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From AJR,   October 1999  issue

An Aggressive Editor in a Tranquil Town   


By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

Picturesque Johnstown, Pennsylvania, population 25,000, settled between rolling hills and winding rivers, defines much of small-town Americana: quiet, quaint and friendly. And its daily newspaper, the Tribune-Democrat, has mirrored those hometown qualities for years. That is, until the new editor came to town.

Unlike many of Johnstown's residents, David M. Levine is not from Johnstown, nor western Pennsylvania; he was born in Newark, New Jersey. During a 27-year newspaper career, Levine has worked for a bunch of New Jersey papers, written editorials for the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin, and served as weekend editor for the New York Post for less than a year. In 1997, he moved to the smallest town in which he's ever lived to wake up what he says was once a "sleepy, moribund" paper.

But many in the community see Levine as a sensational-news-loving, big-city guy who just doesn't get it. They kind of liked that paper of old, and their rift with the press has resulted in more than the usual talk. This summer, a group of city businesspeople, who say the paper is overloaded with negativity, launched a new publication: the Johnstowner.

Johnstowner Editor Edward W. Kane says the one-page quarter-fold is a newsletter and an admittedly biased one at that. "We're certainly not trying to be a newspaper," he says over breakfast at the downtown Holiday Inn. The publication is trying "to build the spirits of Johnstown," says Kane, a consultant to what was once his own advertising and public relations company and a former newspaper journalist.

The newsletter, published in June through donations from local businesses, is endorsed by the Johnstown Renaissance Partnership, a group of business leaders that aims to bolster the once-booming steel town's economy.

Mayor Donato B. Zucco says the Renaissance Partnership, of which he's a member, had talked about enhancing the city's image, but what really prompted the good-news Johnstowner was continuous coverage in the Tribune-Democrat of not-so-pretty city happenings. One story involved off-duty police officers getting drunk and jumping in a city park fountain; another detailed the shooting and killing of an abandoned pit bull by police and the subsequent public backlash. The initial stories didn't bother the mayor, but the "extent of the focus," he says, was uncalled for. Kane labels the paper's coverage "over-the-edge journalism."

The mayor says he met with Levine a few times to "seek his help to try to promote the area." It's not that he and Kane don't respect the adversarial role of the newspaper, they say. "If the city is doing something wrong, they ought to be held accountable for it," Zucco says. But if the news "conveys disarray and confusion, then it's self-defeating."

Levine, 50, calls charges of no good news in the paper "bullshit." He says he's tried to move reporters away from waiting-for-the-press-release journalism. "There's a segment of our readership that expects us to be the Tribune-Democrat of the days of yore," he says. "People don't get served that way."

The fact that the editor's an outsider doesn't sit well with some in the community, says Publisher Pamela J. Mayer, a member of the family that once owned the Tribune-Democrat. Mayer, who became publisher in 1987, has been one of the constants during the paper's flux. In February, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. became its third corporate owner in as many years. Garden State Newspapers, a subsidiary of William Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group, had acquired the 44,320-circulation paper in 1987 and, in the ever-popular trading-for-clusters fashion, sold it to Hollinger International in 1996.

Mayer echoes Levine's response to charges that the paper is too negative. "Every story that was in the Johnstowner was in our paper," Mayer says. Besides, she adds, "we're not [Johnstown's] PR vehicle."

Regardless of what the Tribune-Democrat is doing, most in Johnstown would agree the city needs a good PR campaign. It has been the victim of three deadly floods in its history, and like most other American steel towns, its economy has sagged under mill cutbacks and closings. In 1993, Johnstown was placed in a state financial recovery program. The mayor says the city has made incredible strides since then, and the Johnstowner boasts of construction projects and business growth downtown.

Johnstown has experienced a "shift from family ownership to corporate ownership," just like the paper, says Mayer. "We're part of a trend in small cities."

Of Levine, she says, "He's done wonders for some of the reporters."

"He's very aggressive," says investigative reporter Kirk Swauger, who joined the staff in 1988. Since Levine arrived, Swauger says, the paper doesn't carry single-sourced stories, and has added regional and national perspectives.

Of the 47 on the editorial staff, says Mayer, about half are Pennsylvania natives. That includes Swauger and Editorial Page Editor Bruce Wissinger, who joined the paper in 1970, right out of college.

Those at the Tribune say complaints that it's unduly negative are certainly not novel. In fact, Wissinger says, "I've heard that for 29 years."

He says that "some factions" don't like the paper to do investigative reports, and the items that most upset people are headlines. Yet, Wissinger adds, the letters to the editor section is "sometimes overflowing," an indicator, he feels, of community interest.

The catchy headlines of the Levine era have provided fodder for rumors, which have stretched Levine's brief New York Post stint into a career.

"He has a tabloid sense of journalism, and that's the reason for these crazy headlines," says Kane.

He laughs when I tell him Levine only worked at the Post a short time and says others had told him of the editor's Post connection.

The headlines are zestier, Levine admits, but he doesn't pen most of them. Of his exaggerated past as a tabloid mainstay, he says, "I wish that were true."

As for general person-on-the-street--or even person-in-a-bar--opinions regarding the Tribune, they're hard to come by. Most people know employees of the paper and don't want to comment, or they refuse to go on the record. A businessman, who asked not to be named, said, "The news media itself has gone too far on sensationalism... I don't think the Tribune-Democrat is any different."

Kane, who worked for the Johnstown paper for six years after graduating from high school and went on to the Pittsburgh Press and Louisville Courier-Journal, is enjoying a semi-return to his newspaper days. He's excited about a second, expanded edition of the Johnstowner that will appear in residents' mailboxes this fall. (It may even show up as an insert in the Tribune-Democrat. The newsletter's board is considering such a proposal from the paper's advertising manager.)

Kane and Zucco say the Tribune-Democrat published more positive news in early summer, though they're cynical enough to insinuate that a positive editorial published during my stay in Johnstown was printed for my benefit.

"That's ridiculous," replies Levine when I ask him about the charge. He stresses there's been no concerted effort whatsoever to accentuate the positive.

Kane hypothesizes that the editor may have become more accustomed to Johnstown. But perhaps Johnstown has become a little more acclimated to its evolving paper.

"I'm going to continue to run the Tribune as aggressively as I can," Levine says. And he's not planning on leaving his new hometown anytime soon. The editor turned down a higher-paying job offer back in New Jersey, where his wife still lives.

"I really like it here," he says. "I'm planning to stay here and retire."=