Coverage of Tamir Rice Shooting Exposes Rift Between Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com
It’s been more than a week since police fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, but the public knows almost nothing about his friends, his hobbies, his personality – nothing about him. And, until last night, we didn’t know anything about the police officer who killed him either.
If ever a profile of Tamir ever gets published will largely be determined by the relationship between Cleveland’s newspaper, The Plain Dealer, and the digital company, the Northeast Ohio Media Group. Despite sharing the cleveland.com platform, the print and digital companies are separate entities. Both, however, are owned by Advance Newspapers.
When the digital product was created in 2013, it got responsibility for crime and sports – two beats that generate the highest of web views. Employees familiar with the arrangement say the Northeast Ohio Media Group managers direct crime, courts and police coverage without input from its newspaper sibling. “We can suggest, but we cannot demand that they cover certain stories,” said one Plain Dealer employee who agreed to speak with All Digitocracy off the record. “The distinction between us and the Northeast Ohio Media Group is important.”
All public comments about news coverage were referred to Plain Dealer managing editor, Thomas Fladung, and Christopher Quinn, vice president of content for the Northeast Ohio Media Group. Both declined to speak with All Digitocracy. Employees, however, want to talk, but not without permission from supervisors.
They said the arrangement between the two The Plain Dealer and the Northeast Ohio Media Group’s cleveland.com is so convoluted that it confuses readers and that even insiders have a hard time trying to explain it. What is clear is that several Plain Dealer staffers distanced themselves from a recent story about the criminal pasts of Tamir Rice’s parents. “Nobody at The Plain Dealer had anything to do with that story,” several newspaper staffers complained. The employees fear that cleveland.com is using, and destroying, what used to be a strong, respected Plain Dealer brand.
At 8:29 p.m. Monday evening, a story describing Timothy Loehmann, the rookie who killed Tamir on Nov. 22, as a “quiet and respectful,” appeared on the home page of cleveland.com The story states that Loehmann is also someone who craves “the action” of a community in Cleveland that has the highest number of homicides. The report states Loehmann was charged with underage drinking when he was 17, which the website attributed to the hacktivist group, Anonymous, and was cited for failure to control his vehicle after he rear-ended a line of cars stopped at a traffic light in May.
It’s unclear whether an in-depth profile about Tamir will appear on cleveland.com. Quinn refused to talk about it. But what is clear is the way the Northeast Ohio Media Group practices journalism is very different from the way many journalists at The Plain Dealer do.
The Northeast Ohio Media Group, with less experienced reporters, emphasizes posting stories in short bursts, as they develop, with updates as the news emerges. It’s called iterative reporting. At cleveland.com, it requires little to no editing, with reporters often finding a story, writing the story and then posting the story directly to the web site, insiders told us. Some journalists at The Plain Dealer say these practices led to publication of a controversial news story about Tamir’s parents. Editors at The Plain Dealer refused to publish the story.
At cleveland.com, clicks matter. Stories with the most hits or readers get better play; those without, get buried on the website. Other Advance properties have adopted this approach as well. Plain Dealer employees are passing around a link to a story from weldbham.com, to buttress their complaints about the shortcomings at the Northeast Ohio Media Group’s cleveland.com.
“… the papers have become less and less relevant, while the Al.com website has become a haven for “clickbait” headlines that lead to 300-word stories that offer little to nothing in the way of substance or context, and for anonymous commenters who use the mask of user names to spew all manner of bile, a good deal of it explicitly racist,” according to weldbham.com, a weekly newspaper based in Birmingham.
“… And meanwhile, the dwindling number of seasoned journalists who remain with the Alabama Media Group continue to ply their trade, producing meaningful stories and commentary that rarely make it into print, and are quickly lost online in the flood of quota-driven posts of “content” that churns constantly on the Al.com landing page,” the article continues. “It’s not that we’re not producing good journalism,” says one of the company’s reporters, speaking — like other AMG employees who commented for this story — on condition of anonymity. “It’s that the company we work for doesn’t value good journalism.”
Three Plain Dealer employee emailed the above link to All Digitocracy. One Plain Dealer reporter wrote: “I was struck by the number of paragraphs that seemed like they were written about this operation. All you needed to do is take out AL.com or Alabama and replace it with cleveland.com or Cleveland.”
Employees at The Plain Dealer can suggest story ideas to cleveland.com, but can not demand that anything gets covered, newsroom staffers told us.
The Plain Dealer, with more experienced reporters, is known for publishing more in depth reports. They point to how Tamir Rice’s shooting death is being handled as an example of why it is important to distinguish stories with a Plain Dealer byline from those produced by Northeast Ohio Media Group, which typically employs less experienced reporters, according to Plain Dealer staffers.
Historically, the news media has never devoted time, energy or resources to communities of color. Reporters never showed up until a sensational event occurred, like the police shooting a 12 year old. Journalists typically rolled in and rolled out, forgetting these communities until the next big incident. So it is hard to say whether cleveland.com‘s approach to journalism is the reason behind its spotty crime reporting, including its coverage of Tamir Rice’s shooting death.
It does seem that cleveland.com, which Advance is betting will save its journalistic future, is making the same mistakes as its legacy media ancestors. But Advance can’t ensure a future by producing haphazard journalism that raises more questions than it answers.