Giving Them the Business

The Plain Dealer typifies the nation's lackluster business press.

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Give the media credit. When they make a mistake, they don't just make any half-assed flub. When they get it wrong, they get it wrong.

Take the coverage of a certain Houston-based business. Fortune magazine said it was one of the country's most admired companies. The New York Times called it "a model for the new American workplace." Even after the stock plummeted and the CEO abruptly resigned, its hometown paper, The Houston Chronicle, wrote that "nothing major appears to be wrong at the company."

Enron, this paragon of American capitalism, was soon hurtling toward the largest bankruptcy in American history.

The media's capacity to blow it is nothing new. Reporters have always been better at describing the mess than predicting the accident. Yet the Enron debacle has provided more than a dose of super-sized humiliation for the nation's business press. It's given the public a glimpse of what a lot of people in journalism already know: that the majority of business coverage just isn't very good.

"If you look at most of the 1,500 daily newspapers in this country, and certainly most of the TV stations," Chicago Tribune Deputy Managing Editor Jim Warren said earlier this year, "the reality is that we're basically bulletin boards for corporate America."

Debbie Van Tassel, business editor at The Plain Dealer, puts it a little more politely. "I don't want to blame people in the press for what people at Enron did," she says. "But it does point out that we need to do a better job."

Van Tassel ought to know. For years, the paper's coverage has tended to epitomize many of those problems. Stodgy and uninspired, the business section has long been a conspicuously weak element of The Plain Dealer. While it has attempted to be more lively and aggressive in recent years, critics inside and outside the paper don't strain to point out where the section still lags: a paucity of in-depth and investigative stories, a lack of urgency, a blind spot when it comes to emerging industries.

In short: On most days, it remains unessential, customary fare: "HMI puts ex-CEO on board," "Businesses learn to cater to the elderly," "Glenn Center on guard for hackers."

"They will report on things after the fact and on large industry," says Erwin Bruder, managing director of the Gordian Organization, a business consulting firm in Beachwood. "How many people in this part of the country even know Moen is located here?"

It's easy to harp, of course. Daily newspapers tend to be like pro football coaches -- the subject of reflexive criticism, the source of constant bitching. Nobody -- at least nobody outside the media -- sits around the water cooler discussing how good they are. In exchange for a monopoly, they become civic punching bags, a bond that binds a city in collective dissatisfaction.

Business coverage has always been a particularly easy target. For years, it was journalism boondocks, the refuge of the deficient and the damned. "The first papers I was at, the business section was always a couple old nicotine-stained guys," says Joe Dirck, a former Plain Dealer columnist. "It was really a backwater in the newspaper."

The economic tumult of the 1970s changed that, but it wasn't until the go-go '80s and '90s that business journalism came into its own. With a sustained bull market and the proliferation of personal investing, business news was no longer just for businessmen. In 1996 alone, 22 personal finance magazines were launched. By 2000, there were an estimated 12,000 business reporters in the nation's 50 largest markets -- a threefold increase in a dozen years.

Still, quality coverage lagged far behind demand. Part of it was simple math. Bodies were needed, and they often came in the form of reporters too inexperienced for more sought-after jobs, positions that don't entail poring over financial reports or interviewing staid executives. People who pursue journalism tend to daydream about Woodward and Bernstein, not Woodward and Greenspan.

Carl Schierhorn, a Kent State journalism professor, says most students want to cover city news or write about the human side of education or health care. "They find [business] somewhat foreboding, that it is simply part of the world they don't understand and therefore are afraid of. And part of it is that they think it's going to be boring. Students don't like boring."

"I was an economics major in college and basically didn't like it," says Miriam Hill, a personal finance reporter who worked for The Plain Dealer for 10 years before moving to The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998. "I did an internship at a banking trade paper to get econ credits. Having that business experience made me attractive, because nobody wanted to be a business reporter."

Meanwhile, the best talent became hot commodities, like Playboy bunnies with Mensa cards. The result has been predictable: a wide chasm among the best business publications and almost everyone else. Fortune, Forbes, Business Week, and The New York Times are often stacked with well-written, compelling stories. The Wall Street Journal is considered by many to be the best newspaper in America.

Yet at many daily papers, the business section remains an exercise in pro forma journalism, a collection of turgid tales about company earnings, soporific profiles, and stock quotes. The stories are predictable; the reporting is perfunctory, the writing as lively as vanilla yogurt.

Two years ago, when the Society of American Business Editors and Writers handed out its annual "Best in Business" awards, this disconnect was so apparent that the contest judges felt a public scolding was in order. They berated most of what they saw for a "lack of critical thinking," for being too reactive, for writing too many pieces that "smacked of boosterism."

For years, The Plain Dealer's business coverage was typically insipid. Dull and desultory, it was neither offensively bad nor particularly good. Like Funky Winkerbean or the weather map, it was just there. "Some great work, some good, mostly mediocre," is the summary of one former reporter.

There were beacons of excellence, like Sandra Livingston's coverage of labor and Diane Solov's writing on the insurance industry -- particularly her stories on Blue Cross/Blue Shield. But more often than not, the emphasis was on filling the section rather than finding news, recall former staffers. Crain's Cleveland Business regularly scooped The PD. Reporters often had to fight to get time to work on longer, more complex stories. "There were always people doing strong work there, but in general, editors could easily express the pressing need for a quick, fluffy profile to fill the 'Business People' spot, but not for much else," says Hill.

Says another former reporter: "There were stories I was assigned that, if anybody tried to assign me now, I'd just laugh."

Unfortunately, what the paper lacked in in-depth reporting, it made up for in timidity. Hill once got a tip that National City Corporation had furnished a telemarketing company with personal information about its customers -- not just names and phone numbers, but account balances and Social Security numbers. But when the bank sued the telemarketing employee who gave Hill the information, her editors balked at publishing the piece. Only after The Beacon Journal ran the story did The PD summon up its courage. "There was a fear about being aggressive," says one reporter. "There was a reluctance to step on toes."

It wasn't just that The PD didn't stand out among its big-city brethren. It didn't even distinguish itself in Ohio. From 1993 to 2000, The PD won exactly one first-place business-writing award from the Associated Press, for Solov's work in 1995. This, in an industry that hands out awards like jelly beans at Easter.

Things started to brighten, say staffers, with the arrival of Mark Russell as business editor in the mid-'90s. Morale improved. The dry-as-dust prose began to read better than the Elyria phone book. Then, in 1999, Doug Clifton was hired as The PD's editor. Clifton named Russell metro editor and hired Debbie Van Tassel to run business.

A veteran of The Beacon Journal and The Seattle Times, Van Tassel quickly gained a reputation for being tough and driven. "She's not the kind of person who's going to pull up a chair and chat with you about what you did last weekend," says one reporter.

From the beginning, Van Tassel sought to make the section more aggressive. "I felt some reporters -- not all of them -- some were used to letting the companies dictate what kind of stories got done."

She also wanted to make it more accessible to the bus driver concerned about his 401(k), rather than the business executive hoping for some free publicity. So she snatched Lakewood beat reporter Chris Seper to cover personal technology and grabbed highly regarded Mary Vanac from The Beacon to be the paper's personal finance writer.

The focus on readability has been conspicuous, if often pedestrian: "Finding the best deals online"; "Voice technology seeping into mainstream."

The section's renewed commitment to hard-hitting reporting is more of an open question. The PD has been all over LTV's bankruptcy, but there are few revealing stories about the city's behemoths -- American Greetings, Progressive Insurance, Sherwin- Williams. Seldom appears a profile of a local business figure that could be considered even remotely unflattering. And that's when they're written about at all. When Al Lerner is covered, it is not as a businessman.

"The Plain Dealer's business section is a lot better than it was 10 years ago," says Dirck, who left the paper in 2000 after 11 years as a Metro columnist. "There's a lot more items. It's a lot more readable, a little more aggressive than it was. But it's not nearly enough, in my opinion."

There's not a lack of willingness to do the hard story, say PD staffers. It's a matter of resources. Business writers are among the most prolific at the paper, cranking out stories like the factories they cover. It doesn't lend itself to in-depth, enterprising coverage. "Some of us are like 'Jesus, thank God we don't work in the business section,'" says one Metro reporter.

Yet to some critics, the beef is not about how The PD writes about business, but whom it covers and how much play they're given. It's a gripe particularly acute in the high-tech industry. "In Northeast Ohio, there are about 2,700 information technology companies," says Jim Cookinham, who runs the Northeast Ohio Software Association. "If you ask people how many IT companies they think there are in Northeast Ohio, I promise you, that's not the number they'll spit out . . . The mass media, whether it be the television stations or The Plain Dealer, they don't seem to understand what's going on."

Explains the Gordian Organization's Bruder: "Look, The PD does sports real well. The sports reporters are at the practices, they're in the locker room. A business reporter might visit a company and interview the CFO or CEO and get an hour and a half or two hours of time, and that's about it. So it's hard to pick up the trends. It's hard to pick up on the undercurrents."

Van Tassel is unflappable when addressing such complaints. She speaks in the cool, measured tones of fluent journalese: The paper can always do better. It should never be satisfied. It is always striving to be as fair, objective, and accurate as possible.

"We should always be on edge and think, 'Jeez, is there something else I'm not looking at? Did I ask the right questions?'"

But she is clearly proud of the direction her section is taking. She notes that the section's size has actually been increased. The paper continues to improve its quotient of enterprise stories. And while she would like to see more coverage of new companies and entrepreneurs, much of what's covered is a function of an economy in the crapper.

"You make judgment calls every day. There are tons of stories out there and only 13 or 14 reporters available to do them. You have to think about what has the highest reader impact."

Of course, nothing represents the ambitions of the paper more than its coverage of LTV over the last 14 months. Deputy Business Editor John Kroll spearheaded an effort that involved a team of reporters and extraordinary resources -- a reporter and photographer were sent to South Korea and Russia -- to cover almost every conceivable angle. Not just about LTV, but about the entire steel industry.

The result was some impressive work: a package on the last day of the West Side mill. An expansive effort to put LTV's closing in the context of a beleaguered industry. An in-depth look at the company's failed mini-mill in Alabama.

Even reporters in other departments, a notoriously critical lot, find it difficult to argue with the energy devoted to the story: "If you don't do it, people will cry, 'Where was The PD?,'" says one. "So you have to. It's a huge story."

Still, instituting change at a paper this size is like doing a 180 with an oil tanker. Even the LTV coverage reflects the business section's struggle to shed its listless heritage.

The paper was quick to outline obvious issues that led to LTV's bankruptcy -- foreign competition, a slowing economy, huge legacy costs -- when the company declared Chapter 11 in December 2000. Yet it would be three months before it explained how poor investment decisions left the company cash-poor during one of the worst steel markets in decades.

Then there was Trico. Among the most compelling stories the paper wrote was reporter John Mangels's dissection of LTV's failed mini-mill venture. Well-written and rich in detail, it was an insightful look at LTV's fatal hubris. The problem: It appeared nearly a year after the company declared bankruptcy and nearly nine months after Trico closed its doors. Mangels, it should be noted, isn't a business reporter. He's the paper's science writer.

For The PD's business section to be a success, it will have to win over guys like Bill Adler. The owner of Stripmatic, a Tremont manufacturer of small parts for auto suppliers, needs to keep up with his industry and the economy as a whole. That means keeping tabs on the steel industry -- the topic that has consumed much of The PD's coverage since December 2000.

Yet Adler isn't a habitual reader. He tries to read The PD when he can. But it doesn't offer much of the kind of news he's looking for, whether it's around the region or around the world. "To be honest, I get most of my information from The Wall Street Journal."

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