[image-1]Monday morning, Clevelanders awoke to two equally unthinkable prospects: a 70-degree afternoon on the one hand, and Cleveland.com commenters joining the publication's editorial board on the other.
"Here's your chance," editor Chris Quinn announced
, to the ravenous delight of the region's fiercest bigots, blithely plucking crusty wedgies from their buttcracks and tipping back the nearest of the previous evening's tall boys in search of breakfast dregs as they scrolled through the piece. Come to think of it, that crew would
enjoy "debating fellow board members" and "having a voice" in deciding whom their paper endorses for elected office.
(It turns out, the majority was unconvinced by Quinn's appeal: "A chance to work with the Mighty Quinn, AND not get paid for it?" Wrote one, sarcastically. "Irresistible.")
Quinn's big announcement came after two of the board's eight members — Sharon Broussard and Karl Turner — opted to accept a voluntary buyout offered last week to senior, nonunion members of the PD/Cle.com staffs. Broussard and Turner were the editorial board's only members of color.
The board remains under the leadership of Betsy Sullivan, who has been at the helm since the departure of Brent Larkin. But its five additional members
are all older white dudes: George Rodrigue and Chris Quinn, editors of the PD and Cleveland.com, respectively; Quinn's former City Hall reporting partner Mark Vosburgh, who's now largely invisible as the director of public policy and advocacy for Cleveland.com; longtime statehouse correspondent and current OU professor Thomas Suddes; and former Reader Representative and raving lunatic Ted Diadiun, whose fingers may or may not be puppeteered by the ghost of Wahoo-wingnut climate-change-denier, Kevin O'Brien.
The homogeneity is downright shocking. These folks scan not like the learned representatives of the region's largest media outlet — indeed, the only outlet that provides comprehensive political endorsements — but the representatives of a single suburban subdivision's homeowner's association, where "diversity" might not connote much more than a difference of opinion on the height and complexity of permitted topiary.
Quinn is self-aware enough to understand that the demographic representation is a problem. For a paper that nearly 800,000 people still read on Sundays, the above squad ain't cutting the mustard. He admitted in his post that one of this initiative's "top goals" was to "explore what's important to communities that are not represented on the board today."
A worthy exploratory expedition! But the solution that Quinn and the board have cooked up is merely gestural: It is to maintain the editorial board exactly as composed, but to add four community voices, who will serve six-month appointments. (The first two will actually serve nine-month appointments.)
These unpaid community posts have all the trappings of what you'd market to middle-school students as a "hands-on experience." Selected members will get to sit in each Monday morning for the board's agenda-setting discussion. And by the time their term winds down, they might even become comfortable enough to participate.
"The point of the meetings is to reach a consensus," Quinn said, later adding that in addition to minority voices, conservative voices and younger voices, he's looking specifically for "people who come to a conversation with open minds, not from dogmatic, unswerving positions. This is a board that reaches consensus. That means board members have to be open to persuasion, have to acknowledge that their minds could be changed no matter how sure they are of their initial positions."
Quinn said that each community member would be responsible for writing one paragraph per week as part the regular Editorial Roundtable feature,
but that the paper's editorials would continue to be written by permanent staff.
"This is a big change," reported Quinn, unconvincingly, "but it gets at the heart of our mission to be the center of engagement in Northeast Ohio. What better way to engage in matters of opinion than by inviting you to join us at the table for our discussions?"
Since he asked: One obvious way would be to actually and meaningfully amplify the voices of underrepresented communities by hiring
smart, engaged full-time writers that belong to those communities, writers who would be responsible not only for participating in editorial discussions and shaping the institutional perspective of the publication, but who would then presumably write signed opinion and commentary on important regional issues.
Another option — and I think this would be great! — would be to hire a stable of opinion contributors with an even wider array of perspectives. They would not "join the board," but they'd nevertheless contribute regular (paid) opinion pieces in the hopes of conveying the region's broad and vibrant spectrum of experience: Writers under 30 and/or under 20, just for example, (for that matter any writer under ~58); LGBTQ writers; black writers; Hispanic writers; writers living in poverty; writers living in the city of Cleveland (what a novelty!); writers living with the addictions and ailments that the crackerjack medical reporters have been covering so assiduously, etc.
Short of all that, the current editorial board could merely talk to
members of communities not currently represented. Surely, they do this to some degree already. But the community voices maneuver, as described, kind of implies that they don't, or at least not a whole lot. The initiative has the whiff of a money-saving, face-saving gesture. And in a cynical view, it lets the board pretend that it's "more diverse" for a few months free of charge — plus free content for the Advance overlords — and allows the hoary opinion-makers to discern what's important to a handful of community members without ever having to set foot outside the office.
In a more charitable view, Quinn will be receiving these applications personally (he's asked that all 250-word notes be sent to cquinn at cleveland dot com, with "Ed Board" in the subject line), and he obviously won't brook the nonsense of his website's ugliest participants. Quinn and Sullivan no doubt hate the optics of the board's only two black members taking the buyout.
But much like the RTA board, which has a golden opportunity to restructure in the wake of key vacancies, so too does the PD/Cleveland.com editorial board have an opportunity to restructure its membership and reinvent its coverage to more assuredly and more bravely speak on behalf of its vast and desperate readership.