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From AJR,   January/February 2000  issue

Toledo’s Blade Strikes Back   

By Adrianne Flynn
Adrianne Flynn runs the Annapolis bureau of Capital News Service for the University of Maryland College of Journalism.     

It was about 5 a.m. on September 29 and Mark Standriff was preparing for his morning drive-time show on Toledo, Ohio's WSPD-AM. As he does every morning, the news talk show host grabbed the morning paper, the Blade, scanned the headlines on the top half, then flipped the paper to check below the fold.

There he learned the battle had been joined.

"Blade Sues WSPD for Theft of News Articles Allegedly Pirated," Standriff read. The Blade was suing him and his station for the "pirating" and "misappropriation" of the Blade's stories. It was his and the station's first notification that Toledo's paper giant had taken notice of the taunts coming from WSPD and its sister station, WVKS-FM.

WSPD should have seen it coming, says Alice Rhodes, media columnist for the Weekly, Toledo's alternative paper. Standriff practically goaded the newspaper into taking action, she says. WSPD "has been picking a fight for quite a while," Rhodes says. "They got it."

"I Read The Blade So You Don't Have To" is Standriff's motto for his morning show. He often devotes some time to pointing out the Blade's "agenda" and its supposed biases. During that show, the Blade's suit says, WSPD and Standriff tried to "pass off substantial portions of the published articles of the Toledo Blade as if they were the products of WSPD or Standriff's own skill and effort." The station repeatedly used the Blade's stories without attribution in violation of the Ohio Deceptive Trade Practices Act, the suit says. The paper asked the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas for "all profits generated by the sales of advertising during [WSPD's] unlawful broadcasts," along with punitive damages, costs and attorney fees.

"I believe they wanted to make an example of me," says Standriff of the lawsuit, "so they were looking for a way to attack my credibility and my ethics."

Fritz Byers, the Blade's attorney, says the battle is "not personal in any way." It wasn't Standriff's slogan, and it wasn't his radio chatter. "The suit was brought to stop the use without attribution of Blade news reports," Byers says.

Broadcast outlets' use of print reports for tip sheets is nothing new, media lawyers and critics say. Most newspapers are resigned to it, or try to use it to their advantage by alerting stations to their best stories early, so they can gain credit and promotion on the evening news and improve morning newspaper sales.

"If anything, there's a trend toward collaboration between newspapers and television," says Steve Sidlo, managing editor of Ohio's Dayton Daily News. His paper often shares stories with local television stations in order to heighten their impact.

But there are precedents for newspapers taking action to stop the broadcast of their stories. In 1998, South Dakota's Rapid City Journal blocked the use of some of its news by radio and television stations by decreasing the number of stories it sent to the Associated Press (see Free Press, September 1998).

Typically, however, newspapers handle their anger over broadcast rip-offs with a private phone call--editor to station manager--according to journalists and media lawyers. The problems stop, case never opened.

But not in Toledo.

Standriff's boss, WSPD Vice President and Market Manager Andy Stuart, says the station has "done nothing wrong." Clear-Channel Toledo, WSPD's owner, stands by Standriff and the station's practices, Stuart says.

"I can tell you we don't use any news source without attribution, unless we subscribe to it," Stuart says, listing the Associated Press and ABC News as other sources for station reports. WSPD also has two full-time reporters and several producers who do original reporting, he adds, calling the Blade's tactics "pretty much hardball."

First published in 1835, the Blade is older than the city of Toledo. Its circulation hovers around 146,000 daily and 200,000 on Sunday. Its owners, the Block family, which also owns the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, bought it in 1926, and a scion of the family, John Robinson Block, is copublisher and editor in chief today. The paper has a strong idiosyncratic point of view and tends toward old-fashioned crusading on regional issues. Locals say Block tries to run the town, and he and his paper often get their way.

The publisher says he and the paper have been victims of personal attacks by both WSPD and WVKS, with the latter being the more "gross" of the two. In at least one show, Block says, WVKS called his penis size into question.

But the only connection those incidents have to the lawsuit, he says, is that the talk made the paper pay more attention to what the stations were saying. As the Blade began listening, it began hearing more and more of its stories used improperly, Block says. The lawsuit was filed solely to "protect the value of our work."

Block adds: "We've got them nailed, just nailed. It will succeed. We know this area of the law very well. We have never lost [a case of this nature]."

The paper has had a little experience controlling its turf. Some of the best media lawyers in the nation were unable to come up with an example of a similar lawsuit, but the Weekly's Rhodes did--one filed by the Blade in 1955. The paper sued Midwestern Broadcast Co., owner of WOHO (now WLQR-AM), for using the paper's stories on the air, hours before the editions hit the racks, Rhodes reported in the Weekly. The Blade won the lawsuit, with the judge enjoining the station from "directly or indirectly broadcasting, publishing, transmitting, selling, copying or using news items published by The Blade or the Toledo Times, either in their original form or after reworking, for a period of 24 hours after first publication," Rhodes quoted the judge as saying.

A victory in the current case may not bode well for Ohio broadcast outlets accustomed to "ripping and reading" newspaper articles, Rhodes says, though its national impact is more difficult to determine. The paper and station are in talks to settle the issue, Byers and Stuart say. If it is settled out of court, there may be little or no impact. And nationally, the media may read it as nothing but an isolated spat.

"My guess," says James C. Goodale, a New York media lawyer and former New York Times vice chairman, "is they must hate each other."