15 years spent honing the online product

When the news broke in the early morning of Memorial Day that Jim Tressel had resigned as Ohio State’s football coach, Plain Dealer Associate Sports Editor David Campbell did what newspaper editors have always done — he rushed to the office and threw himself and his staff at the story.

It wasn’t until much later that he was struck by an odd thought.

“It was so hectic, posting stories, videos and everything else online,” he said, “it was a few hours before we gave any thought to the next day’s newspaper.”

That’s a strange admission for a guy who has spent his entire adult life putting out newspaper sports sections.

But in the online world that drives news coverage today, deadline is right now. When Tressel resigned, the newspaper was 15 hours away from going to press. The challenge was to be first online with the most information, and to tell the story in every way possible. So even though the newspaper is still the top dog in terms of daily readership and revenue, and later in the day it would occupy 100 percent of the attention of Campbell and many others — at 9 a.m. when the Tressel story was breaking, the paper could wait.

All of that is music to the ears of Denise Polverine, editor in chief of The Plain Dealer’s online affiliate, cleveland.com, which is celebrating its 15th year of operation this month.

“When I first started coming to The Plain Dealer newsroom, I’d see a reporter get back from covering a house fire or something, and they’d be talking about what they were going to do for lunch,” she said. “They were hours away from deadline and had plenty of time. Now they post immediately, often before they even get back to the office.”

And not only do they post the news — they might also have video, or an audio clip from the news story. Then they update the online story as more information becomes available, and often will respond to comments and questions posted there by readers.

“The Web has really changed the way reporters do their jobs,” said Polverine, “They’re journalists first, but they go about it in multiple ways.”

Polverine began in radio and then moved to television, with some time in New York City before coming back home in 1997. She has been with cleveland.com for all but six months of its 15 years, and the top editor for the last 13.

It’s safe to say that the relationship between the newspaper and the website wasn’t always the smooth partnership that it is now. Early on, Polverine was looked upon more as competitor than colleague. Even a few years ago, some Plain Dealer editors were reluctant to scoop themselves by posting stories online before they appeared in the paper.

In the beginning, before there was an automated feed of all Plain Dealer stories, Polverine and her staff routinely scanned Plain Dealer stories and posted them manually, sometimes having to type them into the website, then known as clevelandlive.

“It’s cool to think of how far we’ve come in those 15 years — how much technology and even the Internet has changed,” she said. “When we started, Google and YouTube didn’t exist, ‘social media’ wasn’t the hot phrase, people didn’t consume their news the same way.”

The biggest difference, she says, is the interactivity.

“Cleveland.com has adapted to those changes,” she said. “If you think back to the most significant events we’ve seen over the last 15 years — 9/11, the county corruption stories, losing LeBron, getting LeBron — the biggest thing we’ve seen is that we’ve all shared it together. The Plain Dealer reports it, we post it, the community shares and talks back, we respond. I think it’s just a rich conversation.”

John Kroll, who as The Plain Dealer’s director of training and digital development, is the person who works most closely with cleveland.com, says that a website is not just a newspaper online.

“Online is a living thing,” he said. “You update, get feedback, people keep coming back, we respond to that.”

“What’s different about online,” said Kroll, who spent most of his career working in print, “is that we don’t have to guess what interests people. We have the numbers, and we can react to that immediately.”

Here’s the most important number: 3.8 million.

That’s the number of unique users who visit cleveland.com each month. As Kroll says, “anyone who is interested in news or sports about Northeast Ohio is coming here.”

That’s a lot of folks. Happy birthday, cleveland.com.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on June 19, 2011.

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