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Volume 14, Issue 29
Published November 8th, 2006

Long Live the Press

Nearly 25 Years After It Closed, the Cleveland Press Continues To Haunt Journalism's Conversations.

By John Ettorre E-mail

For a paper that's been dead nearly a quarter century, the Cleveland Press has an impressive way of continuing to exert itself into the conversation. Its library, or "morgue" in newspaper parlance, continues to serve as a central resource for anyone digging into the town's past. Its name is still summoned in business plans for Internet publications, and a new book about the paper is due out next year. One of America's leading journalists, Lakewood native and Washington Post editor Len Downie, even says that the paper, which he used to deliver as a kid, helped form much of his philosophy about the trade.

Why all the attention for a long-dead paper? In part, it's because of its origins, as part of the populist "penny press" movement begun shortly after the Civil War, and also because it served for over a century as a uniquely powerful institution in this town. And of course its enduring popularity is partly explained by the contrasting tepidness with which much of the town holds its longtime surviving rival, the PD.

In any event, brace yourself for another round of reminders next year about the people's paper. Next June marks the 25th anniversary of its closing. And Gray & Co., the regional book publisher, is due to publish an oral history about the paper by John Tidyman, himself a veteran of the Press.

"This book will remind a lot of people why it's so good to have competition" among daily newspapers, says Tidyman, who's interviewed scores of people for the book, including more than three dozen fellow veterans of the paper. "A couple of people told me it was such a fun place to work, that they would have done it even without a paycheck."

Of course, newspapering itself has changed drastically since then, and so too would have the Press if it had survived.

The Cleveland Press archives, housed in the CSU library, has come to be a mecca for anyone trying to understand Cleveland during the 20th century. Until it was pulled for post-9/11 privacy concerns, the archive's log-in sheet for years served as the best map to be found anywhere of who was digging into Cleveland's history (sometimes, those names belonged to PD reporters and editors). Only this past summer, says Lynn Byco, a special collections associate, an extensive pictorial exhibit at the Cuyahoga County fair, "Memories of Cleveland," relied on the Press archives for about 98 percent of its photos.

Several years ago, David Eden, the former editor of this newspaper, was shopping a business plan around with a partner. They were seeking funding for an online-only newspaper to be called "The company intends to capitalize on the goodwill remaining in the brand name, Cleveland Press, the city's venerated afternoon newspaper that ceased print publication in 1982," the plan's executive summary explained.

My favorite snapshot of the difference between the town's then-surviving dailies is captured in a story that the distinguished Press veteran Fred McGunagle once told me. He'd been working as a UPS delivery driver in the late '50s, while waiting to hear about a couple of pending job applications. The PD called first, so he went to work there as a reporter. Weeks later, the Press called, also offering him a job. He decided to make the jump. I asked him why he decided on the Press. His response: Because the only time he ever saw anyone move fast at the PD was when a secretary was informed that her car was being towed.

In many ways, the pride the paper and its employees felt was synonymous with the town's larger pride in mid-century. You can hear it in Press alum Dick Feagler's marvelous obit for the paper, published in Cleveland Magazine just two months after the paper's closing:

"The Press was proud that it had convicted Samuel Sheppard of the murder of his wife, for the Press saw itself as a righteous instrument of the Almighty's will which could function where the courts might fail. The Press was proud of the rumors of the tunnel from City Hall into its editor's office through which mayors elected by the Press could slip unnoticed to receive instructionsŠThe Press was proud of its power, proud of its skill, proud of its staff, proud of the fact that hundreds of people in town including scores of unendorsed and chastised politicians referred to the paper and its editor as "that goddamn Louie Seltzer and that goddamn Cleveland Press.' The Press was a proud placeŠ"

But all that pride wasn't without its drawbacks. The Post's Len Downie, famous in journalism circles for preaching an extreme brand of objectivity (he doesn't vote himself and would prefer that his journalists similarly refrain), says much of his philosophy about journalistic neutrality was shaped in reaction to watching how his hometown paper railroaded Sheppard. "I used to deliver the paper, and I noticed the Sheppard coverage, especially compared to the PD's," he says in an interview. "So it had some impact on my feeling about the importance of separating the new and editorial page."

Jim Neff, one of the best investigative journalists Cleveland has produced in decades, came to similar conclusions. His book, The Wrong Man, argues that the Press whipped up a community-wide hysteria (including with its famous editorial "Quit Stalling and Bring Him In") that culminated in convicting the wrong man for murder.

Sometimes, a newspaper can be a little too proud, a little too righteous, a little too sure of itself. That's an enduring lesson that echoes just as loudly today.