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Wounded Giant 

The fight for The Plain Dealer's soul.

Doug Clifton tried to warn his staff about liberal bias. He ended up throwing cluster bombs. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Doug Clifton tried to warn his staff about liberal bias. He ended up throwing cluster bombs.
They call it a brown-bag meeting, a rather homespun term for a battlefield.

On one side were the altruists, those who became journalists "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," as the saying goes. On the other side was their boss, a man who may have believed the same at one time, but now spends his days marshaling a dying business, getting gnawed on from so many directions that it's hard to believe in anything.

This particular battle commenced days before, when Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton sent an e-mail cautioning his troops about liberal bias. The Bill O'Reilly crowd was at it again; 17 people cancelled their subscriptions due to some perceived heresy.

Such complaints arrive by the pound each day -- from conservatives who see lefty conspiracies, from liberals who use "mainstream media" as shorthand for those who whore for the corporados. Clifton merely saw it as a chance again to warn his charges to watch their words, not make themselves so punchable.

But the altruists -- liberal reporters and veterans who still relish the hunt for big game -- saw it as another sign that their boss was caving, this time cowering to nut jobs. They called a brown-bag meeting, hoping to hear the man out.

Clifton acknowledged his staff's lefty leanings. Urged them not to make such easy targets for those who live to squawk. Discussed their penchant for lionizing the underdog. Told them how he hated that damn "afflicted" slogan, since it was "prima facie evidence of bias," as he would later say, "not because I hate poor people."

If your business plan requires the humanly impossible -- selling news with complete objectivity -- it's an argument you have to make. Says one reporter: "I have the asshole bias. When I write a story, I gotta try not to be an asshole."

But it wasn't the best forum for Clifton, a man not known for an artful tongue or a fondness for human contact. "I think Clifton was making an off-the-cuff argument," says one reporter, "and what happens with him so often, he sort of digs himself a hole."

To many in the audience, his words rained down like cluster bombs. They took it as code for saying they should no longer write about the downtrodden, that they should stick to the suburbs, filter their words to keep the rednecks pliant. It set off flame-throwers throughout the paper's Superior Avenue headquarters.

"It actually crushed morale," says one reporter. "People cannot believe an editor from a major daily in one of the poorest cities in the country doesn't want us to do stories about poor people."

It could all be dismissed as ships passing in the night, neither side reaching out to what the other was saying. But it wasn't really a fight about poor people. This was a bout long in waiting, kindled by the panic that comes with employment in a vanishing trade, one nobody seems to know how to save, but one in which everyone has a rock in hand, ready to chuck it at whoever they believe brought them to this place.

Daily newspapers have been sick for nearly 30 years. Though they remain lucrative -- many boast profit margins of 25 to 30 percent -- it's something of a mirage. The march of departing subscribers runs in the thousands each year. So dailies respond by cutting pages and staff, providing customers with even less, then charging advertisers more to reach fewer people. And so the cycle continues.

Call it the slumlord theory of economics: Extract as much rent as you can before the building collapses.

This is the very unfabulous life of Douglas C. Clifton. He is asked to do something no one's asked anymore: create a product that's all things to all people. Naturally, no one's happy -- not him, not his employees, and certainly not his customers.

Their complaints pile into his phone and e-mail each day, accusing his paper of incompetence, bias, laziness, stupidity, racism -- choose one or more of the above -- with each seeming to contradict the last guy who called.

Worse, there's little room to make a move. He's stuck with a readership concentrated among the aging and elderly. To rebuild with a younger one risks driving the present one off. "I think there's no question that producing a newspaper for family consumption limits what you can do to attract the younger reader, who might be more attracted to edgier content and looser use of language," he says. "But that's the lot of the general-circulation newspaper."

He's also bogged down by a shop known for its minimalist approach to productivity. Though Clifton won't say it, his reporters will: The staff is loaded with dead weight.

"Two things struck me when I started at The Plain Dealer," says one. "If you take the premise that we're an average to below-average daily newspaper, I was shocked by how many people here are really talented. But I was also shocked by how many people don't do shit all day."

Nor can Clifton rebuild through his website. It's run by a sister company seemingly frozen in 1993. Allowing his own staff to build it would open up new union negotiations.

So he's done what everyone else has: follow the consultants and focus groups, who prescribe shorter, brighter, happier stories, heavy on the photos and graphics, light on tumult. The theory: The hastening of modern life requires faster reads, helpful advice, "news you can use." People have too many problems of their own to slog through meditative tales of this woe or that.

But this too is a mirage. The concept was pioneered by USA Today, which Clifton describes as the only "successful" paper "in a commercial sense in the last 20 years." Yet much of USA Today's circulation comes from hotel freebies thrown at business travelers, whether they want them or not. It's a beautiful scam, but the San Diego Hilton isn't likely to make bulk PD purchases anytime soon.

Which leaves Clifton and every other editor replicating a map that can't be copied. Across the country, readership continues to plummet.

So he spends his days examining ugly spreadsheet numbers, buffeting internal unrest, and reading the latest e-mails informing him just how much he and his paper suck.

There's another theory, of course, and this one includes no martyr role. It's the Big Steel Thesis. Clevelanders know it well.

As LTV was dying, we watched executives ceaselessly blame the outside world and forces beyond their control. Not until the old guard was slain -- and young Turks took over -- could the industry be streamlined, radically rebuilt, born again.

The same could be said of daily editors. The outer world may be pounding them, but they've done little to change what's within their control. "That's our basic problem," says one reporter: "We're afraid to do anything."

That timidity permeates The PD. News stories are officious and guarded. Enterprising reporting is rare -- and nonexistent in sports, business, culture. Attempts to go young -- with music, nightlife, dating, and the like -- often read as if Aunt Carol were assigned to explain mysterious phenomena to Grandma. Even such basic things as storytelling -- description, character development, the setting of time and place -- are actively shunned.

While the rest of mercantile America sells its products as aids to sophistication, ruggedness, sex appeal -- even Cadillac employs Jimmy Page's guitar -- The PD positions itself like aspirin: safe, easy to swallow, never harsh on the stomach.

Says one reporter: "All of a sudden you become a clerk instead of a journalist."

Clifton rejects the notion that his paper is risk-free; he has the hate mail to prove it. But he might forgive the under-40 crowd -- even the children of the '60s and '70s -- from asking, "When did you emerge from the time capsule?"

That leads the altruists to believe they're stuck in a losing army. Enemies keep stealing their readers and advertisers, while their generals appear anxious and lost, without a battle plan. The goal, it seems, is not to actually win, but just to delay the moment when you get shot -- and keep the old people from bitching on their phones.

But there's a better way, they'll tell you. They're sitting atop America's great story farm, Cleveland, Ohio, one of the most corrupt, impoverished, and downright weird places in the country, God bless her. It's a pugnacious city that's always enjoyed a good fight. Why not step up and throw down? Give the fans something to talk about? After all, these are tales that have sold since David and Goliath.

But editors don't see the same city, say reporters. If your life revolves around the Chamber of Commerce crowd, you're going to produce a Chamber of Commerce paper. It's exemplified by the running joke about one ranking editor, who likes to show his sense of street by judging stories on what his neighbor would think. Unfortunately, the editor lives in a distant, well-to-do suburb; the neighbor speaks for but a tiny fraction of Cleveland.

"I think they're out of touch because they don't mingle with the riff-raff," says one reporter. "If it doesn't delight suburbanites, then we're not gonna run it."

Adds another: "It will turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We're losing readership, so let's give them less to read, less substance, so they'll keep reading?"

That leaves the altruists to toss around phrases like "chilling effect." There's no encouragement to go big, they say, to knock heads, bust balls. "People who propose projects and series, there's almost disdain for it," says one reporter, "like we're asking to do some big favor."

Then again, one might forgive Clifton for wondering whether his staff is capable. Metro editors recently sent out a memo simply to urge reporters to show up on time, put in an eight-hour day. And there are others -- we'll call them the pragmatists -- who see colleagues skilled at delivering $100 oratories over 10-cent problems, but don't actually walk it like they talk it.

"You have the people who wanna do stories, and then you have the people who want to talk about journalism," says one reporter. "There just seems there's these groups who want to have these brown bags and talk about everything. Fuck, let's just go do the stories."

Even this faction, however, isn't enthusiastic about leadership. They point to Clifton's bigger blunders over the past year -- when he announced that he was holding a big story for fear of litigation, only to be forced to act when he was scooped by this rag. When he merged the Monday news sections to save money, only to backpedal after a reader rebellion.

The first left him mocked in the national journalism press. The second left his staff wondering whether he has a clue.

"You get the impression we're desperate," says one.

"That's unadulterated bullshit," says editorial-page chief Brent Larkin, addressing the notion that Clifton has given up. "He's every bit as engaged an editor today as he was seven years ago. Anyone who thinks differently is flat-out wrong."

But others see a man who doesn't often visit his newsroom, doesn't ask for input, doesn't seem interested in what his staff is producing. He is, in their eyes, much like the critics who bomb his phone every morning.

"I just think he's gotten really good at Monday-morning quarterbacking and telling us what we should have done," says one reporter, "but he isn't giving us any leadership, any direction about where we should go."

Whatever the case, his time is running out. The PD recently offered employees a golden buyout plan -- two-and-a-half-years' pay for employees over 50 with 20 years on the job. The question is whether it will be taken by those "who clearly don't do shit," as one reporter puts it, or the best and brightest, who've given up on boss and business.

Clifton still has much left to rebuild with. New publisher Terrence Egger has replaced Alex Machaskee, who seemed more interested in being feted at civic banquets than building his business. Egger, says one reporter, "gives off a sense that he understands the changes that are happening -- the way he carries himself, the calming effect he has."

The PD also has one of the highest per capita readerships in the country, says Clifton, "so it must be doing something right."

And it still cuddles a very valuable asset: the most comprehensive news-gathering franchise in Northeast Ohio. When you listen to the radio news in the morning or watch the TV news at night, chances are most of it originated in The Plain Dealer.

"Let's face it," says one reporter. "If it wasn't for us, there wouldn't be any news on TV and radio either."

Down I-77, however, sits a painful example of how fast that franchise can slip away. A decade ago, one could argue that the Akron Beacon Journal was Ohio's best paper. That was before Knight Ridder, its former parent company, stripped it to its shell, going so far as to ban office-supply purchases. Today, one might argue that the Beacon is superior to most Jaycee newsletters. The new owner forecasts further cuts.

The PD's parent, Advance Publications of New York, has yet to show the skittishness of the other moms and dads. But in this industry, that may be akin to being the most resilient cancer patient. Three decades of unabated customer flight would suggest the paper is hurtling toward something very bad. "It's almost as if you're working in a steel mill 10 years ago," says one reporter.

It's a curve that screams for sweeping change, but the old guard like Clifton continues to tinker with small, cosmetic alterations, the way an old man believes new ties will update his wardrobe.

Perhaps it's human nature; creatures of the past are usually the last to see the future. Perhaps they're too afraid of losing what remains. And like the bosses at LTV, they're surely not eager to entertain what may be the most pressing need of all: finding bolder, fresher, braver thinkers to fill the executive wing they now occupy.

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