The Slow Death of The Cincinnati Enquirer

Many of you have asked me what happened to The Cincinnati Enquirer. So here it is — I’ll do my best.

The Cincinnati Enquirer may be on its last death kicks. Yesterday was a dark one for the paper, as Gannett, its parent company, announced wide layoffs. And while it saddens me that people should lose their jobs, or that a once great newspaper should ever be reduced to the likes of USA Today — perhaps it’s worth asking the question journalists are supposed to start with:

Why?

I have an answer. Some of you will like it. My former colleagues at The Enquirer will not.

But writers are supposed to tell the truth. So here’s what’s happened to your paper, Cincinnati. I’ll lay it out as plainly as I can.

I worked as the Downtown/Over-the-Rhine Reporter at the Enquirer for a short time last year. Prior to my arrival, the paper had undergone mass turnover, layoffs, and what would generally qualify as newsroom chaos. Most of the blame fell on the Enquirer’s parent company, Gannett — and rightly so. Gannett has long been known as a media giant in every sense of the word: gluttonous, greedy, and notoriously clumsy.

Some would say Gannett got stuck straddling the two often competing worlds of journalism — the old print and the new digital. It would be more accurate to say however, that Gannett got stuck with both feet in the old world and had neither the willingness nor ability to move on. As testament to Gannett’s Pluto-like distance from reality, simply watch this video of the former CEO, painfully singing “Everything is Awesome.” (What makes this really sad is that they weren’t even doing this to be ironic. Enjoy the laugh.)

But everything is not awesome.

Today Politico reported:

“Gannett, the largest U.S newspaper company, is cutting another two percent of its workforce. That cut, which should total about 350 or more positions throughout the company, was made official in an internal memo (reproduced below) to Gannett employees by CEO Bob Dickey moments ago.

Gannett will announce its third-quarter earnings on Thursday. Company insiders say they won’t be pretty, as print ad revenue losses largely between five and eight percent at many of its more than 100 properties swamp efforts at digital business revenue growth.”


Adrenaline was pumping as I took the elevator to the 19th floor on my first day at The Enquirer. This is it, I thought. I am going to learn at the feet of the masters. These were the people who had been writing the news my dad had taken — and taken seriously — for years. The Enquirer was second only to the Times in my mind. I was absolutely stoked to get a chance to write for my hometown, about my hometown.

Problem was, the masters were mostly gone. Paul Daugherty and John Faherty were still around. But seeing Doc in the office was like spotting the white whale. And Faherty did his own thing. Until he left, which was shortly after I arrived.

Most of the folks I worked with were new recruits not much older than I. Few were from Cincinnati. Many had lived here all of three months.

But these were good kids. We had fun — that is, when we weren’t fearing for our jobs due to lack of web traffic. This was measured on a daily basis. Emails were sent every morning with a leaderboard of whose articles got the most views. Eyes sat glued to screen as you scanned the sheet for your ranking. I’d see similar lists when I worked in competitive sales.

But no worries, good ol’ Doc was always there to make up any slack. My colleague, a producer at the paper, informed me that Daugherty’s articles alone account for over half of all Enquirer web traffic and readership.

Holy Doc.

As for the rest of the paper, the growing cancer seemed to go something like this:

Simply put, The Enquirer lost touch with the town it supposedly informs.

The Enquirer newsroom is staffed by young writers, almost none of whom are from Cincinnati, many of whom are just several years out of school, and almost all of whom espouse the view — subconsciously or overtly — that Cincinnati is a second-rate city in need of help — namely, theirs.

But come on, we’re writers. Delusional comes with the territory.

There’s also nothing wrong with being a non-native. Sometimes it lends invaluable outside perspective. This can be good.

What it guarantees, however, is an incomplete understanding of local colloquialism, culture, ideology, and — most of all — history.

The Enquirer archives were floor-to-ceiling full of old print papers and photos — so much history on Cincinnati it would make your head spin. There were amazing old original photos of everything from Nixon to The Beatles to the Big Red Machine and the World Series.

It was all neglected to the point of irrelevance. A colleague actually once asked me what the Big Red Machine was. Shunned to the corner, the archivist staff was cut down to one part-timer. Sadly, it was more than adequate. No one learned. We didn’t have time to smell the old ink. We were too busy writing content. Content, content, all the time. Never a moment to pause. Never a moment to proof-read. (Take a look at any recent Enquirer article for typo-ridden evidence.)

This was in large part the fault of Gannett and then-publisher Rick Green, both of whom judged content solely by the clicks it generated.

There are people currently reporting for the Cincinnati Enquirer who have never been to the West side. This alone is a sin. Reporters who don’t know that I-275 is loop, who think Elder is what you call your grandparents, and who can’t spell Marty Brennaman’s name close enough for Google to autocorrect it.

But this is trivial. Ignorance is funny and accidental, fixable if you want it to be.

Ideological arrogance is not.

This is why many of you no longer take the paper.

There is a predominant view among the staff at The Enquirer that Cincinnati is a second-rate city, old-fashioned, implicitly racist, and conservative to the point of impeding social progress. The newsroom staff operates under the palpable ethos that they are here not so much to report on Cincinnati as they are to fix it.

This attitude is patently self-righteous, and manifests itself as opinion disguised as reported fact — currency in which journalists famously trade.

My former colleague once wrote an article called “A Recent Transplant’s View of Cincinnati,” in which she posited that Cincinnati should take a hint and be more like its “peer cities” Austin and Charlotte, even Pittsburgh.

First of all, Pittsburgh — like Ben Roethlisberger — is everything no one should ever want to be.

What is perhaps more sad than all of this is the fact that you can’t even read the entirety of the op-ed without answering a Gannett advertising poll. The online pop up blocks everything from the second paragraph down and reads:

“Answer a survey from a third party researcher to gain access to premium content. Surveys longer than 3 questions provide a survey-free experience for 7 days.”

It then asks you what kind of cell phone you use. This to unlock Fatima’s “premium” content on why she misses living in Florida along with half-baked opinions on Skyline.

Premium content. Right.

Reporter Amber Hunt tweeted last night: “As #Gannett lays off more workers today, psl remember: Subscribe to newspapers. Don’t clear your cache. Send a few bucks for the work we do.”

I replied that quality news sources never have to beg for a reader’s business. They earn it. Vice News has never once begged me to click on a link. I do it because they produce riveting content and don’t insult me by — two paragraphs into an article — demanding I complete a survey on which freaking phone I use.

Vice Media is worth over $2 billion.

Then there’s this:

One day, we were all called into a newsroom wide meeting to discuss “race in Cincinnati.”

Here we were told by the “content strategy team” (formerly known as “editors”) that one of Cincinnati’s main “problems” was a lack of racial diversity. The entire staff sat in a circle while leaders wrote racial buzzwords on the whiteboard in front. I sat in the back next to one old reporter who rolled his eyes and grumbled under his breath, “What is this bullshit?”

A reporter (Caucasian) then spoke up. She pointed around the room and — I kid you not — robustly declared that the problem was in our very midst: we as a newsroom were way “too white.”

This was met with bobbing Caucasian heads and murmurs of approval. For a second it seemed we were about call a quorum and vote ourselves out of jobs for the crime of descending from Anglo-Saxons.

We were then told to break off into groups and “brainstorm” ideas on how to increase “newsroom diversity.” It was then that another Senior Editor — sorry, “Content Strategist” — spoke up.

“There is a saying,” he cleared his throat. “That ‘Cincinnati is where Bavaria meets the old South.”

This is word for word, and was met with more murmurs and bobbing heads. What was of course implied was roughly this: “Cincinnati — backwater that it is — is where leftovers of Nazi Germany meet leftovers of the slaveholding South.”

Behold your newsroom, Cincinnati.

The Enquirer now also holds formal political views and preaches cultural ones via the Sunday editorial. Explicitly in support of whatever political movement happens to be trending at the top of Twitter at the time — gay rights, en vogue transgenderism, and most recently, in support of Hillary Clinton — The Enquirer tries to make what’s left of its voice heard.

They’re like the kid in school who constantly chameleons himself in the ever-changing direction of cool. No one respects him, no matter how often he changes colors.

While working there, few talked politics overtly. Job security and the servile timidity that accompanies political correctness kept ay would-be dissenters in line. But the general tenor of the newsroom was clear, and writers were both edited and expected to march in tune.

I once saw Carolyn Washburn, former Editor-in-Chief of the paper, stand up at a company wide conference, whoop and shake her fist in support of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.

Later, a piece lauding the bravery of a transgender youth was hailed as a Pulitzer-worthy masterpiece. After all, it made persecuted saints out of the transgender community (PC bonus points), and ended up going viral in Australia. (Pageview bonus points.)

While reporting on Over-the-Rhine, I was encouraged to treat major corporations such as the development firm 3CDC as suspect at best — while non-profits, the poor, and anything with “affordable housing” in the title were to be seen through the lense of de facto righteousness.

Characters and businessmen like Mayor Cranley and Bob Castellini were to be viewed with suspicion if not disdain. Anyone pushing for the Streetcar deserved to be heard with both ears and a smile. Steve Leeper at 3CDC was Satan. But hey, use them all — if you tag big names in an article, it means pageviews.

The Enquirer paradigm was powerfully subliminal: the rich and powerful are, by nature, evil. The poor and minorities are, by nature, good. The Left is right, the Right are bigots, and the barometer of morality rests on the desk of the Editorial team.

Needless to say, this view is both incongruous with Cincinnati culture and reality in general.

A colleague and I once tried to write a feature on a guy named Buddy Gray. Gray was a prominent character in the ’70s and ’80s who championed the poor and rallied for affordable housing initiatives. Gray and his activism-driven influence on City Council led to many historic buildings in Over-the-Rhine being re-zoned for “low-income housing.”

Gray operated the Drop Inn Center and proclaimed himself “a street fighter for the street people.” His low-income housing projects enveloped much of OTR and contributed to the demise of landmarks like Washington Park. Hippies hailed him as a charity angel. Businessmen and civic leaders called him “a poverty pimp.”

In 1980, Over-the-Rhine was on the nomination list to join the National Register of Historic Places. As a member, rules would have been put in place to both renew and preserve the neighborhood’s historic Italianate buildings. Gray rallied some 250 protesters to the event, shouting that urban renewal was “negro removal.” The decision was therefore postponed, then denied. And Over-the-Rhine fell into decline.

Not to state the obvious, but folks in Section 8 housing do not generally invest in the upkeep of the place.

As bitter irony would have it, Buddy Gray was shot to death by a homeless man in 1996.

The moral of the story is of course that Buddy Gray did far more eventual harm than good and caused a neighborhood once lauded by a travel writer as “more lively than Paris” to spiral into almost irrevocable ruin.

But telling this story wouldn’t have fit the narrative. At The Enquirer, poor people were good. Affordable housing initiatives were to be praised. Development groups were suspect. Journalists as a whole tend to believe anything that makes money is evil. This is probably because newspapers notoriously make none.

I once asked a colleague if they knew who started City Gospel Mission. They didn’t believe me when I told them it was James N. Gamble. As in the Gamble of Procter and Gamble.

This is because it didn’t fit the narrative.

For writers at The Enquirer, the narrative is this: Cincinnati is generally conservative, therefore often wrong. Morally, it is our duty to enlighten the natives. Practically, we are paid to write things that get read. Since we want to both keep our jobs and fulfill our moral calling as journalists (telling themselves that they suffer for the sake of truth is how journalists ignore the fact that they could be making money doing PR), I will:

Write anything controversial and marginally factual, or overwhelming acceptable and feel-goody.

Because:

This generates page views.

And:

Pageviews generate ad revenue.

And:

Gannett, the Enquirer’s parent company, cares about revenue.

It could give two shakes about Cincinnati. Or truth.

The bottom line is that the city’s oldest news source has lost touch with the town on which it once reported. It pisses readers off with political stances in disguise, annoys them with banal ads and subscription bargaining, and fosters mistrust with every typo and unchecked fact.

“I just can’t take you guys seriously anymore,” a reader once told me.

Scrambling to stay afloat in the vicious cycle of the new media while being chained to a parent company that demands mouse clicks over authenticity has reduced the paper we once lionized to a rag of click-baiting reportage and controversial op-ed publishing; the whole shaky structure supported by the one remaining pillar that is Paul Daugherty and the sports department — perhaps the last redeeming quality of the once great ENQ.

Most of the real writers have quit or were fired. My colleague who wrote fantastic articles on Cincinnati character and history was acrimoniously axed. Some claimed that a Senior Editor — sorry, “Content Strategist” — had deliberately edited mistakes into his draft just before publishing to create a reason to let him go.

One of the most senior writers, and someone commonly esteemed in the newsroom as the best journalist of us all, was a week later unceremoniously dismissed. Rumors circulated that he had made a slightly politically incorrect joke. At The Enquirer, a capital offense.

President Rick Green came down later to tell us about the recent firings, but instead just told us that he couldn’t really tell us anything — HR and all, you know — and then proceeded to babble about “content being king” and that he was here “to drive the bus forward.” I’ve seen Matt Foley gave better motivational speeches.

Turns out Rick Green is no longer at the paper either.

There are still good journalists at The Enquirer. True ones, solid craftsmen of the ink. But the bad apples from top to bottom far outweigh the good. The well, I’m afraid, has been poisoned — and the paper we all once loved seems to have gone the way of Pete’s bid for the Hall of Fame.

If you want real local news these days, I’d suggest perhaps the Cincinnati Business Courier. A well-curated Twitter feed would be better. Cincinnati Magazine still does a bang up job. If you want a laugh, I’d hit The Onion. If you want to slap yourself in the face while being told that saying “Who Dey” is now racist, go ahead and stick with The Enquirer — while still you can.