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'til Death Do They Part

Lorain County's Newspapers Grapple For Survival

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I don't think I actually became a reporter until I covered the city of Lorain for the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram early in this new millennium of media consolidation. It actually made me hungry - angry, even - for the news. And not a week went by that I didn't wish for the Lorain Morning Journal to slide into the Black River of obsolescence.

My task: Make sure my paper didn't miss any of the major news that was coming out of Lorain County's biggest and most poverty-wracked city. It was a quixotic duty further complicated by the fact that Lorain Mayor Craig Foltin rejoiced in taking his scoops to the hometown (and pro-Foltin) paper. The bastard. Luckily, most of the city's Democratic politicians hated Foltin and everything he did, so I broke my share of stories too. Ptht.

We called them "The Urinal." They called their decidedly more laidback nemesis "The Chronic Gram." Life would have been easier without the war, sure, but I don't know if it would have been more enjoyable.

"There'd be fewer instances of editors glowering at reporters, saying, 'What's this story in the Morning Journal that we don't have?'" says my old editor Andy Young about how life might have been without the competition that's now dragged on longer than a century. Ah yes, the Journal clippings on my desk chair, circled in marker with some comment like "WTF?"

Both newsrooms provide a "boot camp for journalists that gets harder to maintain every year," says Young. "Right now, every newspaper has the same long-term plan; how to survive the next five years."

A slew of dailies used to vie for audiences in every major U.S. city. In 1967, 81 percent of Americans read their daily paper, according to a study by the Newspaper Association of America. In Greater Cleveland, for decades on end, it was The Plain Dealer in the morning, The Cleveland Press in the afternoon. Now, it's just the PD. That's par for the course: In 2007 the NAA found that newspaper-in-hand readership had dipped to just 48 percent. That doesn't mean that today's local market isn't scrounging for something of substance. A separate '07 analysis by Scarborough Research and the NAA ranked Cleveland highest in the number of adults who say they read a daily paper at least once a week (87 percent). So there's hope, if only papers could figure out how to make money giving away their product online.

For tiny Lorain County (population almost 300,000) to have two scrappy dailies, both with readerships somewhere north of 25,000, is "absurd," says Julie Wallace, who started at the Chronicle as a reporter in 1988 and now serves as managing/metro editor, a job that used to be performed by two people.

"In a perfect world," says Wallace, "Lorain County is in a perfect situation. There's two newspapers, with the PD parachuting in here and there. You get news. You can't not get news in Lorain County. And for many, many years, it was fine - until the bottom line dropped out." She's not out of line to say so.

"It's uncommon, and I think that we're seeing a fresh round of troubles indicating that even very few big cities can support two newspapers," says Rick Edmonds, who analyzes the newspaper biz for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

But there's no sign of letting up on either side of State Route 254 (the traditional dividing line for the Chronicle to the south and the Journal to the north), despite the ripening environment for surrender.

Journal Publisher Jeff Sudbrook and Editor Tom Skoch didn't want to talk about the matter. Maybe it's because I used to work for the other guys. "I really don't give interviews," alleged Skoch. "I put out papers. Gotta go." Yet Sudbrook, who awkwardly shares membership with Chronicle Publisher Cooper Hudnutt at the Elyria Country Club, happily told Inside Business in late 2005 that his parent, the Journal Register Co., had no plans to bow out.

The family-owned Chronicle just finished a $10-million facilities overhaul. "Apparently, us and The New York Times are the only ones stupid enough to build a new building during this climate," says a Chronicle employee who asked to remain anonymous.

And Hudnutt's son, Bill, has a fresh degree from Miami University and a job at the family rag as web publisher, getting ready to assume the reins for a fourth generation.

This is no prep for a sale, Chronicle leaders insist. It's a prep for survival - something Poynter Institute's Edmonds adds wouldn't be completely unheard of. It's happening in little Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, right now.

"There you have two fairly similar, intensely competitive papers with a long history of strikes," he says. "They're still going at it, and both seem to still be making money, so it happens, just not that frequently any more."

One thing must be noted, though: In 2005, both publishers spoke openly about their mutual respect and plans to stay the course. Now, neither wanted to have anything to do with a story about who was going to win the war.

dharkins@clevescene.com

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