The Plain Dealer is the major newspaper of Cleveland, Ohio, currently enjoying its 180th year in publication. Here, we take a look back at the history of an American broadsheet known for making headlines as much as publishing them.

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Founding and Early History

The Cleveland Plain Dealer was born as an evening daily newspaper on 7 January 1842 when brothers Joseph William Gray and Admiral Nelson Gray took over the Cleveland Advertiser, which had been published for a decade previously. The City of Cleveland was itself a mere 46 years old at the establishment of what would become its major newspaper, and for the last few decades its sole newspaper, following the closures of the Cleveland News and The Cleveland Press in 1960 and 1982 respectively.

The earliest moment in Cleveland Plain Dealer history was perhaps also its most pivotal. Pronouncing inspiration from the scripture “put not new wine into old bottles, lest they break”, the Gray brothers opted to move in a new direction by renaming the Advertiser, delivering a pledge of both originality and honesty by declaring that “our democracy and modesty suggest the only name that befits the occasion, the Plain Dealer”.

So striking was the choice that Winston Churchill once reportedly called it “the best newspaper name of any in the world.” While the paper’s masthead included its city’s name for much of its first century, it would eventually drop it to become simply “The Plain Dealer” sometime in the 1960s, although it is unclear exactly when this occurred.

Plain dealer timeline

 Front page of the Plain Dealer, 10 June 1944


Ownership History of the Plain Dealer

After founding the paper with his brother, Joseph William Gray both owned and edited the Plain Dealer from 1842 until his death twenty years later. During Gray’s tenure, and most notably in the time leading up to the Civil War (which ultimately began a year before his death), the Plain Dealer was a Democratic beacon in an otherwise Republican region.

Opposition to Lincoln Re-Election Controversy

At Gray’s death, the paper was taken over by the administrator of his estate, John S. Stephenson, who completely shifted its political standpoint, culminating in a fierce and controversial editorial which opposed the re-election of Abraham Lincoln in 1864. So unpopular were these views that Stephenson was removed, and the Plain Dealer went on hiatus for several weeks.

Liberty Emery Holden to Samuel Newhouse (1885-1967)

In January 1885, the Plain Dealer was acquired by real estate investor Liberty Emery Holden, who introduced a morning edition and later a Sunday edition, as circulation continued to grow. Upon Holden’s death in 1913, ownership of the Plain Dealer was placed in a trust for his heirs.

One of these heirs, Thomas Vail, who at the time was only thirty-six, assumed the position of publisher and editor in 1963. Under Vail, who hired young and hungry journalists and focused on a more belligerent, nonpartisan journalistic approach, the paper grew in circulation once more, and became the focus of stories in both Newsweek and Time.

In 1967, Vail and Holden’s other trustees sold the Plain Dealer to the Samuel Newhouse chain of papers for $54.2 million, a record price at the time. The paper continues to be owned by an iteration of the Newhouse Family, now known by the name Advance Publications Inc.


Highs and Lows

One of the greatest historical triumphs for the Plain Dealer occurred in 1967, and the mayoral campaign of one Carl B. Stokes. In the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Vail and the Plain Dealer ran a full page editorial endorsing Stokes, an African-American, as the next mayor of Cleveland. Thanks in no small part to the paper’s support, Stokes went on to win the election, becoming the first black man in history to take charge of a major U.S. city.

Pulitzer Prizes

The Cleveland Plain Dealer has also received two Pulitzer Prizes, firstly in 1953 for Edward D. Kuekes’s cartoon Aftermath. The cartoon addressed the irony of young soldiers being too young to legally vote but old enough to give their lives in the Korean War. Later, in 2005, Connie Schultz received the publication’s second Pulitzer on account of her “pungent columns that provided a voice for the underdog and underprivileged”.

Controversies

The Plain Dealer has not existed without controversy, however, and has certainly not been without its detractors. Many criticisms have been directed towards the paper’s politics, and an alleged tendency to favor conservative views in its editorial sections despite its staunch democratic history and readership base.

In addition to the aforementioned Lincoln debacle, the Plain Dealer came under fire in the run-up to the 2004 Presidential Election, when the editorial board voted to endorse Democratic candidate John Kerry, but were overruled by their publisher Alex Machaskee, who favored the incumbent George W. Bush. The feud eventually resulted in a stalemate, with the paper abstaining from endorsing any candidate at all. This move was deemed cowardly by some commentators, especially in comparison to the actions of publications such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chicago Tribune who continually and unapologetically lobbied for Kerry and Bush respectively.

In 2005, the Plain Dealer was accused by State Senator Steve Austria of abusing the media access privilege after twice publishing lists of concealed weapon permit holders. An Ohio gun rights group would retaliate by publishing then-editor Doug Clifton’s home address and phone number.


Historical Circulation Figures

Listed below are the Plain Dealer circulation figures for the weekday edition at numerous junctures in its recent history:

 

Date – Circulation

1983 – 497,386

2007 – 334,194

2013 – 216,122

2018 – 141, 053

2019 – 94,838

 

It is abundantly clear that the circulation figures make for grim reading for the Plain Dealer. Between 1983 and 2007, the paper lost a third of its daily readership, and by 2019 the paper’s circulation was down to less than 20% of what it had been 36 years earlier. The Sunday edition has fared slightly better over time, with its 2019 circulation double that of its weekday equivalent, but it too has still lost over 60% of its readers since 1983, dropping from 501,042 to 171,404.

Drops in digits have been attributed to numerous factors, from the struggling economy to rising expenses to the boom of internet news stations. In any case, decreasing circulation equals less advertising revenue, and in the Plain Dealer’s case led to such measures as the cull of 32 pages per week in 2008 and the reduction of home deliveries from seven days a week to just three in 2013. Nonetheless, some circles would move to highlight another reason for the paper’s downfall, far more cold and calculated than the others.


The Emergence of Cleveland.com

In 1997, the owners of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Advance Publications, announced the launch of Cleveland.com, an online-only sister of the Plain Dealer, allowing both publications to share content while retaining their own offices, staff and company structures.

While Cleveland.com may at first have been viewed as simply a digital supplementary to the print-only Plain Dealer, a corporate restructure in 2013 and the emergence of a new subsidiary company to control Cleveland.com led many to suspect that the owners of the two publications didn’t intend for them to exist harmoniously in tandem after all.

The new company, entitled Northeast Ohio Media Group (NEOMG), differentiated itself from the Plain Dealer Publishing Company not just in terms of its digital focus. While the Plain Dealer’s staff were protected by a labor union (the NewsGuild), Cleveland.com was non-unionized. This fact is crucial in regards to the events that followed.


The Death of the Plain Dealer Newsroom

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the gradual demise of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was a rolling stone gathering momentum. With circulation continuing to dwindle, the publication was operating at a financial loss, and downsizing soon became par for the course.

Between 2006 and 2009, 30% of the Plain Dealer’s 372 newsroom staff either accepted a buyout offer or were fired. Three years later, 58 of the then-remaining 168 union staff were laid off. Thirteen more transferred to NEOMG.

Across 2018 and 2019, further cuts came thick and fast, and after numerous buyouts, redundancies and reassignments, the Cleveland Plain Dealer was in April 2020 left with a staff of just four union journalists. Just a month later, those four journalists were laid off and offered roles in the Cleveland.com newsroom, leaving the Cleveland Plain Dealer with a grand total of zero union-protected employees.

Employee and Union Backlash

Many viewed this downsizing process as a strategy by Advance Publications to sidestep and destroy a labor union, allowing them to proceed without having to adhere to its demands. Indeed, Cleveland Scene magazine called the lengthy episode a “transparent union-busting schism scheme”, a phrase the NewsGuild would itself repeat.

Days later Rachel Dissell, an investigative journalist and former Guild Leader, would add: “We’ve had a lot of guilt about the way things turned out. We obviously didn’t want it to end this way. This is the only job I ever wanted.”


As Things Stand

Today, though its own newsroom ceases to exist, the Cleveland Plain Dealer continues to be distributed by Advance Publications, with all of its content now produced by the Cleveland.com newsroom. In 2019, Cleveland.com was attracting just shy of ten million monthly users. It has been criticized on multiple occasions for both its content and its design.

The future of the Plain Dealer is perhaps best summarized by the words of its final editor-in-chief, Tim Warsinskey, who said in a farewell statement: “The Plain Dealer remains a stanchion of Ohio journalism, and still is the best source for print journalism and advertising... This is not the end of The Plain Dealer. Far from it.” Warsinskey, who oversaw the loss of the paper’s final 36 journalists during his three-month tenure as editor, would immediately move on to his new position as Senior Editor for Advance Local, the parent company of Cleveland.com.