Entrance to the Akron Beacon Journal building, with memorial plaque.

An obituary writer mourns Northeast Ohio’s lost newspapers

by Russ Musarra

Cleveland Press city editor Louis Clifford had some good advice for a young reporter when he assigned him to write obituaries in the early 1960s: “To our readers, especially the family and friends of the deceased, these are the most important stories we publish, so don’t screw them up.” Clifford wasn’t referring to the paid death notices. He was talking about the obituaries written daily by reporters at a time when the newspapers ran more than they do today.

The reporter Clifford was talking to was me, and I was initially upset at getting the assignment – my first in the newsroom after a couple of years covering police news out of an office at the old Central Police Station in Cleveland. As he suggested, I grew to consider the obits mini biographies and discovered the assignment was great training for the countless people stories I got to write during my 44-year daily news career. I was at the Press 14 years to the day – Feb. 6, 1956 to Feb. 6, 1970 – and 30 years – also to the day – Feb. 9, 1970 to Feb. 9, 2000 – at the Akron Beacon Journal.

The Beacon Journal, I was fascinated to learn, had bought its building at 44 E. Exchange St. in 1938, the year I was born. It had housed the old Akron Times-Press, which was published by Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, which also published the Cleveland Press. This eased my transition from Cleveland to Akron. 

For the record, this isn’t a story about me. It’s an obit of sorts about the newspaper industry, one I began writing in 1960 while still working as a police reporter. I got a phone call from Clifford who said, “Get over to the News. We just bought ’em and put ’em out of business.” He was referring to the Cleveland News, which was a short walk from the police station, so I had to enter their newsroom – AKA enemy territory – and interview competitors who had just lost their jobs to my employer.

The experience was a chapter in a tale that began for me at age 12 when I started my first job, delivering the Press. Living in a city with three daily papers I could have chosen to deliver the News or Plain Dealer, but my parents subscribed to the Press and I discovered as a very young reader that three of its reporters had gone to my alma mater, John Adams High School. Determined to work there, too, I applied for a job the day before my 18th birthday, spent three years as an office messenger – AKA copy boy – and became a reporter in 1959. Enough about me, except to say the job broadened my fascination with local history. Back to the obituary.

The Press published its last edition on June 17, 1982. My yellowed copy of that final edition has a giant headline, PRESS HALTS PUBLICATION. A story that ran above that banner was headlined with a quote from publisher Joseph Cole, “We Gave It Our Best.” 

It’s best included Louis B. Seltzer, who hired on in 1916, became city editor the same year and earned the nickname Mr. Cleveland for his community involvement as editor-in-chief from 1928 until he retired in 1966. The Press began publishing Nov. 2, 1878. It’s plant for many years was at E. Ninth St. and Rockwell Avenue, then it moved to a new building on Lakeside Avenue. 

Cleveland’s early newspapers included the Daily Herald, which began in 1839 and became a weekly for 10 years beginning in 1843; the Herald and Gazette, the city’s second newspaper, which first published Oct. 19, 1819; and the Leader, which began as the Evening News in 1868, became the News and Herald, a daily and Sunday paper, when the Herald ceased publishing in 1885, and became the Cleveland News in 1905.

The Plain Dealer began as a weekly on Jan. 7, 1842, started by Joseph Grayfield, who made it an evening daily in 1845. Liberty Holden bought it in 1885 and added morning and Sunday editions. Holden also owned the Hollenden Hotel at Superior Avenue and E. Sixth Street, served on Cleveland’s Building Committee, played an important role in development of Wade Park, Rockefeller Park and the Cleveland Museum of Art and was mayor of Bratenahl.

Good obituaries always include survivors and this one includes the Plain Dealer and Beacon Journal, but both are struggling for survival. The Plain Dealer is still published seven days a week but since April 2013 has been home delivered only three days a week. The Beacon Journal’s last inhouse publication at 44 E. Exchange was Nov. 11, 2013, after which it began printing at the Canton Repository. The staff moved to the AES Building at 388 South Main St., in Akron Oct. 27, 2019.

Akron’s newspaper legacy, like Cleveland’s, is fascinating when one considers the contributions of the Knight family. The Beacon Journal began in 1897 with the merger of the Summit Beacon, which began in 1839, and the Akron Evening Journal, which debuted in 1896. Charles Landon Knight bought it in 1903 and his son, John S. Knight, inherited the paper in 1933 and went on to create the Knight-Ridder Newspapers. 

What has happened since June 2006, when the McClatchy Company bought the Beacon from Knight-Ridder, demonstrates the crisis in the local daily news business’ struggle to carry on the legacy we so long enjoyed. McClatchy sold the paper to Black Press in August 2006. Black Press sold it to GateHouse Media in 2018, a year before that group merged with the Gannett Company. 

Obituaries often concluded with details of where friends may call. Perhaps this one should suggest we all call to subscribe before the newspapers cease publication.

Russ Musarra is a freelancer who retired in 2000 after 30 years of writing and editing for the Akron Beacon Journal and 14 years before that with the old Cleveland Press. Among his assignments were covering theater and the social scene in Akron and writing a month feature about walks in the community, which he did in partnership with artist Chuck Ayers for more than 25 years.  

Photo: Shane Wynn