Harvey Graff

Readers viewing this essay online may no longer recognize or appreciate how important a city’s daily newspaper is. It contributes to a city’s identity. It unites its readership in shared information, which is the potential for building a community of discourse and exchange. The best newspapers provide both a constructive critical voice and a forum for responsible airing of differences among members of the local population. This is not, and has never been, the function of the Columbus Dispatch.

Since childhood, I have avidly read my city’s daily newspaper(s) and the Sunday New York Times. From college, I subscribed in every city where I lived. In retirement, I read three dailies including two national editions. I have read the Columbus Dispatch since I moved to Columbus in 2004. I have witnessed a roller-coaster of journalistic and commercial ups and downs and published opinion essays and letters to the editor.

Now 150 years old, the Dispatch was long the property of the Wolfe family, who saw no conflict between their activities as property developers and city boosters, and the operation of their city’s principal daily. It continues to promote corporate and real estate development uncritically. This kind of conflict distinguishes the newspaper throughout its history and continues with its place in a large media network. (See Kevin Cox, Boomtown Columbus: Ohio’s Sunbelt City and How Developers Got Their Way [Ohio State University Press, 2021]. Cox’s book is one of an unusually small number of serious, documented works on the city.) One continuity is its editor-in-chief’s own appointment and his commitment to “enterprise journalism,” a nebulous, even self-contradictory term. Another is the almost weekly increase in pages of advertisements and the difficulty in maintaining the newspaper’s layout as a result.

When I first moved to the city, the Dispatch was a mediocre daily. It fell into a steep decline, epitomized by its shift to a ridiculously small size that readers alternatively mocked by referring to it as a lining for a cat litter box or a bird cage. This was an austerity move that the editor never addressed, maintaining unconvincingly that it was designed for readers’ convenience. The failed experiment ended after several years without explanation. Not long thereafter, the expanding USA Today/Gannett network purchased the Dispatch along with a number of other Ohio newspapers, magazines, and digital news sites.

Purchase by USA Today/Gannett may have benefitted the Dispatch financially, although that’s not clear. Neither will say. It has not led to an increase in circulation, which has declined for several decades. In terms of content, reporting, editing, the mechanics of production, and delivery, the newspaper struggles more and more. There is a high rate of turnover among reporters.

Let me be clear: There are a number of fine reporters (who admit dissatisfaction with lack of support, copy editing, and direction, for example) and some excellent, veteran political columnists. But that is not sufficient for excellence or acceptable journalism in a city lacking in identity and acutely in need of responsible, constructive criticism. (See my “Columbus’ identity crisis and its media,” Columbus Underground, July 23, 2021; Columbus searches for its Downtown with historical, urbanist, and developers’ blinders;” “Columbus, Ohio, searches to be a city: The myth of the Columbus Way,”, January 9 , 2022) The constant inflow and outflow of new and old reporters, and the unclear and unstable mix of Dispatch and network reporters, militate against that.

I have reached out to reporters for years. Higher education specialists are especially responsive. Most others ignore my emails offering perspectives and background that a reporter writing every day lacks. One reporter responded, “Doing research would interfere with my objectivity.”

The opacity and disconnections of the network-affiliate relationship between USA Today/Gannett and the Dispatch add to the obstacles. The paper is assembled and produced in off-site hubs and by individuals across the country working online, including page designers who are not copy editors and who do not review articles. Layout is done in Austin, Texas. No one appears to know the location of the chaotic, inconsistent website operations.

When printing was relocated to Canton, Ohio, the daily closing time for news shifted from early evening to early afternoon. By comparison, the national edition of the New York Times, which is printed at the same site and delivered with the Dispatch, has a “bedtime” at least four hours later. This makes no sense. News in the Dispatch runs one-half to a full day late.

As a close reader of the print edition and frequenter of the website, with connections to reporters and editors, I see a constant lack of direction and leadership combined with the heavy hand of an expanding but journalistically mediocre corporate network that does not acknowledge its conservative influence. USA Today/Gannett sets editorial policies and dictates certain opinion essays, but unfairly to readers, that is not stated.

It is not clear where the network ends and the Dispatch begins. This leads to confusion and some major failings. USA Today/Gannett provides the infrastructure of the website (and its comments features) and communication systems. A separate business section has quietly disappeared six of seven days each week. The website changes formats inconsistently throughout the day; postings of new and old materials are chaotic and inexplicable. When matters get out of hand for readers, I have communicated with the Digital Engagement editor, who cannot explain its muddled movements. In an era in which websites replace print, the chaos of the Dispatch is a disservice to readers and subscribers.

With no copy desk, there’s little review, revision, and correction. When I asked a senior editor and longtime reporter to help me to understand the Dispatch’s operations, he told me, “I’d love to… if only I knew myself.” When the copy desk was eliminated, it “was not replaced by anything except we were told be extra careful not to make mistakes.” The reporters with whom I speak very much want a copy desk.

The lack of a copy desk and regular editing produces a newspaper filled with grammatical and spelling errors; headlines that contradict or bear no relationship to their articles; and few journalistic standards. The Dispatch almost never prints corrections, and it is almost impossible to report them. There is no fact-checking. This pervades news, opinion essays, and letters. Swelling pages of advertisements, sometimes inappropriate to community standards, dominate and interrupt the presentation of news. Circulation and delivery problems would fill another essay. (In 2021-22, there was no daily newspaper on Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Dec. 24-25, or Dec. 31-Jan. 1. No one answers the question, “Is my subscription extended as a result?” On Jan. 12, the Dispatch announced that, along with “other” USA Today/Gannett affiliates, it would publish only six days each week. It refuses to respond questions about the duration of prepaid subscriptions, a matter of legal contract.)

Physical layout is inconsistent and uninviting to readers. Increasingly, misleading and self-promoting “guest essays” are published from candidates for political office, especially right-wing Republicans; office holders; business owners and executives promoting their products; and CEOs and lobbyists for supposedly “non-profit” trade groups (the Chambers of Commerce, for example).

Selection of letters and guest essays suffers from a sense that “all sides” must be represented no matter how inaccurate or dishonest they are; that is false equivalency. Reputable newspapers do not do this. (The Cleveland Plain Dealer painstakingly fact-checks all letters to the editor.)

Recent, inexplicable editorial failures featured the muddled announcement of “new standards for reporting crime,” acknowledging that there had been none. Now-retired editor Alan Miller declared that the newspaper would not follow all facts or report all murders. It would emphasize “empathy” and “fairness” instead.

Instead of pursuing fact-based stories, under Miller’s new policy reporters wait in a mobile unit near community library branches to chat with local residents. When asked, Miller was unable to clarify or justify what he meant. The readers’ comments site exploded with protests.

Less than two weeks later, a failure in editing led to the printing and posting online a headline that referred to “illegals” among migrant farm workers—in 2021. The comments and phone lines erupted loudly. The offending word was removed from the website. A full three days later, Miller published an “apology” that ignored the basic institutional and personal failures. Instead of addressing the issues, he praised his corporate “diversity trainer.” A second apology also failed to clarify the matter.

On Aug. 20, 2021, I inquired about the status of an opinion essay submitted five days earlier, a longer than usual duration. I was informed by the Opinion Editor: “We are declining to publish this and future pieces from you. Consider submitting to stronger, less muddled, and more informed publications. They will surely respondquicker.” Why? I had posted on the readers’ comments site that opinion essays were often “muddled” and “uninformed.” Ironically, USA Today/Gannett’s thin statement of ethics includes a commitment to free speech.

As a metropolitan daily, the Columbus Dispatch lacks journalistic professionalism, expertise, training, supervision, and quality control. There are apparently neither incentives for them nor consequences for their absence. (With respect to “illegals,” Miller stated that one editor erred; in replying to my request for a review, USA Today/Gannett referred to “layers” of checking whose failure was “unacceptable.”)

Neither the Dispatch nor USA Today/Gannett accepts responsibility, shows concern with readers’ responses, or employs constructive self-criticism that leads to changes. Beginning with “Seeking and reporting the truth in a truthful way,” USA Today/Gannett’s “Principles for Ethical Conduct in Newsrooms” read as if they were written by a 12-year-old.

Unlike other editors-in-chief of metropolitan dailies, Miller filled space with columns that cheerlead for his paper and himself. The Dispatch couldn’t decide if his statements were “Editorials” or “Guest Essays.”

My incomplete effort to stimulate a USA Today/Gannett review of the Dispatch confirmed these examples. They don’t care. Readers’ comments and letters—and the circulation—all make it clear: Readers do care.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History, The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books of social history. Searching for Literacy will be published later this year. He contributes to newspapers and assists news reporters across the country. He continues to assist Columbus Dispatch reporters but no longer associates with the newspaper in any other way. He has shifted his efforts to better-managed Ohio and national dailies.