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The Cleveland Press folded 40 years ago. Can the history in its pages be preserved?

Final Cleveland Press 1982a.jpg
Kabir Bhatia
The final edition of The Cleveland Press was published on June 17, 1982.

Cleveland has been a one-newspaper-town for 40 years.

On June 17, 1982, The Cleveland Press abruptly ceased publication, leaving The Plain Dealer as the city’s only daily paper. And while decades of the PD have been digitally archived, much of The Press has not.

“The Press, in my mind, had a better grasp of what made Cleveland, ‘Cleveland’,” said John Sabol, who began his career as a copy aide at The Cleveland Press.

Seventeen years later, when the paper folded, he had worked his way up to dayside editor. He recalls how different his paper was from its crosstown rival, The Plain Dealer.

Sabol has compiled TV news coverage of the 1982 closing of The Cleveland Press:

“We had a nationality writer, Theodore Andrica, who covered all of the ethnic groups of Cleveland,” Sabol said. “If you had a golden wedding anniversary, someone was there to give you a write up. [And] if you were able to go back and compare a City Council meeting, let's say from the 1970s, and take a look at The Plain Dealer write up as opposed to The Press, The Press was certainly more exciting. And after you read the first paragraph, you wanted to see what was going to happen in the rest of the story.”

Those differences may be lost to students of history. The Plain Dealer is still printed a few days each week, and its archive is also online. But The Cleveland Press is mostly offline.

That’s a problem, said Kristen Hare, who is part of the local news faculty at the Poynter Institute.

“I don't know how future generations will understand us if they're just looking at our TikToks," she said. "That’s not going to be enough.”

To learn more about the history of The Cleveland Press, visit this archived WKSU story from June 15, 2012.

That could have happened with the recent closures of Youngstown's The Vindicator and The Devil Strip from Akron. The Vindicator was preserved once new owners took over the website. The Devil Strip's website briefly disappeared before its archive returned. So historians can still read about what happened to Youngstown’s steel industry or controversies surrounding the University of Akron.

“I think the real danger here is that in the immediate moment, journalism is the first draft of history,” Hare said. “In the long run, it's also a community’s memory. When that is purely digital, or isn't being collected and archived — whether that's in print or digital — you risk losing that memory and the context, the threads of history that tie everything together.”

Hare has tips on preservation in the article, "How to preserve your work before the internet eats it."

Preservation in Baltimore

Savannah Wood is trying to doing just that in Baltimore. She’s leading the effort to digitize more than a century of the city’s Black newspaper, The AFRO-American.

“I think Black newspapers have a very specific role to play in complicating the way that history is told and making it truer in most respects,” she said. “That's really why Black newspapers came to exist in the first place: white papers were not covering Black issues fairly, if at all.”

One example is coverage which involved participants, rather than observers.

“There's a huge amount of information about the civil rights movement in the collection,” she said. “What I think is really fascinating is that it … expands the time frame that we could think about for the civil rights movement. We start to see a lot of images from the 1930s of picket lines and people don't necessarily lump that into the civil rights era. I typically hear people thinking primarily of the '50s and '60s, but there's so much history before that.”

Preserving that costs money. Wood’s foundation received $535,000 in grants to start its digital archiving of The AFRO-American, which is still published today.

Copyright roadblocks

For The Cleveland Press, thousands of images have been slowly digitized since the 1990s as part of the Cleveland Memory Project. Until retiring last year, Bill Barrow was in charge of that effort.

Ideastream Public Media
In 2012, just ahead of the 30th anniversary of The Press folding, Ed Byers (standing) moderated a roundtable of the paper's former staffers such as Dan Coughlin (right, seated) and Mike Roberts (second from left).

“The more information that gets made available to people, the better understanding they have of all the dimensions of that topic — whatever it is,” he said. “If you just go out and find one little fragment of something, that’s all you’ve got. So, by putting The Press collection up, we’re making a very large resources available to augment, balance, etc., anything else that might be floating around.”

But there’s one other roadblock to digitizing more than photos: copyrights.

The family that owned The Press donated its archive to Cleveland State University in 1984, two years after the paper folded. And it includes only clippings; the full issues exist only on microfilm at local libraries.

But Barrow said the legal complexities of who exactly owns the rights to the content are just now starting to be examined, and he hopes untangling that could finally allow the creation of a searchable, digital Cleveland Press archive.