No One's a Critic: The Death of Thought at the Plain Dealer

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ILLUSTRATION BY EVAN SULT
  • Illustration by Evan Sult

The Peloton bike enthusiast Chris Quinn has been the editor of both Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer since June 1st. He assumed the dual mantle after The Plain Dealer News Guild was abruptly taken off life support this spring, a bloodbath we needn’t revisit in detail. Suffice it to say, a series of layoffs and tactical reassignments allowed Advance Publications, the newspaper’s parent company, to dispense with many of the region’s most skilled and dedicated journalists, drawing to a wrenching close the union-busting scheme that began in earnest with the digital-print newsroom schism of 2013.

On May 19, in the bitter aftermath of the purge, Quinn appeared before a virtual audience for a Q&A hosted by the Press Club of Cleveland. It was a rare public appearance for him. Beyond his hosting of This Week in the CLE, Cleveland.com’s daily news podcast, Quinn had not spoken publicly since the personnel changes at the PD. He certainly hadn’t spoken about those changes. Nor had he articulated his priorities for the new, so-called “unified” newsroom — another way of referring to the existing staff of Cleveland.com, plus John Caniglia (enterprise + courts), Susan Glaser (travel), Steve Litt (art + architecture), Terry Pluto (sports + faith), and Julie Washington (Covid-19 + general assignment), who’d been laid off and immediately rehired.



The Zoom session was bleak. Over the course of an hour, to a sold-out digital crowd, Quinn repeatedly described journalism as a thing motivated foremost by profit. What kept him up at night, he said, was not the region’s biggest stories but Advance Local’s newest revenue models. An editor’s job was not merely overseeing news coverage, but “figuring out how to make money,” and “finding a way to the future.”

Quinn is an executive speaker – he’s the kind of guy who introduces virtually every point with “Look,” – and he’s able to identify chasms and quirks of the region’s news landscape with more insight than just about anyone. He said newsroom diversity was Cleveland.com’s biggest weakness, for example, and he correctly pegged the city of Cleveland’s looming income tax dispute with suburban residents as a major Coronavirus story for which Mayor Frank Jackson and company seemed shockingly ill-prepared.



And to state the obvious: He has good reason to be preoccupied with newsroom finances in the current economic climate, in which advertising revenue has all but evaporated. But the lasting impression that evening, for me and others I spoke to, was Quinn’s commitment to his role as Advance company man. He praised the business acumen (and defended the obscene wealth) of the Newhouse Family, Advance’s notoriously anti-union founders and owners, and engaged in constant car-salesmanship of Cleveland.com’s “impact” relative to other newsrooms in town.

During one answer, he synthesized his editorial vision like this: “I don’t want to invest in content that no one is going to read.”

That sounds like a sensible top-line prerogative, given the way that newsrooms have had to tighten their belts and “pick their spots” due to diminished newsgathering resources. But in fact, it’s the kind of statement editors have historically risked their careers to battle against.

Editors, who oversee a publication’s editorial side, tend to argue for deeper, more resource-intensive journalism across the board; while publishers, who oversee a publication’s business operations, tend to prefer ad-friendly promotional material, the low-cal stuff we now call clickbait.

Probably the most durable critique of Cleveland.com under Chris Quinn is that it produces too much clickbait. It is a clickbait farm, critics have declared. While I think the characterization can be reductive and sometimes unfair, there’s no denying that the fetishization of specific engagement metrics, (i.e. clicks), has led to an explosion of lists, rankings, photo galleries and press release rewrites that dominate the website much of the day. This has happened all over the internet, by the way, not just at Cleveland.com. At national digital outlets, for a few years, the corresponding explosion was in half-baked hot takes.

Content of this sort, which reporters hate producing just as much as readers hate consuming, is nevertheless favored by media moguls because of its high eyeballs-to-manhour ratio. You can operate a bargain-basement newsroom – in business lingo, it’s called a "lean" or "nimble" newsroom — where poorly paid writer-curators crank out multiple blog posts per day, and an editor or editors do their best to juice them up with provocative headlines and keep them humming on Facebook, hoping some go viral.

That’s what’s called a business model.

But that’s not how Cleveland.com operates. For starters, it produces far more than clickbait. In fact, by virtue of its size, it covers more beats and produces more original reporting than any other outlet in town. And while the meatiest stories aren’t always prominently displayed, they can be tracked down with minimal effort. I read the digital edition of the PD most days, knowing that the best stories still almost always find their way to print. The front page of any city’s daily newspaper remains the premiere venue for local reporting.

Over the past several months, I’ve been impressed with much of the newsroom’s work. The statehouse team in Columbus, with the addition of reporter Andrew Tobias, has produced a steady stream of must-read scoops on the FirstEnergy/HB6 scandal, for one. The This Week in the CLE podcast really has been a smart and lively addition to Cleveland.com’s multi-format offerings, with candid conversations about the day’s top stories from Quinn and his senior editors, Laura Johnston, Jane Kahoun and Kris Wernowsky. And reporter Cory Shaffer’s dogged pursuit of video records documenting police violence around the Cuyahoga County Justice Center on May 30 is arguably the most important work by a Cleveland journalist in 2020.

But a glaring deficiency persists. It was glaring before the PD News Guild’s demise and has become more dramatic in the months since: The PD/Cleveland.com is utterly devoid of cultural criticism.

Cover of PD's Friday magazine, (9/5/1980). - COURTESY CLEVELAND PUBLIC LIBRARY
  • Courtesy Cleveland Public Library
  • Cover of PD's Friday magazine, (9/5/1980).

Almost unbelievably, there is no movie critic on staff anymore. There is no TV critic. There hasn’t been a full-time book critic for years. There is no theater critic. There certainly isn’t a dance critic. While there is routine coverage of the openings and closings on the action-packed Cleveland restaurant scene, there is no dining critic. The classical music writer is now freelance. There is no comedy columnist or humorist, no nightlife columnist, no gossip columnist, no “minister of culture.” There is no pop music critic.

The paucity of cultural commentary is dispiriting in its own right, but also as an echo of the anemic analysis on the news desk. The only full-time Metro columnist is Leila Atassi. The Forum section – the PD’s opinion pages – consists largely of syndicated national material. Its local luminaries are a trio of semi-retired old white guys: Brent Larkin to represent the “Left,” Ted Diadiun to represent the “Right,” and Thomas Suddes, from his outpost in Athens, to represent the wonks. Eric Foster, a local Black lawyer who serves as a community member on the editorial board, was conscripted into service after columnist Jarvis DeBerry’s short, impassioned stint in Northeast Ohio.

This lack of locally sourced criticism and commentary shapes a news product that is flush with original reporting but absolutely allergic to original ideas. When reading the paper each morning, and certainly when trawling the website each afternoon, there is little evidence of what writer and critic Renata Adler once eloquently called “the pitch of thought.” It is content without an organizing principle, which is to say content without perspective. Ultimately, it is content without courage.

An unwillingness to criticize can of course be disguised as an unwillingness to invest in content that no one reads. Indeed, it often is, which is why editors have historically risked their careers to challenge that viewpoint. They know that more often than not, what it actually signifies is cowardice, an unwillingness to offend.

During the Press Club Q&A, Quinn was asked specifically about the paper’s cultural coverage, and which reporters would be dispatched to cover cherished local arts beats, including theater, film and classical music, once venues re-opened after the pandemic.

"I think it's the way you cover those events that's more interesting than the who,” Quinn responded. “I think you can get locked into traditional forms of coverage of those, whereas I think what's interesting about that for many people is the buzz about it. I believe you will see, as we work through this, a different approach to those events. I'm not really interested in a review of something that's not going to be repeated. I'm more interested in the people that are involved in those things and stories like that. We have some really interesting reporters on our staff who tap into that. It's much more of a pop-culture feel."

What a depressing, ass-backwards blueprint from the region’s top editor. Not only did these remarks suggest that many, if not all, of the critics who’d been laid off from the PD in recent months would not be replaced, they also demonstrated that Quinn had no sense whatsoever of the value local critics, writing about the various local scenes, provide the community.

Besides, what in the world was a “pop-culture feel”?

We now have some indication. Last month, Cleveland.com entertainment editor Mike Norman announced that the Friday Magazine, the paper’s longstanding weekly arts and entertainment tabloid, was being reformatted as a broadsheet section called “In the CLE.”

"The name and look are different," Norman wrote, "but the mission remains the same. We want to be your guide, to help you and your family and friends cut through the noise with our coverage and picks and recommendations for concerts, nightlife, movies, festivals, family fun, theatrical performances, visual art exhibitions & more."

And here’s how Quinn described the new section in his weekly letter from the editor:

[Norman] has been saying for a while that rather than print lots of listings that long were the bones of Friday magazine, we should focus on helping people best use their treasured leisure hours.

We know how much people value the “To do” content we publish online. Our entertainment staff distills the options and puts together lists of the best things to do each weekend as well as family activities and good places to dine. The online traffic for that content is brisk.

Mike’s aim is to do the same with the new section, to use expert recommendations to help ensure people have a good time.

Without belaboring Quinn’s deranged conception of “value” as a correlative of online traffic, the whole framing of this change, (beyond the scuttling of the beloved tabloid), is nonsense. What is the difference between “lots of listings” and “lists of the best things to do each weekend”?

Trick question. There is no difference.

What In the CLE does not have, that the Friday magazine always did, are movie reviews. In fact, I’d argue that the movie reviews were the bones of the magazine far more than the listings ever were. When I was a kid, the whole point of Friday! was reading the latest reviews, nodding along or tsk-tsking in disagreement with former film critic Clint O’Connor and measuring my own reactions against the jam-packed two-page spread of movie grades.

The PD's "In the CLE" section, (10/23/20). - THE PLAIN DEALER E-EDITION
  • The Plain Dealer E-edition
  • The PD's "In the CLE" section, (10/23/20).

The inaugural In the CLE section on Oct. 23rd featured six full broadsheet pages of arts and culture content. Virtually all of it was listings, the very thing Quinn claimed to be moving away from. “15 Things to do in Cleveland this Weekend”; “Last-minute Halloween Events to Check out this Season”; “Springsteen Album Tops new Releases,” (a listing of new music); “Tom Petty Birthday Bash, Billie Eilish Top this Week’s Online Shows,” (a listing of streaming concerts); “Ham on Rye Tops this Week’s Streaming Movies”; “What to Watch this Weekend”; “12 Must Try Sushi Rolls.”

The only non-listing content were the article explaining the format change by Norman and an interview with Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, written by non-staff contributor Gary Graff, who produces much of the music content in print.

With all due respect, this is not a newspaper’s arts and culture section. This is a newsletter from a tourism bureau. This is a Facebook “in your area” events page. It might as well have been assembled by robots. Far from “cutting through the noise,” these listings offered no expert recommendations of any kind. It’s not “coverage,” per se. It hardly even rises to the level of “picks.” With the possible exception of the sushi rolls, the listings appeared to be exhaustive. I flipped through In the CLE with the same glossy-eyed disinterest I experience when scouring the Netflix library, which is to say I didn’t really read it at all.

There’s no reason to distrust Quinn’s claim that this content does “brisk traffic” online. The informational value in collecting a region’s activities and presenting them to readers in bullet points seems clear enough. (In Scene, concert venues have been buying full-page ads with listings of their upcoming shows for decades.) But can Quinn honestly delude himself into thinking that this thoughtless, promotional brand of entertainment content is “interesting” to readers? That it has “impact”?

Surely not.

Take, as a point of contrast, the two-page spread of movie grades in the old Friday Magazine referenced above. It was an alphabetical listing of every movie in theaters that week. But it had a critical additional component: what local reviewers thought about them. The capsule of text under each title was not a plot summary provided by the studio but an abbreviated review provided by the critic. The letter grades were an easy reference point.

Why does that matter? Why do criticism and commentary – especially from trusted local sources - provide value to a community that promotional listings do not?

For starters, criticism adds both legitimacy and vitality to a local scene. If you think that’s in dispute, by all means fact-check with members of the scenes themselves. Last year, former PD Editor George Rodrigue conducted a listening tour at public libraries to gauge how readers wanted to see remaining reporters’ energies allocated. At the session I went to, the largest contingent was a group of people representing art galleries. They begged Rodrigue for regular coverage of local exhibits. Could someone be bothered to write a single weekly review, they wanted to know? Could the galleries perhaps band together to fund a writer to do just that?

Profiles and event announcements are necessary components of an entertainment section – and for the record, reporter Annie Nickoloff has done yeoman’s work on the music beat in recent months — but they lack the substance and impact of reviews, which offer both interpretation and judgement. A glistening local restaurant review can put butts in seats for months. A glowing art exhibit review can result in both sales for a gallery and affirmation for an artist, particularly a younger or marginalized talent who might have struggled to break through without the endorsement.

On the flipside, a panning can lead to real damage. That’s why the best local critics know when to unsheathe their sharpest blades. Not every subpar new restaurant, local theater production, student film or debut EP deserves a disemboweling, and readers are savvy enough to recognize when a review seems needlessly cruel, or when it evaluated an artist on the wrong terms. That said, there’s nothing quite like a smackdown, when a critic at the height of their powers rolls up their sleeves to shred, for example, a national touring act that charged stratospheric ticket prices only to deliver a brief and phlegmatic show.

Reading reviews like that can be a form of catharsis for both writer and reader. Moreover, they’re a lot of fun. They give an arts and culture section some freaking personality. This might be superfluous to note, but they also provide information to those who did not attend. Quinn’s stated lack of interest in reviews of one-time performances was a head-scratcher in that regard. For the many local readers and fans who might have wanted to go but couldn’t, reading about those performances is often the only opportunity to experience them at all. A skilled critic takes seriously the responsibility to convey the highlights, the emotional resonance and the atmosphere.

With apologies to Quinn, the goal should not be to promote these shows by generating “buzz” – that’s literally the publicists’ job — but to capture them, both for the next day’s readers and the next generation’s researchers.

To me, it goes without saying that this is impactful content. And while I’m in no position to comment on the financial health of the PD/Cleveland.com, I believe wholeheartedly that investing in both the internal development and external hiring of columnists and critics would pay dividends for the region. In both the news and entertainment divisions, this material helps the region build an identity for itself by helping it think about itself.

I concede that it may not be possible to retain expensive critics on every arts and culture beat, wizened opinion-havers who write only one or two pieces per week. Quinn said in the Press Club Q&A that he believed the Cleveland market could sustain a staff of 65-70. In my view, that’s nowhere near enough to capably cover the region, but even if the number were 200, I wouldn’t fault Quinn for failing to employ a columnist devoted exclusively to chess. I get it! He has to make difficult decisions, based on the budget available to him, in an effort to maximize impact for readers.

But helping readers think critically about local topics of interest is an important service. Most of us don’t come by our opinions organically. They don’t show up in our brains fully formed. On the contrary, we arrive at our opinions through trial and error, forged in agreement and disagreement with others. And for most of us – or at least for me! — we require a skilled commentator to serve as a spark plug for internal dialogue. Who hasn’t walked out of a movie theater knowing they loved or hated what they just saw but unable to put their finger on why? I know I have. And I read my favorite critics hoping to exclaim, that’s it!, to recognize a particular response in their words. There’s immense satisfaction in another person giving voice and definition to our very own thoughts.

There’s a catch, though. Critical thinking about local topics will naturally sometimes lead writers to draw conclusions at odds with promotional narratives. That’s why publishing criticism isn’t always easy or lucrative. It often means challenging conventional wisdom, popular figures, and sacrosanct institutions. Doing so requires careful and sometimes strenuous defense. Crafting arguments and writing them in a persuasive way takes time, which means that the resulting articles seldom yield the eyeballs-to-manhour ratio you’d get, for example, from assembling a ranking of the 147 pasta sauces available at local grocery stores.

I don’t think I need to specify that content of that sort, or the promotional listings featured in In the CLE, doesn’t result in angry emails calling for a writer’s termination. It’s as innocuous as a coffeehouse cork board.

And that’s what I mean by an unwillingness to offend. Whether it’s the cultish fandom of a musical act or the cultish fandom of a political figure, certain constituencies are liable to respond with hostility to content with which they disagree. That can mean nasty letters to the editor, cancelled subscriptions or even revoked advertisements. In an effort to prevent those responses, the PD/Cleveland.com tends to give controversial content of all stripes a very wide berth.

Beyond the deliberate preference for publicity, one way to avoid controversy on the Arts and Culture desk is to narrowly construe “Arts and Culture” as that which is produced for public consumption: the concerts, the exhibits, the movies, and the “buzz” around those products. But it’s my firm belief that the institutions that produce those products are worthy of critical coverage and commentary as well, though they tend to be off-limits.

When was the last time the PD/Cleveland.com published a word of criticism about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Has it ever? When was the last time they criticized the actions of Playhouse Square unrelated to its touring theatrical productions? Of Severance Hall unrelated to the orchestra? Of the Museum of Art?

These cultural institutions, with their high-powered corporate boards, wield enormous influence on the local scene. They are also, incidentally, annual recipients of millions of dollars in public subsidies through the Cuyahoga County cigarette tax, which voters renewed in 2015. As such, their actions demand constant scrutiny. It seems worth mentioning, for example, that the CEO of Playhouse Square makes nearly $800,000 in salary and benefits each year while being supported by overwhelmingly low-income local smokers.

Probing those discrepancies requires a commitment to investigative reporting, first of all, and a willingness to publish what reporters discover. But it also requires a team of intrepid arts and culture commentators who, through their criticism, should be reminding Cleveland readers that the press is not the public relations apparatus of these institutions.

The critics who take the time and the risks to put forth new and sensitive ideas, in both culture and politics, are cherished by local communities. The best of them are widely and closely read. But more importantly, they are trusted. Whether or not cultivating writers whom the community trusts is a way to make money for the PD/Cleveland.com, it ought to be a path to the future.

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