In 1993, during my second day on the job at The Plain Dealer, I noticed a dime taped to the top of a computer I shared with veteran reporter Lou Mio.
“What’s that about?” I said, pointing to the coin. Lou smiled and, with a sweep of his hand, gestured to all the other dimes taped on computers throughout the newsroom’s metro department. An editor on the city desk, Lou explained, had said, loudly, two years earlier, “Reporters are a dime a dozen.”
I stood on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the offending editor and then turned back toward Lou. “Don’t these dimes bother him?” I asked.
Lou smiled. “Every day.”
That’s the sort of thing that made newsrooms different from most workplaces. Friction between management and labor was nothing new. But if you were the kind of boss who tried to pick fights with wordsmiths in a profession that rewards irreverence, you probably were going to have a lot of days when you wished you worked somewhere else. Somewhere boring and brimming with decorum, like a bank, say.
For 18 years, that newsroom in Cleveland was a second home for me. I loved the combustible mix of immovable deadlines and the eccentric people hardwired to meet them. A colleague once described a newsroom as the Land of Misfit Toys. One look around that dingy, cavernous room and you’d have to nod in agreement.
Memories of those quirky personalities can make me smile or tear up, depending on the day’s industry news. This is a bleary-eyed day. We journalists in Cleveland knew it was coming, but isn’t it something how you can brace for a blow and buckle anyway?
This morning, on Wednesday, editors called approximately 50 Plain Dealer journalists and editorial staff to tell them their careers at the paper are over. I am not going to hash out here the business decisions behind this latest round of cuts. More than 400 people worked in the newsroom when I was hired. By the time I left in 2011, fewer than 200 remained. Thousands of newspaper journalists have lost their jobs in the past five years, and there are few signs that the bloodletting will end soon.
Instead, I want to celebrate the legacy of newspaper journalists. Nobody can take that away from us.
I’m headed shortly to the Market Garden Brewery and Distillery, where journalists here and around the country have called in contributions to pay the pub tab for Plain Dealer staff members who were fired. Judging from the emails I’m getting, there also will be plenty of money to pay the tab for colleagues who survived the cuts but want to show support for those who didn’t.
So I raise my glass in a toast:
To the reporters who got into journalism not for cash or celebrity but to make a difference with their stories. It’s not normal to wake up every morning hoping breaking news will send your entire nervous system into overdrive. Fortunately, normal is so overrated.
To the photographers who tell their stories with an artist’s eye and the soul of a poet. We all carry smartphones with cameras these days, but there is no substitute for the tender vision of someone who spends his or her entire life helping the rest of us see.
To the copy editors who risk the daily ire of reporters because their loyalty is to the reader, always. Picky, picky, picky. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
To the artists, graphic designers and layout wizards who toil mostly in anonymity to draw readers’ eyes to the page and then reward them for the visit.
To the support staff in newsrooms. It takes a special kind of person to herd journalists, because most of us think we should have to answer to nobody. I am mindful of how often my colleague and friend Sue Klein took calls from angry readers who were hoping to scream at me. She has the patience of a pastor. To this day, I call her The Boss of Me.
Finally, a toast to you, the reader.
Without readers, we cannot exist. If you’re reading this column in a newspaper or on a newspaper’s website, I want to thank you for not giving up on us.
I lift my glass high.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including …and His Lovely Wife, which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo of Cleveland Plain Dealer headquarters: Clevelandguy/Wikimedia Commons