Trials and Trib-ulations | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Trials and Trib-ulations

An insider's look at Pittsburgh's second daily

"We don't offer a lot of money, but we do offer a lot of opportunity," Pittsburgh Tribune-Review deputy managing editor Jim Cuddy Jr. told me during my October 1999 job interview. Indeed, the salary was a significant pay cut from what I was making as a writer for Dow Jones in Jersey City, N.J. But once I factored in the cost of living -- and once I bought into Cuddy's portrayal of the Trib as a scrappy upstart and legitimate news organization -- my decision was easy.

Pittsburgh, after all, is one of a dwindling number of two-newspaper towns, and having two papers is supposed to be a good thing for readers. The papers, feeling intense competitive pressure, are supposed to be aggressive in their coverage. That was a big reason why I was willing to move to a city I'd never set foot in.

I laugh now when I look at my notes from that interview. "The mayor doesn't really like us," Cuddy had said casually. "Our publisher is considered conservative."

But Cuddy saw me for what I was: a young, aggressive reporter hoping to build a résumé until I landed at an elite American newspaper. I told Cuddy that I hoped to work for the Boston Globe in the city where I grew up. "With two years here and some hard work, you might have the clips to help you reach that goal," Cuddy said.

In fact, I spent more than four years at the Trib, and I did eventually land an interview at the Globe. It was more a result of networking and reputation than anything I did at the Trib, but it didn't matter. By that point, the Trib -- with its dumbed-down coverage, alleged objectivity and top-down management structure -- had soured my taste for newspapers, so much so that I got out of daily journalism altogether.

I'm now a much happier person writing books, magazine articles and television shows. The real losers are Pittsburgh's readers, who have not one but two daily newspapers that under-serve them by remaining stuck in the past and out of touch with what's important to real people.

"This place is like being in Vietnam"

The feistiness that drew me to the Trib was embodied by Frank Craig, who was named editor a month after I started. Craig bears a striking resemblance to the bad guy in the original Die Hard movie -- all the way down to the neatly trimmed beard and the unfiltered cigarettes, the one exception being that Craig likes to wear cowboy boots with his tailored suits. Craig was recruited from the Toledo Blade, sister paper to the Trib's mortal enemy, the Post-Gazette. And, like a lot of people who came in at that time, he arrived full of ambition. Many, in fact, assumed that he hoped to use the paper as a stepping-stone to a better gig -- just like the rest of us.

Craig gave off a vibe as being someone who rattled cages. He emphasized investigative work and sent reporters to cover major national and international stories: Most notably, he dispatched reporters Carl Prine and Betsy Hiel to cover the invasion of Iraq. The P-G, meanwhile, relied on wire copy for its war coverage.

Still, it didn't take long to realize that the trip wasn't going to live up to promises made in the brochure. I started work just before Thanksgiving 1999 and began by making small talk with a reporter staring at a computer screen at the next desk.

"Three years?" I said when he told me how long he had worked at the Trib. "It's reassuring to see people stick around for awhile."

He snickered, and as he turned to get a cup of coffee, he said something about being "the exception and not the rule." I soon learned about "the list," which documented every departure from the Trib's editorial ranks. In 1999 alone, more than 40 people had quit from an editorial staff that barely numbered 200.

Because I had been assigned to a top-secret project on my first day, I had little contact with other staffers. Fortunately, I was able to attend going-away parties for three people in my first few weeks and meet some of my new co-workers.

All of them were reporters. Nearly all of them were bitter.

"This place is like being in Vietnam," one veteran grumbled. "You don't want to get too close to anyone, because they might not be here tomorrow."

I tried to keep an open mind. Every company has disgruntled employees. Besides, I had worked at Dow Jones for only nine months before coming to the Trib; another sudden jump would be a black mark on my résumé.

But there were other reasons to be concerned. The top-secret project I and two other reporters had been assigned would become, three months later, "Pittsburgh In Crisis." It was a hyped-up, eight-page section with the banner headline "Experts: City could run out of cash." It was, by almost all accounts, the first real stern warning that the city was in deep financial trouble, and that its leaders were ignoring the problems.

It was also shitty journalism.

"Pittsburgh In Crisis" was less an investigative report than a collection of facts, figures and warnings that had been uttered for years, presented all at once to lend it a "holy crap!" quality. And while every mayor and city official dating back to the 1940s could share some of the blame for digging the hole, the report was skewed to skewer Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy.

Of course, goading public leaders and addressing problems they ignore is what newspapers are supposed to do. I'm not a Murphy apologist: He was well aware of the problems, yet he still moved forward with his expensive economic-development agenda. But even bad people are supposed to be treated fairly.

Early on, Cuddy told me that because of the paper's perception as a rag, its reporters had to live up to higher standards. In some ways they do; the Trib uses fewer unnamed sources than the Post-Gazette, and editors pound into reporters that every fact -- no matter how obvious -- needs to be attributed. When you read that someone "could not be reached for comment" in the Trib, it often means a reporter spent hours camped out in front of their home.

But these rules were often thrown out when it came to Murphy. It seemed odd to me that we were spending three months working on a report that would embarrass the mayor, yet we waited until the waning days of our reporting to contact his administration.

In the end, we scheduled a one-hour interview with Murphy, his spokesman Craig Kwiecinski and other top officials. And that was only after we'd asked for and received permission from higher-ups to schedule the interview. That permission was granted not because it was the right thing to do, but because "We're so far ahead of the Post-Gazette on this that they'll never catch up."

That was always the rationalization for waiting until the last minute to contact Murphy: If Kwiecinski knew what we were working on, we were told, he would tip off the Post-Gazette. As a result, reporters who had spent days, weeks or even months working on stories blasting Murphy would frequently wait until 4:45 on a Friday afternoon to call Kwiecinski for comment, expecting him to formulate an intelligent response to a complex issue.

But as far as I know, Kwiecinski never tipped off anyone. I and other reporters who were uncomfortable with the policy began ignoring it, making him our first call when we drew an assignment to bash the mayor. Kwiecinski was never really happy to hear from me, but he never told anyone what I was working on, either.

It was never clear whether the policy was due to a desire to "get" Murphy or just the result of too much paranoia. But it didn't help bolster the Trib's efforts to be accepted as a "real" newspaper.

The mythology of Dick

Among outsiders, the knee-jerk reaction is to blame such antics on Richard Mellon Scaife -- newspaper publisher, philanthropist, truth seeker or right-wing wacko, depending on your point of view.

The few times I met him, I found Scaife to be incredibly polite, likable and smiling -- more like someone's happy-go-lucky grandfather than patriarch of the vast right-wing conspiracy. But perceptions of him as an evil right-winger could make life difficult. I once mentioned to a new acquaintance at a Strip District nightclub that I worked for the Trib and she asked -- loudly -- "So you're a racist homophobe?" She later confessed that she had never actually read the paper ("My dad would kill me") but picked up her views from "people I meet in coffee houses."

That thinking is unfortunate, because the Trib does do quality journalism. Mark Houser's series on the racial imbalance of Allegheny County juries is still one of my favorite newspaper stories. Carl Prine's series on chemical plants drew national attention and garnered the Trib's favorite son a spot on 60 Minutes. Daily beat reporters work hard and almost every week break big stories that may have gone unnoticed if Pittsburgh was a one-paper town.

But when Scaife does have a hand in coverage -- which isn't nearly as often as critics claim -- that hand can be heavy. Sometimes you would be told, "The publisher is interested in ..." as a preface to your story assignment. One reporter was called into Craig's office and given a lecture about a story that had quoted union officials too heavily. Other times, you just sensed it was a publisher-inspired story given the editor's sense of urgency. And after awhile, you knew Scaife's quirks: He was fond of stories that bashed Murphy and his wife liked stories about the city's parks. And those over-the-top editorials, slanted articles or self-serving puff pieces quickly overshadowed the good work the paper was doing.

According to newsroom murmuring and a Post-Gazette article, for example, Scaife banned photographs of Al Gore from the paper's front page in the waning days of the 2000 presidential race. And even the proudest Tribbles shook their heads over the editorial the paper ran a few days after the 2001 death of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham; Graham, the editorial insinuated, had her husband killed. More recently, in a June 21 obituary for William Block Sr. -- who headed the Post-Gazette's parent company -- the anonymous author dug up a three-year-old Trib story about the P-G's alleged financial difficulties.

People on staff grumbled, but for many of us who loved print journalism and loved Pittsburgh, the Trib was the only option. It was, after all, a time of recession in a tight labor market.

Besides, these things didn't happen often, and it could be rationalized that if a man signs your paycheck, he has a right to print whatever nonsense he wants in his paper. Most of the time, Scaife was remarkably hands-off. The Trib would have been easy to stick with -- except for the management of the newsroom.

The Evil Empire

If the Post-Gazette's coverage of Pittsburgh is better than the Tribune-Review's, it's not because it is more balanced. It is not -- as some Tribbles claim -- because their unionized reporters make significantly more than Trib reporters. P-G reporters certainly don't work harder, and the Trib's relatively new computer system and state-of-the-art production facility show a commitment to giving staffers the right tools.

The Post-Gazette remains the region's paper of record for one reason: because its people have been around so much longer than the kids at the Trib.

Reporting, especially beat reporting, comes down to trust. It's about getting people in the know to throw you a bone every once in awhile. It's about knowing the names of their kids, and shooting the shit in hopes they'll answer your call when you need them to. On that score, the Trib is at a disadvantage.

Last year I briefly became the Trib's city hall reporter. Kwiecinski noted that in his seven years as Murphy's spokesman, I was the ninth Trib reporter on the city hall beat. During that time, the Post-Gazette had just one. And I quit three weeks later, making way for number 10, who has since been replaced by number 11.

It would be admirable if all these people were leaving for bigger papers. But the Trib is not the stepping-stone Cuddy told me it was in my job interview. Of the scores of reporters who left during my time at the Trib, a few made lateral moves to respectable midsize papers, or even took backwards steps to smaller papers. A handful -- mostly graphic artists and page designers -- have moved up, but most left journalism altogether.

A typical scenario was like that of a woman who interviewed at the Orlando Sentinel, considered by many in newspaper circles the last stop in the minor leagues before hitting the majors. "Go do the same stuff at a real paper and then talk to us," she was told.

So reporters aren't leaving for better places. In an alarming number of cases, they're leaving because of Cuddy.

Cuddy has been called a lot of things, many of them unprintable. But the best analogy I heard was that he was the all-star athlete who becomes a coach and gets frustrated because his players can't perform the way he did. He could go from likable father figure to screaming maniac in the time it took to read a headline revealing that the Post-Gazette had beaten the Trib on a story.

In 2002 the Post-Gazette ran a brief about a story that Cuddy felt I should have filed something on; he had even told a mid-level editor to assign it to me. When the editor and I were called into Cuddy's office the next day, I tried to explain my position -- which was that the editor hadn't told me about the assignment.

"Shut up; I'm talking," Cuddy said. I didn't say another word for the rest of the meeting, which was mostly a lecture on how I needed to improve or face severe consequences. I ended up with a letter outlining the transgression in my personnel file.

Any reporter who bitched to Craig about Cuddy would get the same response. Every good newsroom needed a guy like Cuddy to keep people working hard, he said, and Cuddy had the hardest job in the newsroom. In many ways I agreed.

Having seen Cuddy at going-away parties for favored reporters, and having felt the sickening wave of accomplishment when he gave you a hard-earned word of praise, I suspect he wanted to be liked. I think he respected the sacrifices most of us made to work at the Trib. And when my father was diagnosed with cancer last year, Cuddy told me to take as much time away as I needed.

So unlike some former Trib reporters, I won't say he was the sole reason I quit. But I don't miss him much, either.

Rich man's plaything?

Critics like to call the Pittsburgh edition of the Trib "a rich man's plaything," and perhaps it hurt so much to hear it when I was working there because it was true. Compared to the Greensburg edition of the paper -- and most other newspapers, for that matter -- the Pittsburgh Trib never struck me as a legitimate, for-profit operation. In 2000, I'd heard a rumor that the Pittsburgh edition had recorded a $200,000 profit the year before. That would have been the first profit it had earned since it was formed in 1992. Then again, I suspect a bigger deal would have been made of the profit if it had been true. When the Pittsburgh edition's Sunday circulation cracked 100,000 for the first time, after all, the feat was recorded with a banner that hung in the lobby for months.

Such concerns made me uncertain about the future I had at the paper. Scaife is 72 and -- if he's not the immortal devil liberals claim -- has no heir apparent to continue financing the paper's Pittsburgh edition.

As a closely held, private company, the Trib didn't share reliable circulation figures and financial results with low-level editorial people like me. But there have been hints that the Trib is struggling, from a freeze on cost-of-living raises, to the almost complete elimination of overtime, to layoffs that went down shortly after I departed. Two years ago, I was in a bar with a human-resources manager who made a cryptic joke about the company's financial health.

"Are you saying I should dust off my résumé?" I joked back.

He suddenly got serious, leaned in and looked me in the eye. "You know the Pittsburgh Trib doesn't make any money, don't you?"

Perhaps it's ironic, then, that Trib management seems to be waiting for the P-G to fold. A few weeks before I quit, Craig told me his prediction that the Block family will be forced to sell the struggling Post-Gazette. The only person willing to buy a money-losing newspaper in a competitive market, he said, will be ... Richard Mellon Scaife.

"At that point," Craig explained, "our morning and afternoon editions can compete for news with each other, just as hard as we compete with the Post-Gazette now."

Craig's rose-colored lenses seem to obscure the fact that Scaife is probably the last person the Blocks would sell to. And the fact that the Trib might kill itself off first.

Trib Lite

My biggest complaint about the Trib is simple: Like a lot of American newspapers, the Trib is boring. Take away its conservative editorial page, and the Trib and Post-Gazette are remarkably similar. Though the vast majority of Trib readers live in the suburbs, the paper's coverage has a city-centric tone, so the two papers chase the same stories and talk to the same sources. Both seem woefully out of touch with anything that happens outside of the realm of local sports and local government. Both make heavy use of wire copy.

Very few people read both newspapers, and despite Cuddy's hyper-competitive emphasis on beating the P-G, even fewer know when one paper gets a story first. Meanwhile, newspapers everywhere have failed miserably to compete with broadcast outlets and the Internet. The most telling similarity between the P-G and the Trib is that both papers are seeing their subscriber base erode.

But in 2003, the Trib seemed to come up with something new: a Monday-through-Friday afternoon edition.

Trib P.M. was initially targeted at "Downtown commuters," though the emphasis has since been shifted to include "younger readers," journalism's Holy Grail, in that fold. It was a classic case of designing a book to be purchased solely for its cover: Designers working on initial mock-ups of "the Tab," as it was called in-house, were told to throw out all the rules and create an eye-catching tabloid.

I got involved by e-mailing a list of ideas to Craig, which got me chosen as one of the Tab's two original reporters. But within a week, it was clear that content didn't matter at the Tab.

On most mornings, I would meet a photographer sometime after 6 a.m. and the two of us would drive around, hoping to find something to spin into a feature by our noon deadline, which was later shortened to 10 a.m. It was clear we would not be able to break stories unless something occurred in that four-hour window. But it didn't matter if we didn't find anything compelling; there was an unlimited supply of wire copy on hand. Even if I did file a story, it would rarely be longer than 500 words.

The Tab definitely looked different, and as someone who can barely match a necktie to a shirt, I'm not qualified to comment on its appearance. But there is little emphasis on content: Its pages are dominated by wire copy, rewrites of stories in the morning edition and light local features. The Tab goes heavy on celebrity gossip -- which generally seems to run 24 to 48 hours after it breaks on the Internet.

I've always believed that the only way newspapers could beat the TV and the Internet is by telling stories better. In an e-mail to Craig, I suggested that the office drones we were targeting wouldn't pick up a newspaper if it just had stories they'd already read on the Internet when their boss wasn't looking. What the paper needed, I argued, was content that people couldn't get anywhere else. In a meeting a few days later, Craig turned my words around to justify the heavy use of wire copy, saying, "As Mr. Copeland pointed out, these are people who haven't been able to read news on the Internet all day."

If there was any buzz about Trib P.M. when it was launched in 2003, it certainly evaporated once readers got past the eye candy on the front page.

The one thing that distinguishes the Trib from the Post-Gazette, of course, is the Trib's editorial page. But because most people at the Trib seem embarrassed by the hardcore, right-wing opinions expressed there, it isn't seen as a selling point. In 2003, General Manager Ralph Martin told staffers that under no circumstances would the new afternoon edition have an editorial page. Retailers who didn't carry the morning edition, Martin surmised, would be more inclined to carry an op/ed-free version.

I suspect if news dealers didn't carry the Trib, it's because it took up space that could be used for a better-selling product -- such as the latest issue of Juggs. But according to internal cheerleaders, the strategy was working. Within weeks of its launch, we were told the Tab was profitable. No one mentioned that, at least at that point, our salaries were still coming out of the morning edition's budget.

My time on the P.M. lasted just a few weeks; since then the staff has been beefed up and the design has been retooled. And yet it still offers the same crap content: Excluding sports, a recent issue contained just four stories with local bylines. The rest was wire articles, stale movie and music reviews, and photos.

End of the Line

Whenever a talented reporter left to go back to school or for a job unrelated to journalism, Craig used to tell me "I liked him (or her), but he (or she) just wasn't cut out for the business." Given the paper's high turnover, he told me that a lot.

I doubt Craig offered that backhanded compliment if anyone asked about my departure. But if he did, I take it as a confirmation of my sanity. I wasn't cut out for a business that underpays and overworks people -- while constantly reminding them that there are a dozen eager j-school graduates willing to take their jobs for half the pay. I wasn't cut out for a culture where the one-size-fits-all management style could be summed up in one word: intimidation.

What I left behind was a newspaper culture that rewards ass-kissing by subordinates and maintenance of the status quo. In such a culture, two dailies in one town might be two too many.

Newspapering is a notoriously tough business, but it's made tougher when good people go away. Salaries aren't nearly as miserly as they once were at the Trib, and whether your interest is sports, arts, politics or cops, Pittsburgh is an exciting place to work. Some talented people will always leave for bigger papers, but as the Post-Gazette proves, a lot of talented newspaper people can be conned into making a career in Pittsburgh.

Beyond finding a better way to treat people, the Trib needs to embrace its position as scrappy underdog instead of being so ashamed of it. It offers a nearly blank slate with a billionaire's checkbook behind it. Journalism's rules need to be rewritten, and the Trib should be pushing the envelope. But on most days it's boring; when it's interesting, it's usually because the paper is reinforcing its "right-wing rag" stereotype.

Management needs to acknowledge that the competition only begins -- not ends -- with the Post-Gazette. The Trib takes as its business model a newspaper that is losing readers, while ignoring what happens on television and the Web, where most former newspaper readers are going for news. Newspapers can't compete with the Web directly: There's just too much space and too many different viewpoints for a single newspaper to compete. But where most newspapers still have the advantage is that their reporters still have greater access to decision makers, celebrities and the common man on the street.

The problem is, papers like the Trib smother that access with a thick layer of management that's afraid to do anything different. I waited more than four years for something to change, for a signal that my belief in the paper was not misguided. I gave up, and feel relieved I'm no longer waiting.

The question for the Trib is: How long will readers wait?

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