Cleveland: Confused City on a Seesaw
CHAPTER EIGHT: The Undercover Newsprint-Radio Deal
Newspapers in Cleveland in the last fifty years have had an extraordinary influence on the politics and economics of the upsy-downsy industrial community on the lake. In many other big cities, one newspaper, often a hard-shell conservative one editorially, has been dominant (the Columbus Dispatch, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Bulletin, Kansas City Star). In Cleveland, the liberal tradition begun by Tom L. Johnson, carried on by Peter Witt, and enthusiastically followed by the ethnic groups, had a much higher valence than in any other big city. The City Club's weekly forum, where any point of view could be heard; the club's annual Anvil Revue in which Carl Friebolin threw satirical darts at public figures while they sat there and pretended to enjoy it; the habitual hacking away at bosses by the Press; the continual pressure of the Plain Dealer for civic uplift, which often was opposed by the party organizations -- all these contributed to the town's volatility, and helped it always to look forward rather than backward. No tightly knit junta of tycoons called the shots, nor did they control the newspapers. The Hannas had tried it when they owned the Cleveland News, but never really made the grade. The Press, from the beginning, when E. W. Scripps founded the Penny Press, was a rabble-rouser. And the Plain Dealer
was independently owned and managed by citizens who had a strong civic conscience and motivation to make the city a better place to live and work.
This lineup of newspapers, each working on its own plan, had endured for several decades. There had been no attempts by outsiders to break into it, once the Plain Dealer had bought the morning Leader from the Hannas in 1917. Late in 1922 a group of businessmen, who had the quixotic idea they could pressure the Plain Dealer into becoming more of a financial compendium, started a morning paper called the Commercial. Most of the capital was put up by utilities, but the Van Sweringens were in it, too. It soon fell on its face, however, for it did not have the wire services or the local staff to really compete with the Plain Dealer. Only the night wire of the United Press was available; the Associated Press, International News Service, and the best syndicated comics and features were all under contract to the PD. Nor could the Commercial set up a circulation and advertising staff that was really competitive.
This feeble journal limped along for two years. At this point, the Van Sweringens, by then a growing economic power that seemed to have the whole community by the tail, decided they would pour more money into the paper, make it a journal of general interest instead of purely financial, and reorganized it as the Times-Commercial. They seduced a good local staff from the other papers, and persuaded Earle Martin to leave the Press and become its editor. For a while it seemed as if it might give the Plain Dealer a real fight. The department stores, while not going all out to support the new paper, quietly hoped it would succeed, to act as a brake against increasing advertising rates. (The stores at this time were subsidizing the Shopping News, an all-advertising throwaway, to promote their frequent sales.)
The Plain Dealer met the competition by increasing its telegraph news: it added the New York Times and Chicago Tribune wire services. It also had excellent downstate coverage, with a correspondent in each of the eighty-seven other
Ohio counties, and it gave big play to its own Washington and Columbus bureaus. Its advertising and circulation departments were experienced and kept the business coming in. There simply weren't enough new readers or enough new business in northern Ohio for the Times-Commercial to get off the ground, and the dream of the conservative tycoons faded away before simple publishing economics. The Times folded in 1927, and most of its good staff went back to the Plain Dealer, including Gordon R. Cobbledick, Spencer lrwin, Warde Greene, Robert S. Stephan, Dale Cox, and Eleanor Clarage. Robert Seltzer (brother of Louis) worked for the Plain Dealer for a year, then returned to the Press. Editor Earle Martin got a job with the Chamber of Commerce.
This was the last serious attempt to unhorse the Plain Dealer in the morning daily field. Two years later, the PD bought out the Sunday News-Leader and incorporated many of its good features into its own Sunday paper. Soon afterward came the stock market crash and the depression. Meanwhile, the Plain Dealer and the Press had been fighting off the political attempts to dump the manager plan, and somehow they had found themselves on the same side as the big shots of the business community.
The two papers lost the fight to keep the manager plan, and when the depression closed in on them, they had to cut expenses. In a few years, because of this need for economy, and the growing impact of a new communications medium, radio, the two papers cooked up between them one of the strangest undercover deals in the history of big city journalism. It was not disclosed at the time; in fact, the entire story did not come to the surface until thirty years later, and only then in bits and pieces. It has never been publicly told before. Yet it had a profound effect on the staffs' relation with management, with future labor contracts, and with the development of radio (and later television) as an entertainment medium in Cleveland.
It was a truly astonishing agreement, especially viewed through the eyes of the 1970s, one that the United States
Department of Justice would surely have put the kibosh on. It had an important effect on the growth and policies of both the Press and the Forest City Publishing Company, which controlled both the Plain Dealer and the News, which it had rescued in 1934. Naturally it affected the political and economic life of the volatile community, in which the newspapers were unusually powerful.
Radio had started to be a big thing in the late twenties; ten years later it was the number one entertainment for millions. Ed Wynn, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Jack Pearl, Joe Penner and others took the minds of people off the depression as far as possible. National networks carried the popular shows from coast to coast, and they were eagerly sponsored by advertisers. Big dance bands -- Paul Whiteman, Glenn Miller, Ben Bernie, Tommy Dorsey -- had their followings; and so did the crooners -- Rudy Vallee, Frank Sinatra, Russ Columbo -- who sang with them.
It was natural that this big new industry would add news programs to its entertainment, and that newspapers would tie into it by owning radio stations. Papers in New York, Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles did this almost at once. City editors furnished news bulletins for the announcers, and some reporters and columnists went on the air themselves (Walter Winchell became a hot attraction). The national news services, AP, UP and INS, were forced reluctantly by lawsuits to set up special services to offer news to radio as well as the papers. Eventually, wiser heads realized there was no basic competition -- radio could send out flashes faster than newspapers could print them but radio could not offer the long, detailed background required in complicated news reports. (The onset of radio, however, doomed newspaper extras hawked through the streets, giving the results of prize fights, murder trial verdicts, elections, and so forth.)
The Plain Dealer was the only Cleveland newspaper to buy a radio station. In 1934, it acquired station WHK, but it developed no cooperative news programs. None of the Plain Dealer reporters or columnists was asked, or even permitted,
to broadcast over the PD's own station. This seemed strange, for in New York and Chicago, in addition to periodic news summaries, columnists, sports writers, theater critics, and movie critics were broadcasting and, in some cases, being sponsored, which added to their income. In the depression, any additional income was mighty welcome. Why not in Cleveland, too?
Reporters and editors kept expecting some hookup to be established between the PD city desk and WHK, but it didn't happen. The other Cleveland stations were broadcasting national news several times a day, but made no attempt to cover local news. It seemed an ideal competitive situation for the Plain Dealer to broadcast local flashes from WHK, and the staff could not understand why the management didn't move in on this. There was a good reason, an amazing story of connivery between newspaper competitors, which involved newsprint supply as well as the cooperative use of radio.
John S. McCarrens, general manager of the PD for ten years, and John G. Meilink, business manager of the Press, were close personal friends, though business competitors. Both were hardnosed watchers of the cash register, both having trouble keeping their properties in the black during the depression. When the PD took over WHK, it automatically gained a distinct advantage over the Press, since the Press had no radio station and none in Cleveland was available. If the PD should use its station to promote itself and the newly acquired News, the Press would be at a big disadvantage. But the Press had an asset that the PD and News did not. It could rely on the Scripps-Howard national chain for newsprint, since the chain purchased it for a half dozen newspapers. The Sunday paper was the big money maker for Forest City.
So friend Meilink and friend McCarrens made a deal. If McCarrens would refrain from using WHK to tie in with the PD and News, and prohibit their columnists, reporters, and editors from broadcasting, Meilink would guarantee Forest
City Publishing Company an adequate supply of cheap newsprint through Scripps-Howard. Meilink offered twenty-two thousand tons a year, at a 5-percent discount. This deal, of course, was not made public, but it was approved by W. W. Chandler, the top Scripps-Howard business executive in New York, and by Freiberger of Forest City.
Thus began the big radio blackout for editorial employees in Cleveland, which lasted for twenty-five years. In all that time, no editorial star had a radio program and no newspaperman broadcast local news flashes. The radio stations began to make passes at the columnists and reporters, who naturally asked their bosses if they could broadcast. The answer was always a firm no. This made no sense to me. The Plain Dealer had recognized stars -- Bill McDermott on the theater, Ward Marsh on movies, Eleanor Clarage, Claire MacMurray, Ted Robinson, Helen Robertson, Grace Goulder, Herbert Elwell, Roelif Loveland, Dale Cox, Gordon Cobbledick, Jim Doyle. I thought of myself, too, for I had a growing political column. The by-line writers of the News and Press, too, would have attracted listeners: on the News, Arthur Spaeth on entertainment, Jack Cleary on finance, Ed Bang and Ed McAuley on sports; on the Press, David Dietz on science, Norman Siegel and Milt Widder, the gossip columnists and Stu Bell and Whitey Lewis on sports. None of these by-liners was allowed to broadcast. Since the Plain Dealer and News employees were forbidden to tie into WHK, the Press staff had to be forbidden to go on the air for other stations WTAM and WGAR.
Staff members asked Bellamy about this repeatedly, but his answer was always no. The inference was that if they wanted to quit the paper, and take a chance on radio, they could do so, but could not broadcast and still remain on the newspaper payroll. Since radio was still somewhat experimental, none of them wanted to take the chance in the depression. This peculiar situation continued through the thirties. WHK's programs were pretty dull, and it wasn't getting much business either. The PD did nothing to promote
the station except to send one of its advertising specialists to WHK to try to get more business. Then came the war, and everyone had other things to think about.
It didn't occur to the staffs that the radio blackout and the newsprint supply had any relationship to each other (naturally, since the newsprint supply deal was under cover). Newsprint had been closely rationed during the war, and was still rationed in 1946. By that time, the pressure of big advertisers for more space on Sunday was becoming terrific. As long as goods were in short supply during the war, and the big stores maintained the same lineage ratio toward each other, they submitted to the inevitable. Now, however, twelve million men, released from the service, were rejoining their families and eager to spend accumulated back pay. All sorts of previously scarce goods were becoming available -- clothes, household furnishings, automobiles. The small wartime papers had already increased somewhat in size, and it was obvious that when rationing was lifted, the dam would really burst.
During this period, of course, Scripps-Howard had been furnishing Forest City the twenty-two thousand tons a year that Chandler had promised. (McCarrens was now dead, but Sterling Graham, who had succeeded him, had inherited the deal, and was enforcing the radio blackout the same as McCarrens had.) Graham, however, was becoming restless about his newsprint supply being insufficient. He had contracted for another five thousand tons from another supplier, and he had also refused to accept for the PD a lighter weight of newsprint (twenty-eight pound stock) that Scripps-Howard had bought for their whole chain. He said this would permit too much "show-through" on ads, which would look messy and debase the quality.
At this point, the egg hit the fan. The Scripps high command in New York complained to Chairman Freiberger, the top decision-maker of Forest City, that Graham was "not cooperating," so Graham and Freiberger went to New York for a high level meeting, with attorneys present. At this meeting Graham realized he was up the famous creek without a pad-
dle, completely at the mercy of his competitor. The meeting was acrimonious, but Scripps-Howard had Graham over a barrel. They told him they would deduct from the promised twenty-two thousand tons the five thousand tons he had bought elsewhere, and if he could buy any more paper outside, they'd deduct that, too. They did not propose to increase the promised amount and he would have to accept the kind of sleazy paper they were sending. They would continue to furnish paper for the time being, but Graham had better start hunting a new supply and after he found it, he was on his own. Since the market was completely tight at this time, with all newspapers pressuring the Canadian mills for more, there was little chance that he could get any additional paper, except on the black market at outrageous prices.
For the next year, Graham spent week after week flying to Montreal, Toronto, Boston, and New York trying to sign up new supplies. Since rationing was still on, he got nowhere, except for one agreement to furnish fifteen hundred tons of half-size rolls (which required awkward press combinations). Finally he hit upon the idea of getting contracts for future delivery whenever rationing would end, and lined up sixty-five thousand tons in promises. This helped, but did not solve the problem, because the Sunday paper by now had so mushroomed in size that it was gobbling up newsprint at a prodigious rate. At one time, the PD had only seven days supply (a safe normal was considered thirty days) and the News had only one-and-one-half days. For several winter months, George Hall, the building superintendent, was assigned to keep track of freight cars carrying paper as they made their way slowly from mills in Canada through Montreal, Toronto, Buffalo, and Erie. A big snow, or a railroad wreck would produce a five-star emergency. The situation was so critical that Graham bought considerable tonnage on the black market for $200 to $250 a ton (the legal price then was $88). To provide insurance for the future, Graham negotiated a deal with some papers in Oklahoma and Texas to join in buying a small paper mill in International Falls, Minnesota. This lasted about five years, until the news-
print crisis leveled off, then Forest City sold its interest in the mill.
Nevertheless, despite the brush-off Graham got from Scripps-Howard, and the agony he went through in finding a new supply, the Plain Dealer did not retaliate against the Press by using its editorial staff on WHK. This seemed more ridiculous than before, for by now all the big papers in other cities were doing the cooperative news bit, and what's more, were starting to buy TV stations, and use them, too. In the early fifties, TV was becoming as big a thing as radio had been twenty-five years before. Also, the PD had acquired several other radio stations. It had taken on WCLE, which WHK had owned, and had stations in Akron, Columbus, Cincinnati and Youngstown. The radio and TV stations were making more frequent offers to the editorial stars in Cleveland.
Restless staff members (including me) tackled the bosses about it again, for it seemed irrational, and unjust. They got nowhere with Bellamy, who suggested that they argue it out with Graham. Graham wouldn't argue; he simply said no. He said the editorial staff should use all its creativity on the paper and not share it with electronic media. It was pointed out that one of the media was the PD's baby, WHK, but he was adamant. WHK obviously needed improvement in its programming, and the radio-TV editors, Bob Stephan and George Condon, who knew the entertainment field, could offer excellent advice on better programming. The pleas got nowhere. It was like colliding with a stone wall.
One of the reasons why the situation remained at the same impasse was that Scripps-Howard about this time had bought a TV station in Cleveland, Channel 5, which it named WEWS after the founder, E. W. Scripps. Channel 5 was not using Press personnel on its programs. (James Hanrahan, the station manager, did not get along well with Louis Seltzer, and had enough clout to keep WEWS independent from the Press.) So the PD and News continued to keep aloof from WHK and the Press from WEWS. The peculiar embargo, the blackout, was still on.
The Plain Dealer had a chance to buy a TV station for itself at that time, too. Channel 8, which later became WJW, had been started on a shoestring by an out-of-town company, the Empire Coil Company of New York state, which had obviously applied for the license as an investment. It had no Cleveland connections, but after it began broadcasting in a small way, it picked up advertising. TV was in its infancy then, did not have transcontinental coaxial cable yet, and the national advertisers hadn't yet realized its astounding potential. George Condon, the radio-TV editor, found that the Channel 8 station could probably be bought for $250,000, and this news was relayed to Graham. A couple of years later, the price had gone up to $600,000, but it still could be bought. The Storer Broadcasting Company eventually bought it, and still operates it.
Graham, who was promotion-minded, realized that long-range potential of TV and wanted to buy the station, but he couldn't get the OK from Freiberger, who was always cautious. Graham also wanted to fight the Press after the bad time Scripps-Howard had given him over newsprint. He believed that aggressive circulation practices were necessary, and he was ready to fight, if he could get the trustees to give him the money. He did not get it, nor did the News. (It had been obvious for several years that there was an urgent need for an aggressive promotion department, but it never materialized until 1963, after Tom Vail became publisher and I was executive editor.)
Between 1947 and 1952, the Sunday paper was expanding at an unbelievable rate. Soon eighty pages were going to press in an early run every Friday, the maximum the presses could handle. This was larger than the entire black-and-white run, news, ads and all, had been during the war. In 1948, the PD on Sunday ran as many as 218 pages pre-Easter and 256 pages pre-Thanksgiving. The department stores were now buying full-page ads in both the women's and news sections, plus special sections for promotions. Additional syndicated features had to be bought for the Sunday paper, and the society editors printed every wedding and engagement announcement, with pictures,
that was sent in. The circulation began to rise and between 1946 and 1948, the daily jumped from 230,000 to 249,000 and the Sunday paper from 403,000 to 433,000.
The full story of how the Press had the Plain Dealer by the balls through the Meilink-McCarrens deal was told privately to me by Graham, after he had retired. (He died in 1971.) McCarrens had been dead twenty years, but his error lived on. Not only were all the PD and News editorial employees penalized, but the PD management had one hand tied behind its back while its competitor controlled its lifeblood of production, the newsprint supply.
The antitrust lawyers of 1970-73 would have had a field day with it, for they have moved into many newspaper agreements that seemed less like obvious connivery. A still unsolved mystery is why the Guild didn't make a big squawk about the long radio-TV blackout. It was definitely a restriction of the rights of workers to sell their talents. Perhaps it was because only the higher-salaried editorial employees, who were never very enthusiastic about the Guild, were the ones deprived. At any rate, it did not become a matter for serious contract discussion until the sixties. By that time, as if by mutual consent, editorial employees had already begun to appear fairly often on TV and radio, and the PD and Press were both buying time on the air to promote their circulation and contests. But still there was no regular tie-in between either Cleveland newspaper or a radio-TV station except on election night.
Radio and TV still do not cover the local news adequately but they are trying. All three TV stations have expanded their 6 P.M. and 11 P.M. programs to take in more local news. One radio station, WERE, went from talk show to all news in 1975, and the other radio stations are gradually increasing their news broadcasts, particularly at morning and evening rush-hour times.
Some newspaper staff members now have regular spots on TV programs, and there is no longer a built-in hostility; but the print and electronic media people don't really understand each other, and are uneasy about it.
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