Chris Quinn, editor of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer in Ohio, has used his weekly column to communicate with readers about various decisions at the newspaper, from hiring announcements to the launch of new products. The column also serves as a sort of reflection from the newsroom to the public, as Quinn often lays out mistakes the paper has made and explains the newsroom’s thought process around editorial decisions.
A recent column by Quinn made national headlines, as he explained why the paper wouldn’t be covering a rally featuring Ohio U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, citing the “ridiculous restrictions that DeSantis and Vance placed on anyone covering the event,” which included limits to whom reporters could interview and the rally organizer’s right to all filmed material from the press to use for promotional purposes.
In his piece, Quinn explained why the restrictions would result in skewed coverage of the rally and the dangers the restrictions place on a free press in society.
Nieman Reports spoke with Quinn about the column, how the Plain Dealer is approaching midterm election coverage differently this year, and the role of newsrooms as advocates for democracy. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Your columns span a lot of different topics, from announcements about new reporters to podcasts, but they also get deeper, including the piece about the rally. What are you looking to achieve with them?
I probably started writing a variation of [the column] at intermittent intervals since 2017, but in the summer of 2020 it became a weekly communication. Part of it was to persuade readers that we have value, and they should support us. We are trying to build up subscriptions, but really the main purpose is to build the relationship with the readers. We know that a relationship with the readers is part of the path to sustainability. If people are invested in us, then they’re going to stick around and support us. And traditionally, I don’t think a lot of newsrooms have done a good job in explaining what they’re doing, and so what I try to do every week is explain something. Sometimes we’ve made a big mistake, and I explain it and apologize for it. Sometimes it’s new policies; sometimes it’s to celebrate somebody on the staff.
Do you often find that your pieces reach a larger audience? The J.D. Vance column is a good example.
When I wrote the J.D. Vance one, I really was not thinking about beyond us. It was really for the northeast. And shame on me. I should have realized. It’s politics, it’s J.D. Vance, and so it would clearly catch fire. It was odd because it had its normal readership and then on that Tuesday, boom, it was the number one piece on our site for the day, because it was being shared so widely. But I think, look, it’s good. We in journalism don’t talk about these things often enough, and none of us has the answer. I’m not saying that what we did is right. It’s just we’re trying to do something and most importantly explain our decision process so that people understand why we did what we did.
How do you think about these anti-press moves in a wider context? We’re seeing a lot of similar things happening around the country.
I think that in the last five years politicians have learned to take what has traditionally been our set of best practices and weaponize them, and we must stop that. If they’re using our platforms as a weapon against others, we should not be complicit in that. And so I think we need to be analyzing this all the time. The other thing that we are being abused on is our fairness. We have this false equivalence, if a Democrat says something we have to get the Republican saying something. If [Ohio U.S. Senate candidate] Josh Mandel says Muslims and Mexican immigrants are destroying the country with the crime spree, or one of his things, that’s ridiculous. You don’t really need to get both sides of that argument. It’s preposterous on its face, and I see more people, the readers have picked up on this.
Do you worry about the implications of not covering these kinds of rallies?
We’re all dealing with lesser resources than we had 10 and 15 years ago. So I think we’ve become far more careful in what we choose to write about, and when it comes to covering the Senate race in Ohio, I don’t think a rally is necessarily the best use of our time. I mean, there are things you get at rallies if it’s open, and you can talk to people who are there and understand what they’re thinking. This is the same thing with Trump. There are a lot of people who couldn’t understand the Trump phenomenon that wanted to hear from those people that were there. So there’s use.
But, on the other hand, we kind of have to set an agenda. We know what Ohio is facing, and so doing stories that help the voters understand what the two candidates for the U.S. Senate would do, I think it’s far more valuable than going and getting platitudes on this stage where they’re really trying to be outrageous, so I don’t know how much is lost. I hope that the next time they do a rally they will not have such ridiculous rules, because I think it cost them. And you don’t want to be painted as having the policies of a fascist regime that that makes you wince, and so I hope it was effective. There’s a lot of stuff we need to do on that race, and trotting around listening to them on the speech trail is not the best use of our time.
Are you and your organization thinking about covering these elections differently than maybe you’ve done in years past?
We’re doing things differently. We’re really shying away from heavy coverage of race polls because they’re not reliable. Clearly in Ohio, they’re not reliable. We have stated we’re not going to write about it individually as news stories and the really hateful stuff that people say at a campaign rally. We will do perspective stories that say, ‘This is how these candidates are working to get the vote,’ and if one of them is doing what Josh Mendel did, which was saying mean-spirited, horrible things, you write about that, but it’s more as a trend where you don’t repeat a lot of it because we’re trying to not be the vehicle for which that stuff gets transmitted.
We are also going to start something. We talk about covering it differently. Our umbrella company owns the Subtext brand, where you send out text messages to people who subscribe. Some are paid, and some are free. We’re going to do a limited engagement election Subtext really zeroing in on the Senate and the Governor’s races, plus some other stuff or people that want to be real-time in our reporter’s heads, and I think that might help because it’s a little bit more present. There’s something about getting that information on the phone the way you talk to your significant other, your children, or your parents.
In the J.D. Vance column, you talked a lot about the First Amendment and freedom of the press. Do you think news outlets, especially now, should be more outspoken as advocates for democracy?
I do because I think democracy has never been more threatened. There are people out there that want the media, the mainstream media to be curtailed and to be gone. I don’t think our system of government works without it, and the sad thing is, it’s faded so badly in many areas. I mean most of rural Ohio doesn’t have a reliable news source. We need to message how important it is to have somebody on the outside being the watchdog, being the one that says, ‘Whoa!’ regarding your tax dollars, we’re making sure that the right things happen. It’s very stressed at the moment.
Traditionally a lot of news outlets try not to really put themselves and their organizations at the center of these conversations. Do you have concerns that can turn into advocacy or be perceived as advocating?
We are advocates. I can’t remember what year it was, but we basically created a public impact and advocacy team. Newspapers and newsrooms long have done investigative projects which lay out society’s ills. They’ve done it largely without saying, we’re advocating for change. The whole reason we do it is for change. We’re always working on things like this, trying to make things better.
We are advocates. In the J.D. Vance piece, the advocacy is ‘cut it out.’ We talk to whoever we want to talk to. That’s what America stands for. When it comes to public spending and things like that, we’re advocating to make sure that the money you spend is on the purposes for which it was announced, and not corruption and things. There’s a lot of advocacy, I think, that we all do.
Look, there aren’t a lot of strong newsrooms. A lot of them have been closed, and those of us who still have pretty robust newsrooms, I think we have a responsibility to try and make a difference for as long as we can.