Thursday, October 02, 2003

Roldo Loses a Platform--For Now

The long, strange, ultimately inspiring saga of Cleveland's leading muckraker continues. We've learned today that Roldo Bartimole has been told by City News that it can no longer afford to carry his column. And if he can't afford that relative pittance, then chances are that founder and publisher Ricky Crosby can't keep the doors open for the entire shoestring operation.

It's been tough sledding for minority newspapers in this town for some time. Ricky, son of Crosby Furniture founder Fred Crosby, who became a favorite serial appointee to public and private boards and commissions in the '70s for his then-rare double diversity (a black Republican), has tried mightily for years to make his own mark as a local publishing czar, grandly dubbing his modestly sprawling enterprise The Crosby Group. He's had some successes, even parlaying his role with the paper into a cable-TV show called Work & Money, but he's also unfortunately developed a reputation for always being just one step ahead of (and sometime behind) the bill collector (full disclosure--he's stiffed a friend of mine, the uber-designer Clarence Meriweather, who nonetheless landed on his feet as design director of the Free Times and now Urban Dialect and as a book designer for Gray & Company). Crosby the younger left an earlier black paper--begun with a partner, Lou Reyes, who got abused for claiming to run a minority newspaper for the black community when he was himself Hispanic--to make a run at buying the venerable crown prize of black Cleveland papers, the Call & Post. But he lost in the bankruptcy bidding to the deeper-pocketed boxing promoter (and Cleveland native) Don King, who has poured enough capital into the C&P to revive it, thereby making for even thinner air for competitors.

But Ricky nonetheless went from his disappointment over not getting the C&P to start yet another paper, City News, edited to this day by a bright and bubbly raconteur and former convict-turned author, Mansfield Frazier. I've spent just enough time in years past sitting and talking with Mansfield in his E. 40th office at the paper to marvel at how he had so utterly reclaimed his life. His irrepressible spirit, joyfully fused with street smarts like almost no one else I've ever known, helped make him an editor-impressario, a throwback to the old-style small-town editor whose door was always open. You couldn't talk to him for more than a minute without someone calling in with a tip, or a former councilman-turned-lobbyist for the phone company stopping by to take his temperature. He loved it all, ate it up, and used much of what he learned in the paper. And tiny City News got a giant dose of much-needed attention and even some grudging respect when Roldo decided to move his weekly column there after the closing of the Free Times last year. Only the paltry circulation was never enough to make a dent, forcing Roldo to habitually carry extra copies to give out to readers and sources who didn't see the paper anywhere. Loyal to a fault, Roldo refused to do what almost anyone else in his place would have done without a second thought: simply jump back to the Free Times when it reopened, offering a much more prominent platform for his column. He figured City News was there for him when he needed a new home, and damned if he was going to abandon them for a better deal.

But here's a nice part of the tale: even though print copies of his new home were in short supply, the web intervened to delightful effect. Links to his column from the progressive What's Up in Northeast Ohio listserv (co-founded by old-line Roldo supporter Jim Miller) and especially Thomas Mulready's community jewel, Cool Cleveland (which now probably has a larger circulation than City News), gave him new life with his former audience while also allowing a third or even fourth generation of web-centric readers to find him anew. The software tracking tools Cool Cleveland uses to count the clicks to various links told the story: most weeks Roldo was right near the top as the most popular item. In other words, a guy in his 70s--who three years ago closed down his central operation, his independent Point of View newsletter--was still as hip as a serially pierced punk rocker.

But that voice has been put on hold, for now at least. But here's a prediction: look for the Free Times to grab him back (and quickly, we hope). We're counting on you to make him an offer he can't refuse, Mr. Eden. Teamed with your new regular, Harvey Pekar, that would be a pretty powerful mix of familiar irascible Cleveland voices. May they both keep growling at injustice for many years to come...


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