Cleveland Plain Dealer's Loss of Reader Representative “Sad, Disappointing” For Local Journalists

The Plain Dealer's decision to cut its reader representative position is drawing criticism from local media and veteran journalists in Cleveland who say it reduces valued self-criticism.

Ted Diadiun, who has held the post since 2005, wrote on Saturday that he is giving up the position in order to join the paper's editorial board. He added that editor George Rodrigue and Chris Quinn, vice president of content for the Northeast Ohio Media Group that owns the newspaper, “will provide insight and response in columns” in the event “larger journalism issues need to be addressed.” 

But local observers disagreed with the move, noting that having a person devoted to self-criticism offers more internal review than just having the top editors do it.

“Chris Quinn doesn't respond like an editor should and for Ted to say that George and Chris Quinn will be the ones handling this stuff is troubling to me,” said Vince Grzegorek, editor of the alternative weekly Cleveland Scene. “It is the largest media operation in town where we have any number of big topics being discussed. For someone not to be examining how they do their job is a disservice.”

Jim McIntyre, news director at WHK Radio in Cleveland and a 30-year broadcast media veteran of the area, echoed that view.

“I'm saddened by it, I enjoyed his column very much. I thought he provided an insight into the process, an insight that those outside the print media weren't privy to,” he said. “It's always important to have access to the decision makers I think, just hold them accountable for what they're publishing.”

Doug Clifton, the Plain Dealer editor from 1999 to 2007 who created the position, said: “I still believe in the concept. If there was a way to keep it, I would have kept it.”

The loss of an internal review also comes at a time when the newspaper has been criticized for the way it has handled several stories.

Among them was the coverage of the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American who was shot and killed by police in late 2014. The paper reported on Tamir's father and focused on his criminal record, even posting a mug shot. 

Another issue arose just a few weeks earlier when the Plain Dealer posted, then removed, video of its editorial board interview with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed Fitzgerald and incumbent Republican Governor John Kasich.

On the Rice issue, Quinn claimed reports on his parents “may shed further light on why this 12 year old was waving a weapon around a public park.”

As for the video interview, Quinn ordered the video to be taken down from the website, prompting the Columbia Journalism Review to call the move “weird” and the original lack of explanation from Quinn “frustrating.” 

Diadiun weighed in with a column on the video issue that called Quinn's reasoning for removing the video “fairly straightforward and defensible,” but added, “then he made another decision that, in my view, was not defensible: He elected to not explain his reasons.”

In 2013, Diadiun took issue with the paper publishing a column by George Will that praised Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker but did not note Will's financial ties with the Wisconsin-based Bradley Foundation, whose CEO served as Walker's 2010 campaign chairman.

“The special value of these positions is that a reader representative typically resides inside the news organization and is empowered to take audience complaints directly to reporters and editors and demand answers,” said Andy Alexander, a former Washington Post ombudsman and currently a visiting journalism professor at nearby Ohio University. “They investigate, just like a dogged journalist covering a beat. And when necessary, they hold the newsroom to account through a column or blog that carries special weight due to the reader representative's special stature.”

Anup Kumar, associate professor of communication at Cleveland State University, said losing the reader representative is a step back for The Plain Dealer “in some ways.”

“Will someone be scanning through reader comments that go on stories? I guess not anymore. That is a valid point,” Kumar said. “Issues crop up all the time. Ted Diadiun had responded to readers. That had allayed some fears that readers had about the coverage.”

For Kathy Bradshaw, a journalism professor at Bowling Green State University in western Ohio, the change is “sort of a sad, disappointing and another diminishing of journalistic standards. Or it has that potential ... getting rid of the reader representative is hurting themselves because they are losing one strong connection to the community.”