Dispatch building

How can the US’s 14th largest city have the nation’s worst collection of what were once called “legitimate media”? I do not have a comprehensive answer, but I read major clues. Given the broken state of the City government and the physical and social city, and almost all of its major institutions, on one hand, we  cannot be surprised. At the same time, the need for comprehensive, trustworthy news and commentary has never been greater.

I first wrote about Columbus media in July 23 in “Columbus’ identity crisis and its media,” Columbus Underground, July 23, 2021. This was an unexpected learning experience. I advanced the arguments that the city’s lack of identity was in fair measure a result of its media’s large-standing failure to engage in and support habits of responsible constructive criticism, and thus promote that kind of tradition. Instead, unchecked boosterism reign. This is especially true with respect to major institutions including the City itself, Ohio State University, and major powerful private interests. For more than a century and one-half, the Columbus Dispatch led in, and profited greatly from that.

In less than three days, I was viciously, dishonestly, and unprofessionally attacked by the editor and reporter of then-USA Today/Gannett online-only entertainment Columbus Alive for daring to criticize their fellow USA Today/Gannett local affiliates. I knew almost nothing about Columbus Alive. The attack by self-claimed journalists with no ethics or integrity appeared with no warning an hour or two after the editor of the now defunct site and I exchanged collegial emails.

Younger friends more familiar with social media-ese explained that being denounced as “trash” was both commonplace and meaningless. The attack also had much less to do with what I wrote than with assaulting Columbus Alive’s rival major competitor for advertising revenue ColumbusUnderground, my very much above ground publishers. They are also primarily a vehicle for entertainment and food advertisers with a smattering of uneven news and opinion. Also, USA Today/Gannett’s older Columbus Monthly does its primarily advertising circulation in print. It bears no relationship to journalism or knowledgeable objective reporting.

Surprised but also unsurprised by the ignorant attack, I immediately asked then Alive but now dead to print a response. They unprofessionally refused. I next asked my own publisher to print a rebuttal to an all but incomprehensible attacked aimed overwhelmingly at them, much more than at what I actually wrote. Surprisingly, they also refused, with the purported rationale of not worsening matters. So much for journalistic standards and ethics, or even self-respect.

I learn daily that this is the Columbus Way: real and aspirational revenue and the resulting competition trump honest, accurate, informed news reporting and expression of responsible opinion. Acting out personally is more important than serving any stated mission or public agenda. This dominates TV and radio “news” and announcements and the Opinion page of the Columbus Dispatch.

For several years, the continuing appearance of the no longer daily no longer news-paper Columbus Dispatch six days each week, or fewer days for some but not all holidays, is a real question. This is especially true for the advertising dominated print edition—if or when USA Today/Gannett manages to print it, deliver it to Columbus to local carriers from the Indiana printer, or update its radically uncoordinated website which the local affiliate does not control or understand. Take the front section and count the number of pages of “news” compared to advertisements.

Unlike most other affiliates, the Dispatch editors either did not know, could not bother, or did not wish to inform its readers (or its own reporters) that their corporate owners suspended readers’ comments at the end of January. Other, even much smaller affiliates like the Springfield News-Leader printed announcements before the end of that month.

Unlike major outlets with readers’ sites, USA Today/Gannett does not understand or practice any moderation of comments. They enunciate but never enforce very thin standards.

The Dispatch’s comments reek of racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, slurs, and threats that the New York Times’ human moderators or the Washington Post’s algorithms would never accept. Designating particular posts as offensive or advertising never leads to their removal or blockage.

After questions from readers like me, and reporters who I informed, the Dispatch announced the suspension of comments two weeks later than other outlets. The non-daily, non-news organ has no respect for readers including paying subscribers.

In little more than a year, the full-time staff has declined from approximately 200 to about 50, with long-time first-rate reporters summarily terminated. The entire staff fears for their jobs. Both new and older reporters cover more beats that their expertise, understanding, or time allow. It shows daily.

An amateur world of largely uninformed reporting reigns. The lack of basic writing, spelling, and grammar ability puts what my neighbors call the “Dishpan,” “Dishrag,” and “Dishtrash” into a league of its own.

Yes, USA Today/Gannett forbids copyediting, but why do Dispatch writers not use the spell and grammar check programs on their computers, word processors, or

iPhones? Reporters to whom I speak assure me that that is not outlawed (yet).

The range of reporting and writing competence across the staff defies the odds. As I’ve noted previously, one statehouse reporter replied to my pointing her to information, “Doing research would interfere with my objectivity.” She and other dare to claim degrees in journalism.

But none of that helps us to understand the frequency with which the contents of articles contradict the headlines. Or that two or more articles report the same the story in the same edition. Or that racism, sexism, or xenophobia appear. That’s a rare quality that I see nowhere else except in Fox News. Importance of a subject, quality of reporting, and dedicated column inches conflict with each other.

Nor can anyone at the paper explain why a local paper has a bedtime, that is, closing deadline for the next edition, approximately five hours earlier than the national edition of the New York Times or Washington Post, both of which regularly update their websites throughout the day.

The pages of the non-news-paper are clearly for sale. Pages of advertising with wild layout and design overflow. This is the Columbus Dispatch Way. Once a valued public service of the daily press, obituaries are now for sale with type font several times the size of the news. No sense of community standards or public interest blocks the large print gun, alcohol, and Hobby Lobby ads. Layout, by the way, is done by Gannett in Austin, Texas. It is out of control and incompetent.

Although I do not have absolutely conclusive evidence, I wager that the Opinion page is also for sale. What else could explain the omnipresence of completely baseless and obviously dishonest self-promotions by politicians, mainly but not exclusively Ohio Republicans, and business executives,  never expressing a developed, consistent, factual, or sensible “opinion,” but selling themselves or another product for sale. Genuine newspapers do not do this.

The Opinion page editor does no editing, nor does she research her frequent and poorly expressed Editorial Board and so-called “guest essays,” as if the editor could possibly be a guest. She plays obvious favorites who can publish anything they wish, correctly or incorrectly. Anyone in doubt: see for yourselves, week after week.

The letters appear to have never been read by an editor, an assistant, or even Chatbot. Daily, it is one from column A--mildly liberal; column B--muddled middle; or column C--raving incoherent anti-factual, non-conservative right wing. Unlike the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s best in the US Editorial page, nothing is edited or fact-checked including the Opinion Editor herself and her regularly appearing cronies.

The Business page consists primarily of very slighted edited corporate press releases. It rivals the Sport pages for uncontrolled local boosterism and self-promotion. OSU, the City-supported Crew, and Blue Jays can do no harm. Shamefully, OSU women’s teams do not receive the attention that their performance merits, both nationally and in comparison to the men’s team.

Two years ago, the Dispatch’s retired librarian published historical trivia that was often patently wrong local boosterism.

The major network local TV affiliates of national networks—Channels 4, 6, 10, and 28--follow in step the Columbus Way of the media.

Major advertisers, especially political parties, election candidates, state and local governments, direct the lens of coverage and the interpretations and especially the emphasis. This is most apparent as elections approach but evident every day. Channels 4 and 10 accepted a $100,000 “No Bid” contract with the City of Columbus’ sloganeering CleanerColumbus, an action by the City which is unethical and quite likely illegal. This self-promotion replaces necessary regular trash collection with a one day each year volunteer uncoordinated highly selective pickup session.

During the past three to five years, a series of unprofessional practices came to dominate almost all on-air media at all levels but most exaggerated at the local level. This includes “investigative reporters” who rarely investigate beyond skimming a report. Do any journalists use a dictionary, even on their cell phone or computer?

WOSU, owned by Ohio State University, holds firmly to its distinction as the worst NPR affiliate in the US. One sign is that its third general manager within a year begins his term soon. I speak from the experience of following and participating with public radio and television before the creation of NPR and PBS, and working with affiliates across the US.

WOSU has a roster of distinctive qualities. First, despite recently moving to a new facility across North High Street from OSU (not “on campus” as often claimed), it continues to have technical difficulties in staying on the air live or streaming. No one can explain why.

Second, it replays programs nonstop, every day, day in and week out. Saturday and Sunday air are virtually indistinguishable from each other. It is impossible to count the number of times that incoherent, unintelligible, and unspeakable (and soon to retire) Ann Fisher is replayed. We are never told the original date or how many times one program is replayed, only that the program is “previously recorded.” I know of no other station in the network that so disrespects its audience and “members.”

“Ohio’s [no longer] largest and [never] best [but “one of the best’] news department” is a shadow of its former self. WOSU is unlikely to recover from the collective exodus of more than one-half dozen veteran announcers and reporters who left as a direct result of “news content director” Mike Thompson’s verbal bullying. Despite OSU Human Resources department’s automatic exoneration, this is well-known among Columbus media circles. Yet only the now defunct Columbus Alive covered it. Why?

Local and state news coverage, and anything resembling investigative or in-depth reporting, is minimal. NPR programming, also not what it once was, is far too often replaced by reruns. WOSU has not reported that NPR is reducing its own staff by more than ten percent. This is unfair to all listeners and contributors. Why does WOSU never report the results of its frequent fund drives?

It is many years since NPR and PBS were actually “non-commercial” as any listener learns within minutes. But the charade remains. OSU replays self-promotional spots from decades ago.

Why does the 14th largest city in the US whose City Councilors repeatedly proclaim, “we’re a big city now,” have no more than a charade for media, especially news media?


“Columbus’ identity crisis and its media,” Columbus Underground, July 23, 2021

“Response to Columbus Alive, ‘The list: Reasons that Columbus Underground opinion piece is trash,’ by Andy Downing and Joel Oliphint, Columbus Alive, July 26: A visit to journalism fantasy land,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 7, 2021

“Columbus’ major ‘news media’ against democratic politics and the public,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Mar. 10, 2022

“WOSU, the nation’s worst NPR affiliate? The challenge of criticizing a self-parody of a ‘news and information’ station,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Mar. 20, 2022

“I call on the Columbus Dispatch, aka Dishpan or Dishrag, to do the city a public service and close up shop,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 5, 2022


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books, he writes about a variety of contemporary and historical topics for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current, Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.