I'm sitting here sipping on a Malibu coconut rum, listening to Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You," and trying to assemble a meaningful retrospective of my 10 years at Scene. Emotional evening!
Over the course of this uproarious tour of duty, which began in January, 2013, I've written thousands of stories and literally millions of words. Capturing the breadth and eclectic depth of that output is a fool's errand. The good news is a whole lot of it is very bad indeed and needs not be revisited.
But there were some fun stories, and stories I was proud of, and stories that I'm pleased to say helped shape or steer the discourse around important local topics. To impose some discipline and pace on this stroll through memory lane, and for the sake of my sanity and yours, I thought I'd limit myself to one story or themed set of stories per year.
As I said yesterday on Twitter, Scene has been the job of a lifetime, both a playground and a laboratory for a young journalist. I arrived at age 24, and I'm so grateful to have had the time and space to grow as a reporter (and as a person), and for the freedom to scrutinize and criticize my hometown, which I tried to do with honesty and purpose.
Thanks for all your support over the years.
Turmoil at the Museum: Inside the Affair, Suicide and Abrupt Resignation That Rocked the Cleveland Museum of Art
My most memorable reporting experience at Scene arrived early. Playing ping-pong and wall ball in the office on W. 9th Street, we got clued into the story by trawling the comments section at Cleveland.com. We understood immediately that there was much more beneath the surface, that the resignation of CMA Director David Franklin was in fact just the tip of a dark and sinister iceberg. My colleague Doug Brown spearheaded the police reporting and I tackled the board of trustees angle, while also trying to make inroads with the family of a young woman connected to Franklin who'd died under mysterious circumstances.
I lead the writing of the piece, which occurred in a caffeinated binge over something like 48 hours at Doug's Tremont apartment, with key contributions from editor Vince Grzegorek, who was far more versed in the local media dynamics than we were at that stage. I'd been at Scene less than a year, and this was my first real introduction into the inner circles of Cleveland power — the business leaders and philanthropists who occupied the city's beloved cultural boards. It was also an important lesson in the value of anonymous sourcing, which would later become a key method for getting high-profile leaders to give me intel and dish on their peers. I called every member of the CMA board and finally got one to speak under conditions of anonymity, a real breakthrough moment.
Doug and I had to get comment from Franklin himself, of course. We drove to his house in the leafy eastern burbs and knocked on his door. We could see he was home, peering at us through an upstairs window, but he wouldn't answer. A few minutes later, we got a call from his attorney telling us to vacate the premises, and that cops were en route. Scary stuff for a young and inexperienced reporter.
Anyway David Franklin high-tailed it out of the country, and as far I know still lives in Canada.
Confessions of a Strip Club Bathroom Attendant
By His Hands (a Profile of Bishop Richard Lennon)
Honorable mentions here go to two very early profiles — forgive the over-writing!!! — including one of a strip club bathroom attendant, my first viral hit, in which I got to tell my then-girlfriend (now wife!) on multiple occasions that I was off to the Hustler Club ON ASSIGNMENT.
Charles Ramsey Has a Goal
It's almost quaint to recall now, but back in the early days, Scene had three full-time writers on staff. Eric Sandy, Doug Brown and I were essentially on a cover story rotation, responsible for one big-ticket piece per month, with the open slot generally going to a special issue or a freelance contributor.
Looking back, it feels like every week in 2013 and 2014 had an iconic story on the cover. We were reporting and writing like fiends, in love with the chase and in thrall of the craft and trying to outdo each other week by week. (We were all in our mid-twenties, bosom buds, and socializing to an outlandish degree. Beautiful memories.)
I was a student of magazine journalism and always cared deeply — often too deeply — about sentence construction and word choice and all that jazz. Early on, I was resentful that Cleveland audiences didn't seem especially interested in literary writing within the journalism they consumed. The enormous expenditures of time and energy required to write long, deeply reported feature stories didn't pay off in engagement as often as I hoped.
But it's not like that stopped us! This piece was modeled after a famous profile by Gay Talese, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." (I sent the story to Talese himself, in fact, who read it and got a kick out of it, an exhilarating moment in my early career.) I would later model a 2018 Bernie Moreno profile
on Richard Ben Cramer's oft-cited profile of Ted Williams, "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?"
But this Charles Ramsey piece was a more meticulous homage, and one I was extremely proud of at the time.
In 2013, Eric Sandy had lead Scene's reporting on the Ariel Castro case, producing a full cover package in the immediate aftermath of the rescue from the house of horrors. The profile on Charles Ramsey a year later — which was ultimately a disquisition on 15 minutes of fame — was my key contribution.
Exactly What Happened on E. 4th and the Arrival of the Riot Police in Cleveland
Freshly married, my wife was on a girls trip the weekend of the Michael Brelo verdict, which meant I had the personal freedom to attend a Tamir Rice birthday celebration in the morning and then head downtown for the Brelo protests. I'd been regularly attending the protests after the #137shots incident and the Tamir Rice shooting, and I was glad to be on scene once again, to document the police tactics in real time, and to recount the night in this follow-up dispatch, composed in an adrenaline-fueled all-nighter.
Why You Might Have a Real Hard Time Crying at 'Me Before You'
Just to spice things up, I'm including a movie review here. One of the great joys of working for Scene was the ability to cover arts and culture alongside news. My first week on the job, Music Editor Jeff Niesel asked if I had any interest in writing concert reviews. I admitted I wasn't much of a music expert, but was a big movie guy. Perfect, Niesel said, and sent me to a screening of a forgettable Russell Crowe vehicle that night.
I went on to write at least one movie review per week for the next six years. (I largely stopped during the pandemic for a variety of reasons.)
Most of these reviews were 500-750 words, but every once in a while, for web-only reviews, I stretched my legs a bit. This was one of my favorites, though by no my most controversial. That honor goes to my 2019 takedown of John Wick: Parabellum
, which resulted in actual death threats and Doxxing, courtesy of diehard fans of the franchise on Reddit and elsewhere.
In fact, I often received more surface-level vitriol for my movie writing than for my political writing. In 2017, I wrote what was probably my most roundly reviled and shit-upon piece, An Argument Against Luxury Seating at the Movies.
The Essential Q Deal Reading List
The entire year, in my memory, was devoted to reporting on the Q Deal, what became an inflection point for me as a political journalist and local commentator. Pre Q-Deal, I still saw myself as a magazine writer, with dreams of producing ambitious, literary features for New York glossies about celebrities and sports. After the Q Deal, I was 100% committed to reporting in and on Cleveland, and doing so in a way that directly challenged a power structure ruled by private interests, (including, but by no means limited to, the pro sports teams.)
Even though I grew up in Cleveland, I didn't feel like I had the authority to weigh in on local politics, and certainly not to attack private leaders, until the experience of reporting daily on the Q Deal. The effrontery and deceit of Cleveland's electeds, working in that case on behalf of the Cavs, was so outrageous to me that I felt any honest journalism about it should reflect that outrage and channel the dismay and disgust of the electorate, (of which I was a member). I reported on both the nitty-gritty financial aspects of the deal and on a truly inspiring grassroots opposition movement.
Much of my political writing in the years that followed was in a hybrid form that included both reporting and commentary. I was reading a great deal of Cleveland history at that time (plus every back issue of Roldo Bartimole's Point of View) and recognized the vacuum of pointed critical writing in Cleveland. When and where I could, I did my best to fill the void.
An Essay on the Failed Amazon Bid and the Defective Philosophy Undermining Cleveland's Progress
All that critical writing and thinking about Cleveland's leadership led me to an essay that I'd been stewing over for months. The city's failed Amazon bid was, for me, an entry point to discuss some of the tendencies I'd observed with increasing alarm.
It was an extremely popular piece that resonated with a wide readership. The truth, though, is that we had a cover story fall through that week, and I wrote it on a rushed schedule from a haywire constellation of handwritten notes. (Writing cover stories at the last minute was an early rite of passage at Scene and often resulted in mashed potatoes. Thankfully, I'd been thinking about this material long enough, and had read the city's bid cover to cover, so was able to set pen to paper without much anguish or embarrassment.
The Joseph M. Gallagher Middle School Chess Squad is the Cleveland Team We Should All Be Rooting For
A Hudson Megachurch, a Beloved Pastor and the International Sex Abuse Scandal They've Tried To Hide
Why Cleveland Rising Was Doomed to Fail
Three bangers, including what was probably my favorite feature I wrote for Scene (the Gallagher chess piece). The team is now largely at John Marshall High School and have become local celebs with their own merch and the appreciation of Guardians phenom Steven Kwan. It makes my heart sing.
Plain Dealer Editor Tim Warsinskey is a Liar and Advance Publications Doesn't Give a Shit About Cleveland
"The Real Cleveland" Cares More About Restaurants and T-Shirts Than Black Lives and That Sucks
Cleveland Police Report on May 30th Provides Faulty Framework for More Police Violence
Cleveland OKs Unprecedented Subsidy? For Rich Developer? Take it to the (Flats East) Bank.
The year of the sputtering, angry column. As Scene reduced its print schedule from weekly to fortnightly to shave costs during the pandemic, the balance of my energies shifted towards the digital operation almost entirely. I became more of a blogger than a reporter. I think the anxiety and frustration of the Covid era, with every human interaction mediated through a Zoom screen, was reflected in the tone of much of my work. Nevertheless, I'm proud to have been able to document the cruel dissolution of the Plain Dealer News Guild and multiple elements of the May 30th George Floyd demonstrations.
Winners and Losers from First Cleveland Mayoral Debate: Sandra Williams' Emergence, Zack Reed's Resilience
Councilman Basheer Jones's Last Day, and Untangling the NEON Debacle
The 2021 mayoral election was a multi-month parade of forums and events, and it was a joy to cover the race alongside my colleague and pal, Nick Castele, Cleveland's hardest working reporter.
I happened upon a format, ("Winners and Losers"), that readers seemed to enjoy. It allowed me to discuss the campaigns in both an accessible and entertaining way.
Contempt of Court: We Need to Talk About Geauga County Judge Timothy Grendell
The Inside Scoop on CMSD CEO Eric Gordon’s Resignation
Coupla recent biggies.