Advance’s forced march backwards

The Plain Dealer imposes draconian cuts in the name of an outdated strategy for newspapers

Advance Publications’s remorseless campaign to impose a free-online content model on its regional newspapers exacted another heavy toll with the Cleveland Plain Dealer today eliminating the jobs of about 50 journalists, about a third of its already shrunken newsroom—and more, according to the union, than even the company had said it would.

Rollie Dreussi, executive secretary of the union that represents the paper’s newsroom, tells me that, while the situation is still fluid, it’s almost certain that the company has reneged on a promise to keep at least 110 union jobs in the Plain Dealer newsroom.

“We think they did lie to us,” he says.

A handful of Plain Dealer reporters and their supporters took to marching in front of the newspaper yesterday with signs saying that the newspaper had lied to them

In a story in Crain’s Cleveland Business, Terry Eggers, the Plain Dealer’s publisher and president and chief executive of the paper’s parent company, denies allegations of bad faith. I asked him for comment on the exact number of newsroom jobs that will be left after the layoffs, but an assistant sent an answer that was non-responsive. The statement does say that the company will share more about its future plans starting Sunday.

On Monday, August 5th, we chart a new course to ensure that we are positioned to be a viable business in an effort to better meet the needs of our community and remain Northeast Ohio’s number one source for news and information in today’s changing media environment. We will be sharing a preview of the changes with our readers in a guide that will be included with The Plain Dealer on Sunday, August 4th.

The layoffs in Cleveland are part of a long-running and painful restructuring across Advance’s newspaper assets that features deep newsroom cuts while shifting the resources to (non-union) digital companion companies geared entirely toward delivering news for free on the Internet. The restructuring started with a pilot program in Michigan in 2009 and was implemented, ham-fistedly, at Advance-owned New Orleans Times-Picayune and its Alabama papers. For background, read Ryan Chittum’s seminal story from CJR in March.

In April, Advance announced similar plans for Cleveland, including the creation of a new digital startup, Northeast Ohio Media Group, and promises of sharp cutbacks on the print product, delivering the full paper only three days a week, along with layoffs.

The plucky and useful Save the Plain Dealer Facebook page says this about company’s latest move in a post this morning:

The dismissals were unnecessary. They were driven by greed, fear and a disastrous inability on the part of the newspaper’s senior management and billionaire owners to creatively respond to the challenges facing journalism in the digital age.

Just so. We’ve argued for years, in many contexts, that a model that gives away free online content that it charges for in print, relying mainly on digital ads for online revenue, is a disaster for legacy news organizations with their huge fixed costs and expensive—and valuable—newsrooms. The model may be fine in many contexts, but for mature newspaper companies it has shown no potential for the kind of growth needed to make up for falling print ad revenue and fails to shore up subscription revenues via metered paywalls, now adopted by across the country and around the world.

Save the Plain Dealer says it better than I can, so I’ll just add emphasis:

We have no doubt that the gifted Plain Dealer journalists whose jobs were spared will continue to do good work. But they will do so in spite of, not because of, the radical changes that Advance Publications is imposing on its newspapers. Nationwide, the New Jersey-based company, owned by one of America’s richest families, has gotten rid of more than 1,500 journalists’ jobs since launching its ill-conceived “digital first” strategy in 2012. Fewer journalists inevitably means fewer in-depth stories, less comprehensive coverage, and reduced oversight, commentary and critical thinking. The remaining newsroom personnel at The Plain Dealer will struggle under an Advance business model that stresses quantity over quality of news, and under the direction of some managers who seem obsessed with trivia and sensationalism.

Throughout the past year, the Save The Plain Dealer campaign and the Newspaper Guild have worked to oppose these disastrous changes, and to warn the public of the impending harm to their daily newspaper. These layoffs mark a low point, but not an end, of that effort.

A grim coda.

And here is some response on Twitter.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: , ,