by Chuck Hoven
(December 2018, Plain Press) On November 6th, the Cleveland State University School of Communications hosted a Town Hall event to celebrate the 200thAnniversary of the publication of Cleveland’s first newspaper. Communications students in Associate Professor Edward Horowitz’s Foundation of Journalism and Promotional Communication class created display stations featuring different newspaper themes such as the history of newspapers in Cleveland, community newspapers, ethnic newspapers, the history of comic strips, and Cleveland’s notable columnists. The Town Hall also featured speakers talking about the importance of a free press to a democracy.
Associate Professor Horowitz and the faculty of the College of Communications invited newspaper staff members of community and ethnic newspapers in Cleveland to join in the celebration. Horowitz noted that the Town Hall was one of three events held in Cleveland this year to celebrate the history of the first newspaper. The first event was held at the City Club this summer; the second event was an exhibit at the Main Branch of the Cleveland Public Library. The library exhibit has a Near West Side connection. John Vacha, who for 20 years served as the newspaper advisor for the Lincoln West High School paper the Freedom Rider, worked with the Cleveland Public Library to create the exhibit. The exhibit included a copy of the first Cleveland newspaper, TheCleveland Gazette and Commercial Registerwhich published its first issue on July 31, 1818.
Cleveland State University (CSU)Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Gregory M. Sadlek welcomed guests and shared some thoughts on the importance of newspapers. Dean Sadlek said that computer scientists have a saying “garbage in, garbage out.” He said, “The same is true of our political system. You need a trusted source of information to make valid choices on election day.” He noted that newspapers are the traditional source of that information and fact checking in our society. He said major newspapers are dedicated to that type of fact checking.
Dean Sadlek called on those present to celebrate “newspapers that provide us with good reliable information.” He said it was appropriate that the celebration of the 200thanniversary of Cleveland’s first newspaper was being held at a university because “college campuses, like newspapers, are dedicated to finding truth.
Professor Leo Jeffres, a long-time professor in the CSU Communications Department who also served as a founding member and advisor of the Neighborhood and Community Press Association of Greater Cleveland, talked about the importance of newspapers playing a watchdog role in society and the gap in that role that community newspapers can help fill.
Professor Jeffres said in their watchdog role, newspapers pay attention to public institutions such as City Council and the Mayor’s Office. They did routine coverage of public bodies. In a recent online streaming of the County Council meeting, Jeffres said he noticed only two people were watching. While the minutes of City Council Meetings and School Board are available online, with staff cutbacks at the daily newspaper, often no one is covering these meetings. “The watchdog is not watching. That concerns me,” said Jeffres.
Jeffres said neighborhood newspapers can help fill that gap. He noted that the Plain Pressover the years has provided coverage of the School Board and the Bond Accountability Committee meetings.
Jeffres said a survey he conducted of community newspapers found that they are doing fine, unlike many daily newspapers. Community newspapers strengthen the attachment of people to their community. People that read community papers show stronger ties to their community, said Jeffres. The loss of a neighborhood newspaper is an indication of the decline of a neighborhood, he said.
Jeffres called for a sustaining of efforts by the community press and a revitalization of the daily press so newspapers can continue their service that is vital to a democracy. Jeffres said, newspapers stimulate community engagement and are needed for the good of democracies. “When no one is watching, that’s when corruption occurs,” he noted.
Rich Weiss, President of the Neighborhood and Community Media Association of Greater Cleveland and the publisher of the Tremonster, talked about the erosion of trust in news sources that readers have in the era of fake news. He said while Americans have only modest trust of news sources, they do trust local news sources. He noted that local community papers are more responsive to the community’s needs and allow people to be close to the source of their news. He noted that the newly formed Neighborhood and Community Media Association is a network of community newspapers and local media networking and sharing resources to help assure that local media organizations thrive in Cleveland.
Bob Jacob, Managing Editor of the Cleveland Jewish News, a weekly newspaper serving Cleveland’s Jewish Community, said the newspaper is a nonprofit corporation that formed in 1964 from the merger of two previous Jewish newspapers. The Cleveland Jewish News covers elections, but does not endorse candidates. It has a Board of Trustees that services in an advisory role and doesn’t influence coverage. Jacob says the mission of the paper is to cover local and national news that affects the Jewish community as well as the cultural life of the community.
Jacob said the Cleveland Jewish News is more than a 52 week a year newspaper. He noted the newspaper’s website at: www.cjn.org, six magazines that the Cleveland Jewish Newspublishes as well as a directory it publishes of Who’s Who in the Jewish community.
George Rodrigue, Editor of the Plain Dealer since January of 2015, shared some of his background. Rodrigue served as assistant news director at a TV station in Dallas and as managing editor of The Dallas Morning News prior to coming to Cleveland. During his tenure at the Dallas Morning News his staff won a Pulitzer Prize.
Rodrigue said it is important for a society to create a set of facts we all can agree upon. He said the Plain Dealer now covers mostly local news. He said that with the declining resources from advertising, the newspaper’s ability to do what it did in the past, is less.
Rodrigue encouraged college students at the Town Hall whom may be soon looking for jobs in journalism to “develop a rare skill that people older than you do not have.”
Rodrique discussed the dilemma of how to get online subscribers to pay for content. He called for a “flight to quality” and coverage that is relevant to readers as a route to follow. He said, “If things matter enough to you, you’ll pay us money.”