Once a truly bad newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch has improved dramatically under new leadership.
By John Wicklein
John Wicklein was director of the Kiplinger midcareer program for journalists at Ohio State from 1984 to '89. A former reporter for the New York Times, he is an independent writing coach for newspapers, including the Washington Post and Memphis' Commercial Appeal.
I T TOOK THE DEATH of an owner to allow the Columbus Dispatch to become a good newspaper. It took a veteran public affairs reporter to make it happen.
The owner was John Walton Wolfe, patriarch of a powerful Ohio family and a bully, who died in 1994. The reporter was Michael F. Curtin, who was appointed editor four months after Wolfe died.
"The Dispatch did some terrible things in the '80s," says David Richter, who teaches journalism at Ohio State University. In those days, the fear quotient of the staff was high. "I remember reporters there talking all the time about pressure from the Wolfes and how they had to be careful not to do stories that would offend them." But, he adds, "the difference at the present Dispatch is night and day from the time I came here in 1980."
"Anyone outside the paper would say the major changes came with the death of John Walton Wolfe," says Danny Russell, editor of the Other Paper, an alternative weekly that sees it as a ritual duty to tweak the Dispatch on its peccadilloes. The Other Paper could often beat the Dispatch on a sensitive story because, says Russell, "we knew they weren't going to cover it." That seldom happens today, he says. A new, more aggressive approach has recently won the Dispatch a number of awards. It took first place in the Associated Press Society of Ohio competition for General Excellence in 1999, beating out Cleveland's Plain Dealer, its arch-rival to the north. It was not so recognized in the '80s.
At that time J.W., as John Walton was known to friends and enemies, was chairman of the Dispatch Printing Co., the newspaper's parent. His cousin, John F. Wolfe, was the paper's publisher, a position he still holds. Between them they controlled the Wolfe family enterprises--in print, television, radio and real estate--which were large indeed. But no one in Columbus was in doubt about who called the shots; it was J.W. From the time he took the reins in 1975 on the death of his brother Ed in a plane crash, he made the newspaper a plaything of his political and personal desires.
How did this man, who almost never set foot in the newsroom, control the policies and politics of the lone daily paper in Columbus, the state capital and Ohio's largest city? Indirectly, but firmly. "His presence was often felt," says Luke Feck, the editor who was fired in 1989 because, he says, "I had sufficient disagreement on how the newsroom should be managed."
The Dispatch announcement talked only of "management differences." But friends say Feck, who had previously been editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer and had worked to raise the level of journalism at the Dispatch, was fired for letting stories be written that offended J.W.
A strong presence J.W.'s was: Sitting in his office next door at the large bank where he was also chairman, he (according to editors there at the time) would call the publisher or the editor with slants he wanted taken on sensitive stories and kill orders on those he didn't want to see run.
A private, quick-tempered man who did not like to see his name in the paper, J.W. enjoyed the role of éminence grise, at the Dispatch and in town. A state official described his attitude as, "My name's John Wolfe, and I can do anything I want." Inevitably he was likened to the TV character J.R. Ewing--willing to do whatever it took to knock out a business competitor or political opponent.
To journalism professors, competing reporters and some of its own staff, the paper under J.W.'s tutelage was vapid and dishonorable--shamelessly boosting Ohio State and its Big Ten Buckeyes, ducking controversial coverage and aggressively supporting Republican candidates in its news columns and editorials. "The Dispatch used to be a running joke," says Tom Diemer, speaking of the days when he covered the Statehouse for the Plain Dealer.
Diemer, now a congressional correspondent for the Cleveland paper, says he always felt Dispatch stories mirrored the editorial view of the paper--conservative Republican. Ohio State journalism teacher Sharon West, a Statehouse reporter for the Horvitz newspaper chain in the early '80s, says that when she talked then with Dispatch reporters about a story that impinged on the Wolfes' turf, they'd say, "Oh, you'll never see that in our paper." The result, Diemer and West say, was that other papers could often beat the Dispatch on Statehouse stories that, as the hometown newspaper, it should have owned.
Current Statehouse correspondents say that no longer is the case. In the competition, the Dispatch often comes out a winner.
W HEN I ASKED John F. about accusations that J.W. and he had influenced news coverage that conflicted with Wolfe family interests, he said: "Certainly that can be the perception. I don't think it was the reality. The perception is in the eye of the beholder."
And to some extent, that was true. Every paper has issues, institutions and people perceived as sacred cows by some staff members. From talking with former and current reporters and editors at the Dispatch, here are a few of the wisdoms they have embraced--recently or in the past--concerning perceived or real taboos:
Tread carefully on Nationwide Insurance Co., partners with the Dispatch in building the new Nationwide Arena, this fall to become home of the Columbus Bluejackets in the National Hockey League. The paper has a 10 percent ownership in the arena and the Bluejackets.
Do not knock Ohio State University, and when you write about its Buckeyes, write enthusiastically and with a certain reverence.
When you mention Woody Hayes, the legendary Buckeyes coach, do not refer to the incident during a 1978 bowl game in which he ran onto the field and slugged a Clemson player who had just intercepted a pass. (Woody was fired for that one.)
An old Dispatch hand calls reports of that last dictum "rubbish." James Breiner, a former assistant metro editor who is now publisher of the Baltimore Business Journal, says yes, a lot of taboos were imagined. "I saw reporters hold back on things they thought were sacred cows, but they didn't have to. But I suppose the effect on the newsroom was real."
Breiner found out how real one taboo was. Reporters had been told not to call J.W. for comment on stories that involved him or the family. But when Breiner was on the metro desk, he thought, "What the hell?" and called J.W. about a proposal to tear down a historic building for a Wolfe partnership development, despite protests from preservationists. "He was amazingly candid," Breiner recalled in his column in the independent Columbus newspaper, Business First, on the occasion of J.W.'s death. "He did not see what the big deal was about tearing down a building. He was crude, witty and charming, all at the same time. It was, in short, a great interview." Unfortunately, the story was never published. The city desk bucked it up to management, which buried it.
Lest I paint J.W. as an unmitigated ogre, I'll throw in some caveats: Friends said he was a homebody, rough around the edges perhaps, but exceedingly loyal and often generous. He contributed lots of time and money to local charities--Children's Hospital, University Hospitals Cancer Clinic, the Columbus Zoo and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, among others.
When you live in Columbus for some years, as I did in the '80s, you can't escape gossip about the Wolfes. They aren't the richest people in town; Leslie Wexner, chairman and CEO of The Limited Inc., takes that prize. However, people would tell you, the force was with them. The Wolfes came to their preeminent position the hard way--they earned it (or just took it, depending on whom you talk to).
Everyone knew the legend: from shoes to riches. In 1890, two brothers, Robert and Harry, set up the Wolfe Brothers Shoe Co. It became in time one of the largest and most successful businesses in the city. Robert, it was said, had always been fascinated with newspapers. And so in 1903, having piled up lots of money in shoes, the brothers bought the Ohio Journal, the oldest paper in town. Two years later, they acquired the Evening Dispatch, founded in 1871.
The brothers became heavily involved in Republican politics, making The Wigwam, the family's country estate southeast of Columbus, an unofficial headquarters for GOP luminaries including Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. The partnership ended suddenly in 1927, when Robert died in a fall from a fifth-floor window of the Dispatch building. But Harry pressed on with acquisitions, establishing a large bank holding company, picking up a lot of downtown real estate and buying a radio station that later became the present WBNS-AM and -FM.
In 1949 the family put WBNS-TV on the air. It soon emerged as the dominant station in its market. (The call letters are said to stand for Wolfe Banks, News and Shoes, the core of the family's original holdings.)
The Wolfes increased their domination of local media by adding the monthly Ohio Magazine (since sold) and a cable channel, the Ohio News Network. They were tough on the Citizen-Journal, their last newspaper competitor, effectively shutting it when they refused to renew a joint operating agreement that expired in 1985.
The family could also be tough on public figures who crossed them. Early in the '90s, Judge Ronald L. Solove angered the Wolfes by barring reporters from his juvenile court. The paper appealed the decision, but lost. To gloat, Solove put up a computer-generated banner in his office that read, "Who's afraid of the big bad Wolfe?"--in this case, meaning John F. That was enough. With editorials and a cascade of nit-picking stories, the paper helped bring about Solove's defeat in the next election.
But even its detractors concede that the Wolfe family, through its business developments and philanthropic projects, has added momentum to Columbus, a prosperous middle-American city with a huge inferiority complex. Natives hate to hear it called a cow town and yearn to have it recognized as the world-class city they think it has become.
When people outside the state think of Ohio cities, they think of Cleveland and Cincinnati. Slighted residents point out that, at 670,000 residents, Columbus is the country's 15th largest city, and that Cleveland is 28th and Cincinnati a piddling 50th.
As a consequence, inhabitants were happy to see the Wolfes use their newspaper and their economic clout to engineer big civic projects, all the while telling them on the front page, week in and week out, that they had a world-class this and a world-class that. As a matter of community spirit and a fine financial sense, the Wolfes and the Dispatch have traditionally taken a Babbitt-like approach to anything that will promote the city. And over the years, Ohio State football has been a vehicle for pride that the paper would invest in, via its sports, news and editorial pages.
B UT HOLD ON! Didn't readers of the Dispatch see in December 1998 a 16-page special section titled "The Big Bucks of OSU Sports"? And didn't that section, along with straightforward reporting on the prowess of the $200 million money machine, include disparaging remarks about the commercialism of it all from ardent fans aced out of stadium seats by big contributors? Isn't that heresy? "I think it was a legitimate rap on the Dispatch that we were a little too Chamber-of-Commercey--too boosterish of OSU football and the other [secular] religions of Columbus," says Curtin, public affairs reporter turned company president. "I feel very comfortable today that we are covering things aggressively and letting the chips fall where they may."
Which brings us back to the seismic shifts that followed the departure of J.W. "Someone said to me recently, You don't suppose John F. wants to put out a good newspaper, do you?' " says the Other Paper's Russell. The answer, from a dozen neutral and partisan observers, seems to be yes.
In the last six years, John F. has come forcefully into his own as publisher, although you would not suspect that from talking with him. He is a short, shy, almost diffident man of 56 who nevertheless knew how to handle the responsibility when he succeeded as family patriarch. He signaled a new era by doing something that surprised the community: He put a nonfamily member, a Columbus native and 27-year veteran of the paper, into the top administrative post of the parent company. The rapidity of the steps leading up to this move amazed the staff, and one of them circulated this purported daily to-do list of their publisher:
Monday: 1. Get out of bed.
3. Promote Mike C.
Tuesday: 1. Get out of bed.
3. Promote Mike C.
Wednesday: 1. Get out of bed.
3. Promote Mike C.
Etc., etc., etc.
And promoted Mike Curtin was--from chief political writer to executive managing editor in October 1994 to editor in December '95, to editor and associate publisher in '98. Then, in January 1999, John F. added company president to Curtin's title, the first person outside the family to hold the post. Actually, these were promotions delayed. An editor who was in a position to know says that although Curtin had previously been offered several jobs in management, he didn't want to move up while J.W. was in charge. "Mike saw what happened to Feck--he was a happy camper where he was and he felt, Who needed that kind of grief from the front office?' "
But with John F. in the top slot, it was different. "I could work with John F.," Curtin says. "He has Journalism 101 in his bones. He wants the most credible newspaper in the city that we can get."
To do that, Curtin says, the paper must focus on enterprise reporting of public affairs--his forte. But will a dead-serious approach like that keep younger readers coming on, and prevent the circulation, now about 250,000 daily, from sliding?
"You don't get young readers by dumbing it down, fluffing it up," Curtin says. Even if the readership drops off, he says, he will not change that notion. "If people don't want serious information that will help them function in the community, then they get what they deserve. There is no more important institution in the city than a newspaper."
The publisher seems committed to the same ideas. "The heart and soul of a newspaper is local news. People buy it to be informed," John F. Wolfe says. "The main focus is in our news product, and I think, with Mike, we do a very good job at that." To back that up, he points to several recent statewide awards: First Place, General Excellence-AP Society of Ohio, 1999; Best Daily Newspaper-Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, 1997; Best Daily Newspaper-Cleveland Press Club, 1998.
In February 1999, seeking to bolster that trend, Curtin persuaded the chief of the Plain Dealer's Statehouse bureau, Ben Marrison, to be his right hand as managing editor/news. Marrison, who this month turns 37, had a promise of good things to come. They came sooner than expected. After 10 months serving as both editor and president, Curtin found he couldn't run the paper and all the other company holdings. In November, he named Marrison editor.
Curtin choked up as he told the newsroom it had been a difficult decision for him to leave the news side he loved. Later he told me he was going to keep his hand in--writing editorials and occasional political thumbsuckers. And he would be working with Marrison to accomplish two goals growing out of the idea that news is king: Encourage more aggressive, more analytic, less reactive reporting and improve the writing. The way to do this, they think, is to loosen the reins and give reporters their heads. "The fear has been lifted," says Marrison. "Now the staffers believe they can do anything that can be done."
J OE HALLETT HAD HEARD about "the fear." Hallett, who came to the Dispatch from the Plain Dealer at the same time as Marrison, says he was initially wary about what he wrote in his political column, even though he had been assured he would not need to censor himself. The promise panned out: "I feel I can write what I want, without constraints." ###
With freedom comes an expectation that staffers have a responsibility to do well: Marrison, with Curtin's support, has begun imposing standards that say, "Perform or be gone."
The lean staff worries about having to produce quality journalism while still filling the paper's large newshole. But the demand for higher standards hasn't caused an uproar; some feel the push for better writing and reporting was overdue. "People have talked about the Dispatch as a velvet coffin," a business reporter told me. "You were going to have a job for life, no matter what you did. Marrison is going to change that."
In fact, about a half year into his editorship, Marrison is viewed by staffers as much more of a tough guy than Curtin, whose management style is that of the diplomat.
Longtime critics acknowledge there is a different atmosphere at the paper. "The fear is gone--but is that so great an accomplishment?" asks Max Brown, publisher of the Columbus Monthly, part of CM Media. "Really all you are saying is: They've started to act like a real newspaper.' " But he adds he has been surprised at the open discussion he now sees in the news columns. "There is a specific change in what had been a very controlled editorial environment."
Critics of the paper nevertheless have good things to say about Curtin. A profile in the Other Paper says he is "considered fair and a nice guy." The word I heard most often in interviews was "integrity." But the change doesn't mean that the road ahead has no potholes. The paper still has big problems to overcome.
Race concerns are major. Over the years, blacks in the community--about 23 percent of the city's population--have been suspicious of the Dispatch, accusing it of ignoring their interests. Many feel that blacks have traditionally made it into the paper only when they have committed crimes or when one is singled out as "the first black to...." They point to a gaffe in 1995--when the paper ran a front-page picture of Buckeye Eddie George winning the Heisman Trophy but played it smaller than a picture of a black child molester behind bars. Some blacks picketed the paper over that one.
Clifford Tyree, former community relations director for the city and an African American, says he's noticed an improvement in the last few years: "More good stories about African Americans, more good pictures of young people of color."
"The Color Chasm," an eight-part series published in April 1999 measuring black progress in Columbus, signaled that a corner had been turned at the paper. Blacks see more diversity in coverage but still feel there is a lack of diversity in the staff. There are no minorities among top editors and only one woman: Mary Lynn Plageman, who succeeded Marrison as managing editor/news. Seven of 70 reporters and two of 36 copy editors are black. The paper has two Hispanic reporters.
"I'm not so defensive as some are about this," Curtin says. "In time, I am confident the newspaper will be more diverse from top to bottom. If [the balance] were the same 10 years from now, I'd feel differently." Meanwhile, Curtin has sent editors to conventions of minority journalists to seek out staff prospects. But, he says, minority candidates the paper has actively pursued often have been lured away by bigger papers.
Lornet Turnbull, an enterprise reporter who is African American, says that, although the paper once had a reputation of not being friendly toward minorities, Curtin and Marrison have changed that. "I think these guys are sincere in trying to bring diversity to the newsroom. Mike has made a tremendous effort to recruit minority reporters. It's just going to take some time."
The Dispatch faces the ongoing problem of weaning the public away from the idea that it is a Republican Party organ. It gave that idea a good knock in the head last fall, when it endorsed a Democrat, Michael B. Coleman, for mayor, something that hadn't happened in half a century. Coleman won.
One factor making the effort easier is the absence of a rabid partisan at the helm. "People who wanted to run for office had to go to J.W.'s office and ask for his blessing," says Brown. "John F. isn't interested in controlling who is county auditor." That factor had to be balanced recently against another: J.W. had regularly contributed to Republican candidates; traditionally, John F. has not done that. But last year his wife, Amy, became the Central Ohio fundraiser for the John Kasich for President campaign.
"The publisher asked me about that," says Curtin. "I said that this raises the bar for us--it puts a higher obligation on the paper to break bad news about Kasich, and report the good, the bad and the ugly." Curtin thinks the staff did that.
David Leland, State Democratic Party chairman, says he thought there was still some Republican bias in the editorials. But, he says, "I don't think there is any bias as far as the coverage is concerned." In the mid-'80s when I asked a former Democratic chairman whether he found any anti-Democratic bias there, he just laughed.
As at other newspapers, there is the nagging problem of conflict of interest when a top executive takes a prominent role in community affairs. In 1992, J.W. served as chairman of the board of AmeriFlora, a world's fair of flowers. It proved a financial disaster for the city, which had backed it with cash. This despite the fact that the paper ran obligatory daily promotional features, starting with a six-column, front-page head that said, "The Celebration Begins."
John F. is involved in less controversial civic institutions--he's trustee of the Columbus science museum development corporation, for example. But the question remains: Do reporters look over their shoulders when one of the publisher's interests is involved?
There's a lot less of that than there once was, says one reporter who has written stories about Wolfe interests. "I've had no editor caution me about how to cover this stuff," he says. But he senses a feeling among staffers that they probably ought to tiptoe around a story if it deals with, say, a piece of real estate owned by the family.
And for both publisher and editor there's the question of the company's part-ownership of the NHL Bluejackets. It's an issue similar to the one that has bothered staffers at the Chicago Tribune ever since its parent company bought the Chicago Cubs nearly 20 years ago, and which arose again last year when the Dallas Morning News' parent bought a small interest in the Dallas Mavericks. Curtin says John F. had asked him if there would be a problem if the company took a 10 percent interest in the team. "I told him, if the Bluejackets go 0 and 26 for the year, and you have a problem with our saying the Bluejackets suck,' then we have a problem. He said, No problem.' " The issue remains, however.
Finally, there is the problem of holdover taboos enforced, staffers say, by midlevel editors. A business reporter says one of her editors had said she was not to report the large salary and bonuses of a CEO whose company had been losing money. Queried, Curtin says no generic prohibition like that exists. "We've shattered some old myths, but it would seem we still have some work to do on it."
In the long run, what kind of a paper will Curtin pass on to the fourth generation of Wolfes? Will it in fact be "Ohio's Greatest Home Newspaper," as the huge sign atop its downtown headquarters has proclaimed for decades? Will there even be a fourth generation at the paper to pass it to? John F. hopes there will be; he would like to keep it in the family. Two of his daughters now work for the company: Katie I. Wolfe, who in September became assistant to the president, and Rita Jean Wolfe, director of community affairs for WBNS-TV.
Curtin says he intends to work with them to define what niches they may fill. But, he adds, "They themselves will have to decide what roles they want to play."