Scene Staff Writer Doug Brown is Headed West: A Tribute to a Friend

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L-R: Sam Allard, Doug Brown, Eric Sandy
  • L-R: Sam Allard, Doug Brown, Eric Sandy
Scene staff writer Doug Brown is headed west, and every reader in Cleveland, (or at the very least every reader of this publication), should mourn the departure, after which we should applaud his accomplishments over the past two years.

Doug tendered his resignation Monday and plans, he says, to take a few months traveling among America’s fatter states, where the sky and stories tend to be fatter too. He’ll look for a permanent spot to touch down someplace where fly-fishing will be more than a daydream, but in the meantime he’ll follow his hardened nose wherever there may be comfortable people to afflict.

From the editorial staff: Godspeed.

During his tenure at Scene, Doug was responsible for the most popular cover story in the publication’s history, a deep dive into the region's colossal heroin bust which is still widely read to this day, and a story about a Cleveland character so unique and compelling that Hollywood made inquiries about rights. He managed to locate, on a consistent basis, an editorial sweet spot that recognized Cleveland readers’ desire to be tantalized, as well their hope, all but forsaken these days, that powerful people might be held accountable for their roster of abuses.

Because Doug often wrote about crime, his work was called “gritty” or “dark” by casual readers. The first impression was that he wouldn’t mind, say, getting his life or important body parts threatened during the course of regular reporting. That impression is correct. It’s the matter of fierce, ongoing debate whether Doug was fearless, devil-may-care, really stupid or really hungry, but there were times — exhilarating times — when he represented all of the above at once.

It was Doug who, after I’d written a couple of skeptical blog posts about the “resignation” of David Franklin at the Cleveland Museum of Art back in 2013, demanded that we immediately drive to Shaker Heights and knock on his door, that we canvass the apartment complex on Euclid Heights Boulevard where the derelict Cleveland Heights police force hadn’t bothered to investigate Christina Gaston’s alleged suicide. In all likelihood, I would’ve been content to call the art museum’s board of trustees, register their dismissive “no comments” about Franklin’s exit and speculate that there was more to the story than met the eye. Doug made it a feature, pestering the Cleveland Heights police until they gave us (shitty) comments and let us peruse personnel files; reconstructing the intricate, conflicting timeline of events, as relayed to us by Christina Gaston’s family (who spoke with Scene exclusively); and even parking outside David Franklin’s house until we received an outraged email from his lawyer. It was one of those frantic cover stories that we reported and wrote in the span of two weeks, chugging eye-rattling quantities of coffee in Doug’s apartment as we sifted through audio files and medical records and tried to string together coherent paragraphs as deadlines loomed.

Most importantly, though, Doug was, and remains, a very dear friend. He was the brave and bravura third of a forceful writing trio that has occupied a small but vital corner of Cleveland’s media market for the past two years.

Eric Sandy was (and is) our newsroom’s conscience, a compassionate writer and editor committed to those stories that weren’t being told elsewhere, a journalist who channeled his uneasiness about staff homogeneity into delicately vectored narratives about immigrants, the LGBT community, and social justice. He fortified our media corner with the dirty work of daily news coverage, embodying the idea that to be taken seriously as a news organization, we would have to, you know, show up to things and cultivate sources and generally do a lot more work, even as our resources disappeared. He understood and promulgated — this, we’d learn, was a fairly unpopular idea — that we ought to continue writing news with a point of view.

I was (and am) the newsroom’s right brain, at least in the term’s popular conception — a boom-or-bust feature writer who nurtured profitable contacts by being friendly instead of prosecutorial, and who’d be damned if he let a journalism degree get in the way of a clear and lovely sentence.

Doug was forever the reporter, the investigator, the newsroom’s hound-dog id, (which David Foster Wallace once speculated was just a fancy word for soul). Our editor, Vince Grzegorek — whose level-headedness betwixt company-wide restructuring and the eternal stressors of editorial management cannot be overstated — hired Doug fresh out of Kent State’s Masters in Journalism program, and Doug was thus curricularly armed and dangerous. He was our public-records Buddha, our bearded crusader, a reporter who balked at conducting interviews from his desk and who insisted on hypoallergenic factuality. He was also a mightily testicled interrogator whom I once overheard ask a man, point-blank: “Was your wife aware that you were fondling children?”

Moreover, as Scene’s alt-weekly soul man, Doug was appropriately repulsed by the depths to which mainstream media had descended. And he refused to have any part in content that he viewed as both ugly and dangerous. As an ideal, he held journalism as personally dear as his own reputation, and (I suspect) would sooner dance on a grave than debase himself by churning out blatantly promotional content or fluffy event write-ups. This caused a great deal of eye-rolling and consternation from the rest of the editorial staff — that shit tends to part of the job — but there was a nobility to his principles, and those principles do nothing but gleam in the rearview.

As the masthead weekly attests, the turnover rate is pretty cutthroat and unrelenting at Scene. When new hires show up, the myth (and wish?) is that the toughest part of the writer’s job is playing ping-pong through a distracting haze of pot smoke. There’s an assumption that we care a lot more about the bands on our t-shirts than the stuff going on around town. That assumption is untrue. And when the rigors of the job assert themselves by about day three — plus the almost surreal recognition that there is no ping pong table — most folks book it. The rigors describe a helix of newspaper reporting and magazine writing’s toughest elements, and I need not belabor the point that we get a lot less material and emotional compensation than our counterparts in the mainstream. On top of that, the commenting public tends to view us as hacks and/or hipsters and/or snarky, nihilistic trolls, and the stuff that we care most deeply about or have the most fun writing tends to get read by the fewest number of people. Being so low on every imaginable totem pole can wear on a young writer, especially when young writers emerge from J-School or small-town reporting gigs with certain twinkles in their eyes. All this is to say that the two-year run of an unchanged writing corps in a place like Scene is anomalous. And if not for the nightly propping up of each other, often as not over $2 brews, often as not muttering whatever the alt-weekly equivalent of dulce et decorum est is, our burnouts would have been swift and without pity.

Eric arrived in December of 2012. Vince hired me three weeks later, in January, 2013. Doug came aboard that summer, and we’ve been together ever since. It was a hell of an era. We were journalists, and Doug was the best of us. 


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