Soapdish: Changing the Narrative

Approaching the seemingly earth-shattering occasion of our unprecedented 100th issue (tah dah!), your humble Soapdish columnist momentarily pauses the hyperbole machine to reflect, ever so softly, on the evolving media landscape in our fair river city. 

If you ever spelunk so far as to read the "About Soapbox" page on our site (and kudos a vous for getting that far), you will see that the ostensible raison d'etre of our weekly publication has been to tell "the new Cincinnati story - a narrative of creative people and businesses, new development, cool places to live, and the best places to work and play."

In the process of pursuing our (cliché alert) "mission statement," we have attempted to refocus the prism through which Cincinnati has conventionally been viewed.  Traditionalists may snort and dismiss much of this as kool-aid drinking rah-rah boosterism, but it is really more of a concerted effort to focus on the wealth of assets that the city and region have to offer, as opposed to, say, wallowing in the primordial slop of the negative.  Mainstream Cincinnati media, historically, have tended to focus on the "if it bleeds it leads" school of small-minded and parochial journalism.  In so doing, they tend to cater to the largely conservative, anti-urban/exburban-oriented mindset. Soapbox, by contrast, oftentimes highlights the undiscovered assets in our urban core (as opposed to the far-flung cul-de-sacs), eschewing those naysayers who would have you believe that the proper model for a thriving metropolitan region is an asphalt-glazed doughnut.

It is indeed true that you won't find sassy cover stories on sex in the sprawlburbs or fawning and encyclopedic daily coverage of an Ikea birth in "downtown" West Chester.  What you will find, however, are stories that spotlight the talent and innovators in our city, as well as the places and attractions that are frequently overlooked by the more middle of the road media outlets. 

In running the numbers a bit, people seem to be taking notice.  According to Google analytics:

• Over 24,300 people are subscribed to receive Soapbox each week.  Of note, however, is that more than 2/3 of the traffic to our site is from search engines, referrals or direct traffic - not via the regular Tuesday email. 

• As far as preaching the gospel to the unconverted, New Yorkers (#7) seem to love us, as do readers in Columbus (#10) and Chicago (#16) - moreover, 31% of visits to our site in 2009 were from outside of our region, with 7% of that international (UK, Canada, India, Germany, Australia, Spain, China and France, in that order).

Most interesting, for purposes of this column, is on our top 25 list of most subscribed domains; and from the looks of it, a big chunk of the Business Courier staff also gets our Tuesday email editions.

In our scant two years of existence, Soapbox has witnessed a continually evolving local media landscape.  The Cincinnati Post was scrapped at the end of 2007, shortly before Soapbox's launch the following February.  In its wreckage, the Enquirer, along with its whYPe-centric/ent-weekly known as CinWeakly (later eviscerated and subsumed by Metromix), ascended to monopolize our mainstream newspaper realm.  While the Enquirer's party photo hegemony is not something you will find echoed on these pages, it seems that the echoes, in some respects, sometimes seem to run the other way.  The mainstream media, it seems, does pay attention.

You may recall back in August of this year, your unassuming Soapdish columnist ran a screed chastising and hectoring the Enquirer for its seemingly anti-urban/anti-street car bias.  Entitled "Now IS the Time,"  the column excoriated our esteemed daily for its negative media coverage of the proposed Cincinnati streetcar, coverage which reached its nadir in an editorial which declared that now is "not the time for Cincinnati to be pouring its energy, resources and political capital into a streetcar project."   Expressing dismay at the Enquirer’s ostrich-head-in-the-sand approach, we observed that "it is truly unfortunate that the Enquirer has chosen to forsake a path to the future by instead appealing to the base, conservative retreads of the past. Sadly enough, it is certainly much easier and politically safe to say 'now is not the time'."  That column closed with the line "Looking forward to better work in tomorrow's paper." 

Well, tomorrow's paper did yield better work.

In the weeks leading up to the election, while not exactly endorsing the streetcar, the Enquirer did come out with a more balanced and, for the most part, well written Forum section on the much maligned Article 9.  The coverage ultimately culminated in a stinging editorial indictment of the follies of the absurd charter amendment  (Incidentally, one shudders to think how that proposal, if passed, would've affected the $400+ million recently awarded for the 3-C rail project - most likely changing it to a 2-C, minus Cincinnati).

As another example, it is safe to say that, since its inception, Soapbox has been fairly infatuated with Over- the-Rhine.  Notwithstanding the losses to demolition and neglect over the years, Over-the-Rhine continues to be one of city's most stunning (and previously overlooked) treasures - replete with historic architecture, density and a showpiece for urban renewal and preservation not seen in any other inland city.  This space alone (guilty as charged) has written no less than ten columns focusing on people, businesses, and historical structures or events in Over-the-Rhine.

On January 14, 2010, eerily echoing the title of Soapbox’s "Now IS The Time”"column, the Enquirer published an editorial entitled "Now, Not Soon, is the Time to Save OTR's Treasures."  In a plaudit-worthy endeavor not unlike the Article 9 Forum, the Enquirer turned its steely media gaze toward Over-the-Rhine, recognizing the neighborhood's architectural significance, and the critical need to preserve the city's historic core.  It should also be noted that Cincinnati Magazine devoted its cover story to Over-the-Rhine in September of last year (perhaps to balance out its "Secret of the Suburbs" pabulum from the prior month).

While it is admittedly easy to slag on the Enquirer and similar mainstream media outlets as doddering and out-of-touch doyennes on the brink of irrelevancy (and I am probably as guilty as anyone on that front) - credit where credit is due. The debate on Article 9 was a key turning point for many in this city; a beat down of the entrenched Visigoths and "same old Cincinnati" baggage that has weighed this city down for too long.  Same goes for spotlighting Over-the-Rhine as one of the city's crown jewels which must be preserved.  That's what we call changing the narrative.

When I moved to this city six years ago, people were constantly carping about the reconstruction of Fountain Square, wringing their hands over the closing of the Maisonette and reflexively citing to the "riots" of 2001 at seemingly every opportunity.  In the same breath, they longed wistfully for the "Fields of Ertel" and expressed "gee whiz" amazement at the saccharine-fueled simulated "downtown" known as the "Streets of West Chester."

Suffice to say that the narrative has changed.  The overriding themes nowadays seem to be the resurgence of Over-the-Rhine as one of the city's hottest neighborhoods, the success of Fountain Square as a city center and incubator of corresponding development and the rejuvenated center city as THE place to be.  We've gone from saying "nobody goes downtown" to "everyone goes downtown." Projects that doomsayers said would never come to fruition (Queen City Square II, The Banks, The Ascent…and, soon to come - the streetcar) are transforming our city.  All of these subjects, and much, much more, have been the consistent focus of Soapbox over the course of our first 100 issues.

We'd like to think we helped change the narrative.

Photography by Scott Beseler

Cincinnatus at Sawyer Point

View from the top of the Ascent

Streetcars, model at Trainjunction

The treasure at the end of the rainbow, OTR (view from my old studio)

Ascent cracks the sky, Covington (view from my new studio)

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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.