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Friday, May 15, 2020

Chris Quinn is the Most Powerful Media Figure in Northeast Ohio. And He Won't Tell the Truth.

Posted By on Fri, May 15, 2020 at 12:18 PM

click to enlarge The Plain Dealer Plaza at 1801 Superior Avenue - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • The Plain Dealer Plaza at 1801 Superior Avenue

In a moment of intemperance earlier this year, editor Chris Quinn disparaged Scene Magazine's reporting as "misinformed ranting." Our "outrageously flawed," error-filled content was based on "almost no reporting," he wrote, in reply to a reader email. In his view, Scene did not even rise to the level of journalism. 

We didn't dwell on these barbs. This was an email response, after all, not written for publication. And he had good reason to be prickly after years of shall we say pointed critiques. Quinn is a human being, lest we forget, and it's hard not to take that stuff personally. 

But to the extent these animated comments reflected his beliefs, they were bothersome for deeper reasons, which reasons have been lately dramatized in Technicolor by the coverage of, and commentary around, the Plain Dealer's death. Quinn cited in that email, for example, (as professional gatekeepers are wont to do), a "long list of standards" that had supposedly evolved in the journalism industry, and said Scene adhered to none of them. "By no journalistic standard is the content produced there anything but the lowest quality," he wrote.

Who knows what standards he was talking about. Probably stodgy maxims about "fair and balanced coverage" and a prohibition on cuss words.

"In the elite press—on cable news, in newspaper opinion sections—you can say the most monstrous things imaginable, as long your language is polite," wrote Alex Pareene recently in The New Republic, on the subject of professional standards. "What you can’t do is rudely express a desire for a more just world."

Well, that's more or less what we're trying to do here on the Scene news desk. Quinn should know that beyond what is a basic business proposition to attract and sustain an audience (for the benefit of advertisers), typically by informing and entertaining them, the more ennobling journalistic purpose has to do with the pursuit of truth. This is sometimes confused with a pursuit of facts, but that's only the first step. Facts can of course be selectively presented and interpreted in more ways than one.

Quite apart from professional standards—Scene has no dress code, for example—what we aspire to do is tell the truth based on the facts as we understand them and expose lies when we see them, particularly from those in power. We need look no further than Quinn's latest column to demonstrate what we mean.

Chris Quinn is the most powerful media figure in Northeast Ohio. That now goes without saying. He has become the lone editor of the metro daily operation, a so-called "unified newsroom" which consists of and the four Plain Dealer News Guild members who opted not to take voluntary buyouts last month, when fleeting editor Tim Warsinskey threatened them with reporting assignments in outlying counties to force their hand. Reporter Julie Washington was hired back as well in what we presume was a damage control maneuver when the company realized it had laid off all its Black women.

Quinn's column, Thursday, introduced these five veteran reporters to the audience—like Quinn, we are overjoyed that they'll still be working—and proclaimed that the confusing dual newsroom situation in Cleveland had hereby come to an end! [Cue the balloons.

One must take a moment to recall that history is written by the victors. And here, in the immediate wake of the Plain Dealer News Guild's final dismantling, Quinn writes it slanted, twisting the recent news in a stunning spectacle of revisionism.

"To lose any of these five writers would have been a blow to the region," he wrote. "When I heard that Local 1 of the News Guild, the union that represented the reporters at The Plain Dealer, expressed its disinterest in representing the bargaining unit and its desire to terminate the collective bargaining agreement, I feared John, Susan, Steve and Terry might decide to stop writing or go somewhere else."

As described, it appears the Guild is the one who kicked its reporters to the curb. It's the Guild who was sick and tired of representing the PD journalists and wanted to kill the agreement they'd bargained hard for. Quinn prances in to save the day, in this version. He feared these poor veteran reporters, in the distress of their abandonment, might give up the field all together.

This shit is totally divorced from reality. (The encouraging news is, many readers recognized it as such.) It's doubly sickening, though, because the PD staffers who were just laid off can't chime in to correct the record without potentially breaching a non-disparagement agreement upon which the continuation of their health care benefits is based.

That situation should be recognizable as a power imbalance. It's been in effect since 2013, but especially since the fatal contractions of 2020, and it has created a situation where Quinn gets to control the story. Who can forget his entry from one month ago, in which he said the best reporters in town were members of his own newsroom. (N.B. these local broadsides can get a little esoteric, but his implication was that his crew was way better than the has-been knights-errant on the print side — five of whom, incidentally, will now have the honor of working under him). reporters and editors "don’t build cult followings on social media with nonstop messages about their crusading roles," Quinn's most quoted paragraph read. "They believe that journalism is about what others do and don't use social media to call attention to themselves."  

It's perhaps needless to mention that former members of the Guild have been seething with rage and sorrow through this whole mess, and that their enforced silence has made matters worse. The Guild as an entity, though, in the face of Quinn's lies, attempted to explain what actually went down in an official statement Thursday evening. We quote it at length here in the interest of clarity.

After two rounds of layoffs, the company said it would offer the four remaining employees jobs in Advance Ohio’s Cleveland dot com newsroom, after a layoff that allowed them to keep their earned severance, if the Guild would agree to decertify. The Guild asked the company if it would make the job offers absent an agreement and it refused to answer that question, essentially leaving those remaining employees in limbo. The Guild was obligated to negotiate on behalf of those remaining employees and did so, leaving the final decision up to them in a vote that, while not unanimous, passed.

The agreement ultimately ratified that led to disclaimer of interest was a heavily negotiated document.

The Plain Dealer sought to have the Guild agree to the following: “the Union expressed its desire to no longer represent the bargaining unit.”

The Guild refused to include that language - four times - because it was not true. The Guild’s message to the company said: “If your side’s view is that the Guild must simply state that it ‘has expressed its desire to no longer represent the bargaining unit,’ without any further context, then we have no deal, because that has never been the Guild’s position.”

While Chris Quinn, vice president of content for Cleveland. com was not directly involved in negotiations, he was aware of the process because his job offers were made at the behest of the Guild, which insisted on our members having those offers before any agreement was made.

Now Chris Quinn has inaccurately resurrected that language. Don’t trust him.
The picture suddenly becomes clearer! It's obvious to anyone with a brain that the Guild didn't suddenly lose interest in its members. Nor did they initiate these discussions on the basis of that disinterest. As is clear from their statement — which we believe not because it's coming from the Guild but because it makes sense — they continued to negotiate on behalf of their members until the bitter end, and they explicitly rejected the proposed language.

The company's repeated attempts to secure an agreement on language — that the Guild "expressed its desire to no longer represent the bargaining unit" — seems designed for one purpose: to give Quinn and cleveland dot com power to discredit the Guild after the fact. See! They'd be able to say. It was the Guild who desired this outcome all along. It was the Guild that committed suicide.

An important point for journalists and readers to understand is that even if that language had been agreed upon, that wouldn't make it true. The fact that Quinn is using this language in spite of its rejection, to say nothing of its falsity, is lowdown indeed, even by his own enlightened standards.  


Most of the people following the Plain Dealer story are by now aware that the newsroom schism of 2013 and the grotesque final layoffs last month were the opening gambit and the endgame, respectively, of Advance's union-busting scheme. This (i.e. the broad awareness) was not the case for years, but widespread interest in the PD's demise has led to plainer language in reporting on the subject. In national coverage, for example, it's taken for granted that the Advance strategy in Cleveland was about killing the Guild as much as it was about prioritizing digital platforms. In-depth reporting bears that out.

Both Quinn and Tim Warsinskey, though, have been working overtime to obscure this truth from local audiences. Quinn made a big show, Thursday, of apologizing for the confusion of the two newsrooms in Cleveland — "People with news tips did not know which newsroom to call. They did not know which newsroom operated which platforms," he wrote — but presents the unification as a response to that confusion instead of the only possible outcome to the PD's dissolution.

"No more," he writes, absent context. "Starting today, it’s all in one place. A single newsroom, overseeing all of our platforms, print and digital."

The editor of this new, unified newsroom is stating a set of facts here. But Chris Quinn is not telling the truth.

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