Embracing the shiny penny

Steve Carlton statue by artist Zenos Frudakis outside Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park

Steve: What was your first ballgame and what do you remember about it? Also, what was the first election you voted in? How do you think both baseball and politics have changed since?

Marc: I don’t remember the specific game, but I remember the season: 1971 – the first year the Philadelphia Phillies were in their new home, Veterans Stadium. We lived in south Jersey then, about 25 miles from the ballpark, and my dad would take me to games. The irony is my favorite player in those days was Steve Carlton; and he turned out to be someone who didn’t talk to the media. (I read Joe Posnanski’s fine book, The Baseball 100, and it’s clear Carlton is in his own little world.)

First election was 1984: Mondale-Ferraro vs. Reagan-Bush. That was viewed as such a game changer, with a woman on a major party ticket. Almost 40 years later, still no female president. And it seemed so civil compared to today.

Back then, politicians seemed to be in it to represent the general populace. Now, it’s more ego- and power-driven. Meanwhile, stadiums have gone from general multi-purpose facilities to baseball-centric parks.

Steve: We were at Progressive Field to watch the Guardians last night, and I was struck by how many “Indians” shirts and Chief Wahoo logos there still are – and presumably always will be. (The official Cleveland “booster” organization is the Wahoo Club). You’re probably tired of talking about it by now but (very) quick thoughts on the name change?

Marc: It is amazing how often this still comes up. I am an adopted Clevelander; I have been here 22 years. This is one of the most nostalgic cities in America. ‘Guardians’ has a clear tie to local history, with the sculptures standing sentry in view of the ballpark, so I am OK with the name. I like to say I am a bit alone in my opinion on getting rid of Wahoo. My logic: If you wear a shirt that says ‘KKK’ you are racist. If you wear a shirt calling Hillary Clinton any of the vile names out there, you are misogynist. But in Cleveland, if you wear Wahoo, I really don’t think that means you hate Native Americans. I honestly don’t think people think of Native Americans.

Minorities who are red-lined out of communities because banks won’t lend them money have a legitimate legal and emotional beef, and I hope they win in court. The system should help them. But this nation is not going to pay reparations to Native Americans who, more than 200 years ago, were suckered into $24 worth of beads for the island of Manhattan. It’s not going back to them, so let’s not clog the courts with unnecessary claims. There are more important things to worry about.

By the way, not long after the name was announced, I did a survey for a story. I interviewed more than 100 people. Not one person in or near the ballpark had a problem with Wahoo. 

Steve: It felt a little ironic when we stopped to admire the new mural celebrating Cleveland’s legendary Black players that the local area was preparing for the funeral of Jayland Walker – With Cleveland being a majority Black city, how would you characterise race relations locally at the moment, and over recent years? 

Marc: In my lifetime (I was born in 1965), I don’t think race relations in this country have ever been good. They ebb and flow, but they just haven’t been great. Many examples come to mind, but it’s one from the sports world that I think is salient. Colin Kaepernick took a knee, and yet I don’t feel like enough people understand why he did it: that it was not a middle finger at the United States, it was a symbol of frustration about how many people are disenfranchised. I think minorities are becoming more frustrated, while the other side has been increasingly tone deaf.

Steve: You and I have both lived and worked through probably the most eventful and disruptive quarter-century in the history of journalism. Can you briefly describe your career path and how it brought you to where you are today?

Marc: A pal once told me I was the most resilient person he knew in our business. I took that as a great compliment. There’s a reason: On the last day of my sophomore year in high school, there was a call for students who wanted to join the school newspaper the following year (don’t ask me why the administration was so organized on this). I went to the office, which was swirling with last-day activity, teachers and students and paperwork, and I stood there, just staring at the form. And I had an honest epiphany. I decided right then that I wanted to be a journalist for the rest of my life. The memory of that has fuelled me to keep going ever since.

I lasted through a shutdown, a strike and a sale at three of the papers I worked. And, to quote the original “Rocky” movie, when Adrian asks Rocky: “Why do you fight?” Rocky doesn’t hesitate when he says: “Because I can’t sing or dance.”

Steve: And I don’t think either of us could have imagined how our day-to-day jobs would change over the course of our careers. You’ve embraced a range of new technological skills, but in the end you’re still telling stories. We’ve chatted a bit about this, but can you try to sum up the good – and bad – things about how you do your job today, given the changed demands on news organizations?

Marc: You described it perfectly – we’re still telling stories. That’s what we do. A decade ago I didn’t even like to have my picture taken. A few years into this digital world I was editing video. No one shakes their head over that more than me.

So, the good: You have to evolve or die, so you better learn. Having the internet at our disposal makes story research go so much faster than back in the days of having a morgue to comb through while you prayed there were clips on something you were writing about. The bad: I am barely keeping up with all the platforms I have to be on. I said no to Snapchat years ago because I felt like it was too much, and I don’t regret it. I’m very much into branding for my company and me personally – I am on one or two radio shows – but I have resisted doing a podcast about my coverage areas. My rationale is if you want me to stop, research, write and edit a podcast on what I just reported, guess what’s not going to get done? Another story or two or three.

Our business has had a tendency to embrace the ‘shiny penny’ theory. In the end, we are all storytellers.

Another good: Technological platforms we use allow us to ask an important question for each story: HOW do we tell this story? Sometimes it’s video only. Other times it’s a four-inch story and 10 photos. Other times it’s a long takeout with a bunch of art. Either way, we have more options than in the old days. 

Steve: Youngstown, just down the road from where we are, is now the largest city in America without a daily paper and the concept of “news deserts” gets more real every day. Your paper The Plain Dealer has now been subsumed into Cleveland.com. The big question for anyone in the industry now is how do local papers/news organizations build a community of readers while staying afloat financially? Where do you think things go from here?

Marc: If I had the answer, you and I would be in a suite at a ballgame and I would be keeping score, drinking a beer, and my limo driver would be listening to the game on the radio. Cleveland.com was always the digital side of The Plain Dealer, but several years ago our company made a concerted effort to push it as an autonomous model. It makes sense. Print subscriptions are dropping every year, yet readership, for the most part, has been rising. Our big issue was we let people get used to something free, and now we want them to pay for it. That’s a challenge, though what we offer has a lot of value, in my opinion.

Seeking new readers is another huge hurdle. The small answer is we need to keep producing stories on a high-volume level. I love it when I see people produce a blog and they go into it with lofty notions before realizing ‘Oh, wait, you have to do this multiple times every day?’ The side of journalism that people don’t see is the feeding-the-beast part of what we do.

Steve: I know you frequently speak to students about your job and the state of journalism in general – how do you think the way college kids think about the profession has changed from your time at the University of Iowa?

Marc: I think kids are into technology and they move quickly, and those skills are obviously important. At Cleveland.com we have a lot of young journalists in addition to people even older than me. I listen to them, they listen to me, and it’s a good relationship. The other big thing is that not that long ago, things were compartmentalized: photographers shot photos, writers wrote, etc. Now, we’re all doing multiple things. The trick is to balance multiple beats. That’s exhausting, yet incredibly rewarding.

I don’t always see the fire in the belly from a lot of kids, though. It’s at the point where I expect young journalists to move into PR or similar type of job at some point. Cynical, but I’ve seen that a lot. One issue I see more and more of, though not so much at mainstream media: writers – especially younger ones – are using attitude and opinions to cover a lack of reporting. I see this in non-mainstream sports quite a bit. Just because you have an opinion or turn of phrase doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile to write, unless it’s backed up with solid reporting. Do research, pay attention to history, then move forward. Generally, there is a lack of editing / coaching going on now across the board, though that’s a whole separate topic.

Steve: Ohio went 53-45 for Trump at the 2020 election but the state is usually seen as a bellwether. The contest for Rob Portman’s Senate seat in November is going to be really interesting – if the particularly off-the-wall Ohio Republican primary is anything to go by – what do you think of the quality of your local politicians and what do you think are going to be the issues that will most affect the outcome? 

Marc: Our editorial board – which has been accused of being liberal, conservative and moderate, depending on the day – wrote a piece BEGGING Portman to reconsider his retirement. So much for the liberal press. I am not sure I would consider anyone who went after his seat in the primary as moderate or old-fashioned GOPers. Most of the ads centered on them aligning themselves with, or distancing themselves from, Trump. The issue that will affect people will be jobs – specifically how to create them in this economy – yet we still are bombarded with wedge issues like gay marriage. I am at the point where it is difficult to watch political debates, there is so much pandering going on.

Steve: Ninth inning….. Anything you’d like to talk about that I haven’t asked?

Marc: Nope. At the end of the day, or game, we’re a society. We should help each other. It would be nice if that were more of a motivating force right now.

You can follow Marc on Twitter here

Marc is the author of three books:

“The Reason We Play”

“Hidden History of Cleveland Sports” 

“The Game Changer” 

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