The death watch for print newspapers gained steam this week as Advance Publications laid off 600 workers at papers in New Orleans and Alabama. The news comes on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the folding of The Cleveland Press. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports on what it means to a city -- journalistically and otherwise -- when newspapers fade to black.
Last month, when the New Orleans Times-Picayune announced it would go to three days a week this fall, pundits lamented the flagging economy that forced the 185-year-old institution to shrink. The paper that broke numerous stories in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill is going largely on-line.
As recently as three decades ago, New Orleans had two daily papers. So did a lot of American cities, including Cleveland.
The Cleveland Press had followed its slogan, “The Newspaper That Serves Its Readers,” for more than a century when it ceased publication on June 17, 1982.
The city’s only afternoon paper had been ranked one of the country’s ten best by Time magazine in the 1960s. It was well-known for its controversially influential coverage of the Sam Sheppard murder case. But by the early 1980s, its role, like that of most of the country’s afternoon papers, had been replaced by the 6 o’clock news. Ed Byers was news director of WGAR radio at the time. He had watched The Plain Dealer -- with its stronger advertising and distribution -- pull ahead of the Press.
“There is a common thought about the Press that it really wasn’t in tune with the town. That is kind of like the Monday morning quarter-backing, 30 years later. The owner of the Press was pledging to pump money into it, to go head-to-head with The Plain Dealer, to make the Press a very viable publication and keep it operating. I think it really sucker-punched [and] blind-sided a lot of people that day, I mean we were thunderstruck.”
One of those thunderstruck was Dan Coughlin. At the time, he had just jumped to the Press after years as the PD’s top sports reporter.
“We were having a bunch of babies- I needed a bigger house! And The Plain Dealer refused to give me a raise. But the Press came through like a champ. They vowed, they pledged, they promised… they guaranteed they were not going to go out of business, imminently. Ten weeks later, they shut down.”
Coughlin landed on TV at Channel 8. Others migrated to competing papers, freelance work or a new career. Cleveland has never re-gained a second daily newspaper. In this Internet age, that’s a non-issue for some people, according to Gene Shelton. He began his career at the Press in the early 1970s, and is now a media professor at Kent State.
“I don't think newspapers will ever go out, but people are finding that they can get the news without the benefit of a newspaper. A younger generation, it doesn't faze them at all. These students don't read newspapers; they get their news online.”
Shelton and others lament the loss of competition for news.
Former Cleveland Magazine editor Mike Roberts argues that a two-paper town would have battled the corruption of Cuyahoga County government, led by Press Editor Louis Seltzer.
“The reporters would have been too active. Louis Seltzer would have called in the principles, even if he didn’t have the facts, he would have called them in and said, ‘You guys continue to do this, and you will not be elected next time around.’ He was that powerful. He wouldn’t put up with anything like that. So government was better… and... the town was better.”
The remnants of The Cleveland Press live on at Cleveland State University. Former staffers like Dan Coughlin and Dick Feagler are still on the media scene. And the old Cleveland Press building on E. 9th Street has been the local office for the powerful Jones-Day law firm for the last 30 years.