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Paper Pusher

The man who hid in Gary Hart's backyard marches in to save The Plain Dealer.

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Long before Plain Dealer Editor David Hall announced his resignation in March, reporters at Ohio's largest daily were preparing his obit and taking bets on who would be named his successor. Potential candidates included Editorial Director Brent Larkin, Detroit Free Press Editor Bob McGruder, and top editors from New Orleans and Portland, Oregon.

It wasn't until last Wednesday, just hours before a three o'clock meeting called by President and Publisher Alex Machaskee, that PD reporters began exchanging stories about Douglas Clifton, the top newsman from The Miami Herald. In a flurry of phone calls and Internet searches, Clifton's reputation began to take shape: A former Vietnam vet, he was a tough--sometimes bullying--editor not afraid to ruffle feathers inside and outside the newsroom. He was an editor who presided over Pulitzer Prize-winning staffs, but was also at the center of news controversies.

They had found their man.
When he finally took the podium in the PD cafeteria that afternoon, the 55-year-old Clifton kept his remarks brief, opting to take questions from the curious staff. He acknowledged his tough reputation, joking that he has "never been homicidal."

"If we call our sources in Miami, what would they say about you?" asked one reporter.

"Have you called them yet?" he shot back.
Afterward Clifton mingled with his new charges, shaking hands as reporters sipped punch and nibbled on cheese. He made a quick tour of the PD's dumpy newsroom before heading home to Miami, where news of his appointment had also come as a shock.

"[Herald] Publisher [Alberto IbargYen] was blindsided by it," says one longtime Herald reporter.

Clifton spent most of his career with Knight-Ridder Inc. and its flagship paper, The Herald, where he worked for nearly thirty years. He started in 1970, eventually becoming deputy managing editor. He also served as news editor for Knight-Ridder's Washington, D.C., Bureau and as managing editor of The Charlotte Observer before returning to The Herald in 1991 as executive editor.

While working in Washington, Clifton became part of one the most sensational stories of the 1980s: then-Presidential candidate Gary Hart's affair with Miami actress and model Donna Rice. Following up on tips--and a dare from Hart--The Herald sent investigative reporter Jim McGee to Hart's Capitol Hill townhouse to watch for a blond visitor. There, Clifton literally dropped by and ended up joining the surveillance, watching Hart's back door. The subsequent scandal pushed reporters out of politicians' offices and deep into their private lives, an enduring legacy for which Clifton can take part of the credit--or blame.

During Clifton's tenure as The Herald's executive editor, the paper won four Pulitzer prizes for news and commentary, including a gold medal for meritorious public service for its coverage of Hurricane Andrew. Last month, the Herald staff received a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for its series on voter fraud in the 1997 Miami mayoral election, the result of which was eventually overturned.

Over the past decade, Clifton has been at the center of a number of newsroom controversies. In the summer of 1995, for instance, he posted an e-mail on The Herald's in-house bulletin board about the paper's numbing Bosnia coverage. After admitting he had not read a Bosnia story in two years, he wrote, "Why is that? Some of it is my personal failing. I'm callous, shallow, parochial, and maybe even stupid. But more of it may be my--our--professional failure. We dutifully report each day's events, one a bit more horrible than the other, and pretty soon they all begin to look and sound alike." His point: The paper needed to do something to liven the coverage.

Clifton was also the top editor during a period in which critics argue The Herald became a watered-down booster sheet, abandoning hard reporting and a national edge for a more community-friendly brand of journalism. In a lengthy 1996 Columbia Journalism Review article titled "Has Knight-Ridder's Flagship Gone Adrift? Trouble at The Miami Herald," Clifton refuted the charges, claiming, "The Miami Herald is an outstanding kick-ass regional paper. Our region is from Tallahassee to Tierra del Fuego."

During the 1990s Knight-Ridder began serious cost-cutting efforts to increase the paper's profits, leaving Clifton to carry out corporate downsizing and deal with fleeing reporters and editors, low morale, and a shrinking news hole. How he handled those issues--and to what extent he exacerbated them--depends on whom you ask.

"Doug made it hard on [reporters] who made a lot of money," says one former longtime Herald staffer critical of Clifton's corporate fealty. "He worried about his bosses."

"[Clifton] often said this is not a participatory democracy," says a current staffer, who contends that Clifton did not fight hard enough to save the paper's popular and award-winning Sunday magazine, Tropic, which was killed in 1998 after 31 years. "He helped bring down Gary Hart, and he's almost done the same thing [to the paper] here."

The mood is decidedly more upbeat at The Plain Dealer, where a core group of reporters agrees that, at least in theory, Clifton is what the paper needs.

"I think he's been given the marching orders to whip this place into shape," says one who welcomes Clifton's tough reputation. "We have too long been floating in mediocrity. He will bring us up to the standards of The Herald."

"There are plenty of people who need a kick in the ass," says another experienced PD reporter. "He is very hard on his inner circle of editors."

Exactly who will give Clifton his orders has been the subject of considerable speculation and will likely be the key factor in his tenure. The PD's parent corporation, Newhouse, appointed former Editor Hall, who never got along with Publisher Machaskee, undermining the paper's coverage.

"I received a call from a friend at Newhouse who told me about the opening at [The PD]," explains Clifton. "I talked to [executive] Steve Newhouse and then to [Machaskee]."

About Machaskee, Clifton says, "He is hardheaded, straightforward, plain-spoken. We go into this knowing each other. Alex is the guy who picked the editor."

Clifton says there should be no mystery surrounding why he left The Herald after all these years. "I'm just up for a new challenge. Even though I'm about retirement age, I'm not the type of guy to retire at one place. The Plain Dealer is a good newspaper. Cleveland is a first-rate city."

While Clifton says it's too early to discuss what type of coverage and stories he plans to take on, he promises this much: "I'm demanding, and I have high standards." As for his two-fisted style, he allows, "People sometimes feel my intensity is perceived as tough."

Certainly that's the perception in the PD newsroom, where reporters have already given Clifton a nickname: "The Great Santini," after the Robert Duvall film about an out-of-control military lifer.

Mark Naymik may be reached at mnaymik@clevescene.com.

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