The PLAIN DEALER was founded as a weekly newspaper on 7 Jan. 1842 by JOSEPH WM. GRAY (1813-62) and became an evening daily on 7 Apr. 1845. Its name was probably inspired by a former Jacksonian paper published in New York. Among its early staff members was CHAS. FARRAR BROWNE, who created the character "Artemus Ward." In the years leading up to the CIVIL WAR, the Plain Dealer was the local Democratic organ in a Republican city and region. From the firing on Ft. Sumter until his death on 26 May 1862, Gray held the Plain Dealer to the Democratic policies outlined by his political mentor, Stephen A. Douglas. The paper was then taken over by the administrator of his estate, John S. Stephenson, who turned it into a virulent Copperhead organ that condemned Lincoln and supported the Ohio gubernatorial campaign of the arch-Copperhead Clement L. Vallandigham in 1863. Because of the unpopularity of these stands, Stephenson was removed as Gray's administrator, and the Plain Dealer suspended publication for several weeks beginning 8 Mar. 1865. It reappeared on 25 Apr. 1865, under the editorship of WM. W. ARMSTRONG. On 2 Jan. 1885, the Plain Dealer became the property of LIBERTY E. HOLDEN, who introduced a morning edition on 16 Mar. 1885, after purchasing the CLEVELAND HERALD and dividing its assets with the CLEVELAND LEADER. With circulation rising to nearly 30,000, the Plain Dealer also began a Sunday edition. The evening edition existed until it was finally merged into the World-News in 1905. After personally operating the paper from 1893-98, Holden placed its control in the hands of veteran Cleveland newsmen ELBERT H. BAKER and CHAS. E. KENNEDY. Baker solely directed the Plain Dealer as general manager from 1907-20. Baker had the Plain Dealer Bldg. at E. 6th and Superior enlarged and rebuilt after a fire in 1908 to harmonize with the public buildings surrounding the MALL.
With the death of Holden in 1913, ownership of the Plain Dealer was placed in trust for his heirs. It purchased the 6-day Leader in 1917, while the Sunday Leader was acquired by the CLEVELAND NEWS. The Plain Dealer and the News in 1932 merged their stock into the FOREST CITY PUBLISHING CO., which was dominated by the Plain Dealer but continued to operate both papers independently. Breaking with its 98-year Democratic orientation, the Plain Dealer endorsed Wendell L. Willkie for president in 1940. Since then, it has endorsed the Republican nominee in every presidential election except 1964 and 1992. Editorial cartoonist ED KUEKES brought Cleveland its only Pulitzer Prize, in 1953, for a cartoon that had appeared in the Plain Dealer. In 1960 Forest City Publishing sold the News to the CLEVELAND PRESS, and the Plain Dealer moved into the former News building on Superior at E. 18th. One of Holden's heirs, great-grandson Thomas V. H. Vail (b. 1926), assumed personal direction of the Plain Dealer in 1963 as publisher and editor at the age of 36. Vail revitalized the Plain Dealer by hiring young reporters and supported more Democrats, giving the paper a vigorous non-partisan stance. Vail's aggressive journalism became the subject of stories in Time and Newsweek magazines in the 1960s. By 1965 the Plain Dealer had gained 50,000 in circulation on the Cleveland Press and was threatening to surpass the Press as the largest daily newspaper in Ohio. In 1967 the Plain Dealer ran a full page editorial endorsing Carl B. Stokes for mayor of Cleveland. With the support of the Plain Dealer, Stokes won the election and became the first black mayor of a major American city. Also in 1967, the Holden trustees, including Vail, decided to sell the Plain Dealer to the Samuel Newhouse chain for what was then a record price of $54.2 million. Vail was retained by Newhouse as salaried publisher and editor, with full editorial discretion. The Plain Dealer surpassed the Press in circulation in 1968 to become Ohio's largest daily newspaper; with the demise of the Press in 1982, it survived as Cleveland's only daily. Vail retired at the end of 1991 in favor of publisher Alex Machaskee, who supervised the opening of a $200-million production and distribution center in BROOKLYN in 1994. Circulation in 1995 was approx. 403,000 (daily) and 548,000 (Sunday).
In 2001, the Plain Dealer newsroom and offices moved into modernized headquarters at 1801 Superior Ave. This was at a time when print journalism was beginning to experience competition from on-line news sources. The company had moved into this field in 1997 when Cleveland.com was created by Advance Publications (which had been started by the heirs of the Newhouse family). Though separate, content from the Plain Dealer and its writers became part of Cleveland.com’s content.
The Plain Dealer started seeing financial problems in the early 2000s, so it reduced $20 million in costs from 2001-2003, by trimming utility, nonessential travel, and hardcopy production expenses. In 2012, to further cut costs, the paper proposed moving from a seven-day-a-week publication down to a three-day-a-week publication. Concerned subscribers created a “Save The Plain Dealer” petition, which received less than 6,000 signatures. Ultimately, management decided to have home delivery for four days and sell at newsstands for the other three days. This decision drove readers, typically older subscribers and those who don’t have internet access, to cancel their subscription and turn to other local newspapers that still delivered seven-days-a-week. Shrinkage included several personnel cuts. In 2013, it was announced 58 newsroom staff were to be laid-off. Downsizing has continued since then. The newsroom, further emptied as journalists became mobile, working from home or other locations. As of the first quarter of 2019 the Plain Dealer’s Sunday circulation was 171,404 and weekday circulation was 94,838. Due to the steady decline of revenue throughout the years, the Plain Dealer was forced to lay off 43 additional employees in 2019. By this time, Cleveland.com was attracting an average of 9.9 million users monthly.
Updated by Gretchen Norton
Shaw, Archer H. The Plain Dealer (1942).