Toledo is known for its beloved Mud Hens, but it is mud slinging that's broken out between the Rust Belt city's venerable daily newspaper The Blade and an upstart weekly launched a decade ago by a former employee.
The war of words is being fought in newsprint and on court documents, and pits Tom Pounds, president, publisher and founder of the Toledo Free Press, against the powerful twin brothers who own The Blade, the 180-year-old daily newspaper where Pounds once toiled. While weekly papers throughout the country have long been known for nipping at the heels of the dailies that dominate their shared readership, the fight in Toledo, the Ohio city on the shores of Lake Erie, is personal.
“They don’t like us,” said Pounds, who acknowledges his conservative-leaning newspaper has taken shots at the more liberal Blade. “We’re just trying to survive, and there’s enough business to go around. But they want us out of business.”
“We’re just trying to survive, and there’s enough business to go around. But they want us out of business.”
Blade publisher Allan Block and the newspaper’s attorney, Thomas Dillon, declined to comment on the matter.
But a source with knowledge of The Blade’s position said they believe Pounds is using his newspaper, which has published articles and cartoons critical of The Blade, to settle an old score with his former employer, in what they consider a pattern of clear violations of his severance agreement.
Pounds had worked for The Blade’s parent company, Block Communications, for 10 years when he resigned in March 2004. The split was less than amicable, according to Pounds, who said only, “we disagreed on some things.” A $188,000 buyout came with strings attached, including a condition barring Pounds from taking “any action, directly or indirectly, intended to harm the plaintiff, its parent, division, subsidiaries, or affiliates or any of their directors, officers, shareholders, or employees.”
Exactly one year later, Pounds started his weekly in a building he and a friend bought on Monroe Street, just four blocks south of The Blade’s N. Superior Street headquarters. His partner would run a pub on the ground floor, while Pounds launched the scrappy weekly which claims to be “A tradition for Toledo’s future” upstairs. Pounds’ severance deal had a non-compete clause, but it did not apply to working at, or even launching, a weekly.
“I was free to do that,” said Pounds, 56, who before coming to The Blade had worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the other newspaper owned by Block Communications, the privately held company that also operates the local cable TV franchise and seven Midwestern television stations. “Totally within my rights under the deal.”
Pounds believes The Blade, which won a Pulitzer prize for investigative reporting in 2004 and has a daily circulation of 120,000, came to consider him a competitor even if their prior agreement did not.
The first few years were lean, according to Pounds, but his staff of 10 and army of stringers began to scratch out a profit in the years before the recession. Pounds said he gave free journalistic reign to his editor, Michael Miller, while he concentrated on the business side. Together, they built the free weekly’s circulation up to its present 72,000 and recognition as “Ohio’s best weekly” five times from the state chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
But the weekly has gotten under the skin of Allan and John Block, the Toledo-born twin grandsons of legendary newspaper publisher Paul Block and the sole owners of the company. Miller tweaked the paper for planting a “firm kiss to [President] Obama’s backside” in 2008, when it published a front-page photo of the president with John Block following a meeting with the Blade's editorial board. And a 2009 editorial cartoon in the Free Press that implied the brothers were blocking job-creating development in the struggling city of 282,000 struck a nerve.
“That was the last straw for them,” Pounds said. “They went ballistic.”
The Blocks saw the cartoon as an egregious example of Pounds, through the newspaper he runs, disparaging them.
“How could anyone look at that cartoon and not come away thinking it disparaged [the Blocks]?” said a source who knows the brothers. “Just look up the definition of the word. And Pounds was the one who published it.”
Miller, who no longer works for the Free Press, wrote in a 2011 column, “I call bullsh*t” on The Blade’s claim. Miller, who believes the Free Press can’t cover the city if it can’t take a critical eye to its major media player, said in the column Pounds has never interfered with editorial approach.
“He reads my column on the layout pages at the same time our deadline copy editors do,” he wrote. “And while I warn him before I wade into hazardous waters, I have never sought permission to tackle a topic, nor has he demanded that of me.”
The Blade sued Pounds, Miller and the newspaper in Lucas County Court of Common Pleas on Oct. 20, 2011, alleging all three violated Pounds’ non-disparagement clause, citing the cartoon as Exhibit A.
“Knowing he cannot directly engage in disparaging and harmful conduct, Pounds has … used Miller [the Toledo Free Press] and its employees to do so indirectly,” read the civil complaint, which demanded the Pounds repay the severance, plus damages and legal fees.
Two months later, the Free Press countersued, alleging Block Communications was "attempting to exercise prior restraint" on the Free Press, and using Pounds' severance terms "simply as a tool to economically harm" the Free Press and its publisher, and "well beyond the bounds of fair and legal competition."
The battle bled out of the courtroom and into the business community, where, Pounds claims, The Blade threatened advertisers into spurning the Free Press. In one episode that underscored the rancor, a local TV station refused to allow Miller to appear on its air to promote a charity CD that benefited the Make-A-Wish Foundation, reportedly noting that he worked for a “direct competitor” of a "valued partner."
Around the same time, in October 2011, Ohio Gov. John Kasich was signing into law a veritable lifeline for small newspapers like the Free Press. Local governments could satisfy their requirement of providing public notice of tax lien sales by publishing their taxpayer-funded ads in small papers. The Free Press picked up approximately $400,000 in taxpayer-funded ads following the law’s passage, according to Pounds.
Currently, the two sides are awaiting an appeal of a 2014 ruling by Common Pleas Judge Gary Cook requiring the Toledo Free Press to turn over its financial books and marketing strategy to The Blade.
Free Press attorney Matthew Rohrbacher said the case has several facets, but the crux is whether Pounds, for the purposes of the non-disparagement clause, can separate himself from his paper and its editorial staff. If not, Pounds does not believe his editorial team can do its job.
Rohrbacher acknowledged there may be no easy answer.
“I don’t think that when the Free Press speaks, it necessarily speaks for Mr. Pounds,” said Rohrbacher. “But that’s why they have horse races, and why they have lawsuits.”