Doug Oplinger of the Akron Beacon Journal visited our class on February 9, 2016. Specializing in public policy and community engagement reporting, Mr. Oplinger has been involved in editing and contributing to three Pulitzer Prize-winning pieces and has won several national awards for his directive role in the Beacon’s The American Dream: Hanging by a Thread series, which examined the difficult economic forces causing anxiety in the middle class during the recent recession.
“Before we get started, I want you to give me one word that describes a journalist,” Akron Beacon Journal Editor Doug Oplinger asked the Campaign Battleground Class. Mr. Oplinger then began to move about the room with a tape recorder and students gave their responses, “story…nagging…educated…embellishers…facts.” “I have very thick skin,” Mr. Oplinger suggested, “so if you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask.”
Mr. Oplinger told the class he wanted to go into politics as a kid. He began attending city council meetings and started asking questions in the hope of getting involved. Eventually, Bill Hershey, a journalist for the Akron Beacon Journal had a young Mr. Oplinger attend a city council meeting and record the proceedings. Mr. Oplinger did so and reported back to Mr. Hershey. In doing so, Mr. Oplinger earned his first byline.
Mr. Oplinger explained the journalistic process, “You finish your story, put your feet up, eat some cold pizza, then you walk down three flights of stairs. You watch them put the plates on the press and start the presses, and there your story is reporting on Democracy in Action- it works again! And you were a part of it.”
Mr. Oplinger noted the two Pulitzers the Beacon Journal had won during his time there, as well as the four total the paper had won over its history. He noted that one, earned for the Beacon’s coverage of an attempted takeover of Goodyear Tire and Rubber in the 1980’s. He suggested, “The trucks would pull up to the factories after work and sell out of papers on the spot.”
Mr. Oplinger also discussed the changing business model of print media. He noted that advertisers have moved to the internet. The current reach of the Beacon Journal, he contends, is about 500,000. For comparison, they sell about 70,000 print copies of a given paper. Demand has also shifted for free audio and free video content. These business model changes are preceded by changes in consumption of news. “Confirmation bias is a tremendous problem for journalism and Democracy,” contended Mr. Oplinger. He pointed to Breitbart as an example of aggressive journalist quick to the scoop but often slanted in their view.
Asked if the days of quality journalism are over, Mr. Oplinger replied, “I sure hope not.” However, he did note that “The Beacon Journal is no longer the best paper in the state.”