Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Sad Times for the Cleveland Plain Dealer
If I were in college now, I'm not sure what I'd do. When I graduated from Hiram College in 1966, there were several roads diverging in my not-so-yellow wood: teaching (which I did), journalism (which I've been doing, freelance, for decades), grad school (which I did). And others.
Nowadays, public school teaching is in the grip of another wave of Accountability Madness (these fits come and go), once more observing Dyer's Law #1243: Those who know the least have the most to say. In this case, we have to listen to politicians and corporations and pompous entrepreneurs who wouldn't last ten minutes in a middle school classroom. We bore the hell out of our students with our fixation on test preparation ... But this is grain for another mill. Moving on ...
Grad school? Well, I don't really want to go back again (hey, I'm old), and many English Departments have decided to make literature a science rather than an art and have abandoned focusing on those things that make people love poems and stories and novels and plays. But this is grain for ...
And journalism? I've written here before about the fall of the American newspaper. As I've said before, the Cleveland Plain Dealer became part of my life when our family moved to Hiram, Ohio, in August 1956. I was a few months away from being 12. The paper came every day, and on Sunday it was so heavy (and weighty--two different things) that it took two hands to carry it in from outside. We spent Sunday afternoon with its pages spread out all over the living room.
In those days, the only section I really cared about was Sports. But slowly that changed (I confess: I barely look at it now). As I slowly returned to being a Reader (after a hiatus during adolescence), I began to read the Sunday book review with lots of interest--especially later when my favorite Hiram College professor, Dr. Abe C. Ravitz, began reviewing for the paper. I never dreamed--then, in the early and mid-1960s--that I would one day write freelance op-ed pieces and book reviews for the PD.
But I did. My first op-ed piece appeared in August 15, 1980: "The Gruesome Indignities of the 11:00 p.m. News." A couple of years later, the paper chose me to be one of their "Board of Contributors," local writers from varied backgrounds and professions, who would contribute about once a month to the op-ed page. My first piece--"They Shouldn't Tear Down Your Hiram High School"--appeared on May 10, 1983, and I would eventually write more than 100 op-ed pieces for the paper.
But then the op-ed pages shrank; new editors came along, new ways. The end--although I did publish an occasional piece now and again.
But by then I'd begun writing book reviews for the paper, the first on November 12, 2000, a review of the second volume of Ian Kershaw's masterful biography of Adolf Hitler. The last was on August 16, 2015, a review of Michael Dirda's memoir Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. I'd placed well over 100 reviews in the PD pages.
So why is it over? My final editor at the paper--the wonderful Joanna Connors--had warned me: The paper was no longer going to pay local freelancers to write for the paper; instead, to save a little money, they were going to publish reviews taken from their wire services. (By the way, my pay for reviews never changed--from first in 1980 to last in 2015 it was $150, except for the occasional lead review that paid $200.)
So, over the last months virtually all the reviews have come from other sources: the Los Angeles Times, etc. So--if you want to know what the LA Times reviewers think, you can either check immediately on the Internet, or you can wait till Sunday and buy the Plain Dealer.
Local residents know that the PD is but a shadow of its former self. The paper is thinner (much thinner), contains fewer stories written by staff members, and (from my view) seems mostly to be a sports publication with a few other sections for everyone else..
No longer occupying its editorial building on Superior Ave., the paper now has a small suite of offices in Tower City (production remains at the plant on the west side, which you can see from I-480 on the way to the airport). Subscribers (I remain one, despite all) get a "hard copy" only on Wed-Fri-Sat-Sun; the other days it's online--or available for purchase at newsstands, mini-marts, etc.
Of course, I believe that removing reviews by local writers just gives some PD readers/subscribers yet another reason to drop the paper, but I feel bad about the local novelists, poets, and writers of nonfiction who now have no "hometown paper" to review their work. Instead, they must hope that someone in LA or Dallas or wherever will do it.
And for me, it's a grievous personal loss. I loved reviewing for the paper--and learned so much by doing so. When I had to take a health-related hiatus last year, I was in actual mourning. When I started feeling better, and Joanna welcomed me back, I felt the thrill of the phoenix, once more in air, once more having the unexpected gift of flight.
I don't know what's going to happen to the paper. I'm guessing they're saving only thousands annually by cutting off local freelancers. That's not a good sign.
I do wish the paper well. I've loved it since 1956. I still love it now, but with that sense of terror and horror that we all have when a dear one is dying. And we see them diminish before our eyes.