Ohio Weeklies Team up on State Candidates

The Athens NEWS, Cincinnati CityBeat and Cleveland Free Times recently collaborated to produce profiles of three of the major candidates in the two big statewide races in Ohio: Ken Blackwell, Republican candidate for governor; Ted Strickland, Democratic candidate for governor; and Sherrod Brown, Democratic candidate for Senate. Each profile was published in successive months in all three papers, which range in size from the News’ weekly circulation of close to 15,000, to Free Times’ 75,000. AAN News recently e-mailed CityBeat editor John Fox to learn more about how he and his counterparts pulled it off.

First of all, whose idea was this?

I think it was mine, but I’m not looking for any credit. Frank Lewis from Cleveland Free Times, Terry Smith from The Athens NEWS and I have known each other for several years and have occasionally shared ideas and stories.

I wanted to do something a little more structured for this fall’s elections, since Ohio has become such a big hairy political deal nationally. The three of us met in Columbus for lunch back in March — it’s centrally located for all of us — and I pitched them on the idea of sharing election coverage, particularly the idea that each paper would produce a major candidate profile for use by all of us. The major candidates in the two big races were from our respective areas: Ken Blackwell is from Cincinnati, Ted Strickland is from southern Ohio near Athens, and Sherrod Brown currently represents an area of suburban Cleveland in the U.S. House. So each of us should have some particular insight into our “hometown” candidates that maybe the rest of us wouldn’t get by just putting a news reporter on writing a quick profile story.

We also talked about the idea that none of our papers, we feel, have great statehouse coverage from Columbus and discussed ways to pool resources to maybe improve that coverage. That’s been put off until after the elections.

Have you collaborated with other Ohio papers on special projects before?

One notable time before was a three-way project with Cleveland Free Times and Pittsburgh City Paper, back in the late ’90s, to compare stadium-building projects. Cleveland had built Jacobs Field for the Indians, which was touted in the mainstream press in both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh as a shining example of how cities can fund new stadiums that help both the team and the city. But I knew from talking to Free Times people that things didn’t turn out that well in Cleveland, so as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were contemplating public financing schemes to get public funds to build new stadiums, we had Cleveland write a long analysis of the stadium deal there, while Pittsburgh and CityBeat wrote stories about the wild promises and political shenanigans behind our stadium proposals. It turned out the politicians in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh were spewing the same crap, which was fun to point out to readers.

During this election cycle, the three of us have shared some other stories as well. I think Frank has run two or three CityBeat stories recently (beyond the Blackwell cover), and we’ve run one from Cleveland and one from Athens. Not sure how many other stories Terry has used.

What kind of ground rules did you establish at the outset?

We set deadlines: Blackwell ran in August, Brown in September and Strickland in October. We said we’d share all art with each other as well as cover photos or illustrations.

If freelancers produced either the story or the cover photo/illustration, [we agreed] we’d send some money back and forth to pay extra to them.

Each of us was free to edit the final stories as we saw fit for either space or local considerations. We trust each other to treat the stories well.

Did the profiles go through the same editorial process as other copy, or were there designated teams from each paper?

Normal editing at the home paper, then passed along for local editing.

Was there much editing of the stories to localize them, or did each paper for the most part run them as is?

Each of these profiles was long, around 5,000 words, so there was some editing done. I know Frank ran a shorter version of our Blackwell story, and I ran a slightly shorter version of the Strickland story.

Each of us had to add some context on local references in the stories. Blackwell, for instance, got his start on Cincinnati City Council as a member of the Charter Committee, a uniquely local third party here that’s always had members on city council. In our original story we just talked matter-of-factly about Blackwell’s background, and I got an e-mail from Frank saying, “What the hell is a Charter Committee?” So he had to explain that a bit in his version. It’s the usual localization any editor does when he gets an AltWeeklies.com story or anything from outside the market.

Why three papers and three candidates?

Because we only had three partners, we decided not to profile the fourth candidate in the major races, incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine. We figured that was OK because he’s an incumbent who’s running on his record of two terms in the Senate while the other three guys are candidates for statewide offices they’ve never held and Ohioans probably still don’t know them very well.

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