a flagging readership about the lingering power of daily newspapers. Some readers couldn't tell whether the paper was merely covering the developing story or creating it.

The paper certainly has created news of its own: An investigation of nine-term Cuyahoga County Sheriff Gerald McFaul led to breaking news of one impropriety after another, from nepotism to sloth. A series by reporter Mark Puente led to the disgraced lawman's resignation, arrest, and guilty plea to felony theft charges and a misdemeanor ethics violation this spring. But the paper's coverage of its coverage has drawn internal fire. In particular, some bristle at the tone of a May 28 article about the scandal.

"Half the story, we're congratulating ourselves," a staffer says. "It used to be, if the sheriff got busted after you reported on it, good, you did your job, you got him. Now, half the story is about us and what we did. It's a bit shameless."

Staffers past and present say the self-referential approach — increasingly common throughout journalism — is typical of Goldberg's flashy style. Puente says the story ran as he wrote it; whatever horn blowing came from him, not his editors.

"I put that in there," says Puente. "You've got to let people know what you're doing. Why would you not mention your own work when it led to what it led to?"

Goldberg says the approach is not only common, but appropriate: "Local papers can make a difference in the community. And this is a time when reportorial journalism is in some degree of peril. And so I think it's pretty important that when we do something that makes a difference in the community, that we remind readers of that fact."

Current and former workers say the paper is still doing solid work; it's just doing less of it than the days when it had seven investigative reporters on staff that could concentrate on breaking one big story at a time. But even as the paper hits hard with coverage of the county corruption scandal and the murders on Imperial Avenue — which made national headlines last winter — some bemoan the loss of troops patrolling the suburbs and the perceived pass the publication has given business interests like the Medical Mart.

"We've changed a lot as a paper — what we can cover and what we don't cover, how we position ourself publicly," a staffer says. "Susan is about holding us up as a watchdog — and there's legitimacy to that. But hell, look at what we were doing 15 years ago. What we do today is a pale shadow of that. And for all the talk, we don't do much watchdogging."

Late last year, The PD rallied behind Issue 6, a ballot initiative to reorganize Cuyahoga County government in the wake of the ongoing corruption scandal. The issue was backed by big business and endorsed by the paper's editorial board. An editorial promoted prominently on the front page led writers to question whether the paper was fully exploring all the angles. Some considered it a dubious judgment call made from an ivory tower, without much care to explore how it would play out closer to the streets. Moreover, they say, Goldberg moves in higher business and social scenes, and that's where her sympathies lie.

"She's definitely seen as somebody that hangs out in wealthier circles," says a former staffer. "The Plain Dealer is very embedded in that community, and the feeling is The PD was cheerleading [for Issue 6]."

Goldberg defends her own work and that of the board and reporters.

"I think we looked at both [competing alternative] Issue 5 and Issue 6 very thoroughly," says Goldberg. "We had a lot of people assigned to it...I think our reporting was very fair."

Goldberg's judgment calls sparked another national controversy in the paper's coverage of the circus that is the Anthony Sowell trial. In December 2009, Judge Timothy J. McGinty was assigned to the Imperial Avenue murder case. A week later, he stepped down. The PD story about the development revealed that the judge had corresponded with the paper about the case, believing his comments were off the record.

Three months later, The PD tracked anonymous comments on an unrelated cleveland.com story and linked them to McGinty's replacement on the Sowell trial, Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold. The paper further linked online comments regarding the Sowell trial to the account used by Saffold. Goldberg decided to reveal the source of the comments, citing the cleveland.com privacy policy, which reads, "...we reserve the right to use the information we collect about your computer, which may at times be able to identify you, for any lawful business purpose."

But debate raged over whether she was right to identify an anonymous poster. Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies says that if there was an ethical lapse, it wasn't Goldberg's.

He notes the distinction between the paper and cleveland.com, both of which are owned by Advance Publications. The website serves as the paper's online host, but has its own editor and management. "I questioned the decision by the online editor to hand over that name," says Steele.

Saffold didn't exactly concur. She was removed from the case and has sued the paper for $50 million. A month later, The PD ran a story detailing the judge's unpaid parking and traffic tickets — a move that could easily be interpreted as a vindictive slap against Saffold. According to the story, the investigation was inspired by an anonymous tip, and the paper examined other judges' ticket records in the process. Citing the lawsuit, Goldberg declined to comment.

Stacked against newspapers across the country, Goldberg's tenure has perhaps been a letdown in terms of stanching the industry-wide flow of blood. From 2008 to 2009, The PD's circulation declines were 40 percent higher than the national average, though last year's figures have been only slightly worse than national numbers.

Nowhere was Goldberg's perceived slant toward fluff more evident than in the months-long coverage of LeBronGate, the local orgy of speculation that snowballed into "The Decision." Dogged beat reporter Brian Windhorst, who had covered James since high school, was on the story like paint from start to finish. But most of the dog-and-pony show that accompanied it was wearisome — fuel for the city's misplaced affections.

When the clock ran out, The PD — and almost every outlet in the country, big and small — failed to break the story. But the Cleveland paper's coverage did garner acclaim: Its brilliant four-page wrap (effectively its front page) and the iconic, double-sized image was hailed nationwide as an instant classic. Speaking to Poynter Online's Jim Romenesko, Goldberg reported Decision Day was cleveland.com's "biggest day ever." People are talking about The PD, and they say it looks good.

The boss's boss sounds happy too.

"Susan's performance has clearly exceeded expectations," says PD Publisher and President Terrance Egger. "That is particularly true given the national economic crises and industry turmoil of the past three years."

From the inside, Goldberg's assessment isn't so glowing. In the wake of staff cuts, mandatory furloughs, decreasing health benefits, pay reductions, and slights real and perceived, morale in the newsroom these days is at an all-time low — even while editorial productivity may be at an all-time high. But many consider it a product of a downtrodden industry in transition, and times are bad everywhere. Even Goldberg's critics concede that morale would likely be similar with anyone else at the helm.

Her detractors and defenders agree on at least one thing: In the big time, there's no such thing as a non-polarizing editor. The newsroom isn't the chatty place it used to be, but one reliable topic of conversation is Goldberg herself.

"The general perception is she's still a work in progress," says a former staffer. "Like 'Susan means well, but she's a little out of her league.' Some people have an axe to grind, but it's a legitimate debate."

Send feedback to dferris@clevescene.com.

More by D.X. Ferris

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