Rust Belt Papers Collaborate on Stadium Story

Pittsburgh City Paper, Cincinnati City Beat and Cleveland Free Times Join Forces

Pittsburgh City Paper’s August 5 cover story was the first. A week later, Cincinnati CityBeat followed suit. And this week, Cleveland Free Times will make it a three-peat.

Three weeks, three stories each examining the same issue: The public funding of professional sports stadiums.

To outside observers, it may have looked like a remarkable coincidence. But, in fact, the repetition was the result of a collaborative effort between the editorial staffs of the three AAN papers. Their aim: To capture a broader, alternative perspective on an issue touching all three Rust Belt cities.

“You don’t want Pittsburgh to lag behind Cleveland, do you?” asked the City Paper in its lead. “Anyone who’s read Pittsburgh newspapers or watched newscasts concerning public funding of stadiums has seen elected officials and business leaders ask that question in a hundred different ways. The point, of course, is that Cleveland has already funded and built a stadium, and that unless Pittsburgh wants to be at a competitive disadvantage, we better follow suit.

“But what exactly is it like in Cleveland, or for that matter in Cincinnati, another Rust Belt city that’s digging deep to fund stadiums? We could ask those cities’ elected officials and business leaders, but we know we’d get the same platitudes we’ve been hearing since our own failed half-percent sales tax referendum last November.”

So, instead of culling the predictable the sound bites, the papers established an investigative partnership. Reporters at each paper were responsible for researching and writing the history of stadium building/funding in their respective cities. Likewise, profiles of the key players — team owners, county commissioners, opposition groups — were penned and exchanged via fax and email.

Facts and figures from each city were also scrutinized. For example, stadium supporters in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati often cite the purported success of Cleveland’s Jacobs Field and Gund Arena to back their argument that building a stadium creates jobs and helps boost population growth. However, the papers noted that Cleveland — despite shelling out $300 million to build the stadiums — has only managed to keep pace with their Rust Belt neighbors in job growth. The papers also reported that Cleveland’s population had actually declined since its stadiums were built, but at a slower rate than Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

“What’s similar between the cities is that it’s the same dubious [public] funding being used to finance building these stadiums,” says City Beat Editor John Fox. “When we [the three papers] pool our resources and take a closer look at what the supposed benefits are, we give our readers a truer picture as to what the realities are. By comparing things [like job growth and population loss], we can show that building a stadium isn’t everything the politicians crack it up to be.”

Free Times’ Editor Cindy Barber adds: “By sharing what’s happened here and what’s going on in the other two cities, we can show our readers how [Cleveland’s] role is being used and be more aware of how the PR is being spun.”

According to City Paper Managing Editor Chris Potter, stadium proponents often play the cities off against each other when they argue that a new stadium should be erected. Steelers Vice President Art Rooney II, for example, was quoted in 1997 as saying, “Fifteen or 20 years ago, I would have put Pittsburgh ahead of Cleveland. Now I think we’ve fallen behind Cleveland … ”

“But if you go back and look at articles in the [Cleveland] Plain Dealer from 1990,” says Potter, “you’ll see that [stadium supporters] were promising millions of dollars in stadium revenues for job creation, education, elderly services — everything but world peace. And people here in Pittsburgh will argue how great The Jake [Jacobs Field] has been for Cleveland. But they never talk about how Cleveland’s school district is in state receivership. …

“In a way, the whole discussion on sports stadiums has been done to death, yet [until these stories] no one’s ever set the record straight.”

There are many reasons for collaborating on the stadium story, say staffers at the three papers. But there are two that stand out. “Instead of being fed the same arguments from people here in Cincinnati,” says Fox, “this collaboration gives our readers a different vantage point — it shows them that all the crap happening here isn’t unique.”

The other benefit is a practical one.

“We couldn’t do this story by ourselves,” Fox adds. “By collaborating, by getting these three papers working together, we all get three times the product for the same amount of effort. We end up with a story that we couldn’t have been done by one staff.”

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