‘I am alive at the Plain Dealer…’

On "PD-D Day," layoffs at Cleveland paper claim some 50 experienced journalists

DETROIT, MI — More than one-third of the editorial staffers at the venerable Cleveland Plain Dealer lost their jobs on Wednesday. The cuts, part of owner Advance Publications’ shift to a “digital-first” strategy, gutted the newspaper of about 50 experienced journalists. The paper will also implement previously-announced plans to cut home delivery to three days a week starting August 5, while amping up its affiliated website, Cleveland.com.

By Wednesday afternoon, that site prominently featured a story answering reader questions about delivery changes on the front page… but no story on the layoffs. No comprehensive list was made available to the public, or even among staffers, who were left to buzz among themselves by phone and social media to hear who got the “good” call. When I tried to look up the archival work of some of the reporters laid off, I found that it was no longer possible to search by their names: I repeatedly got a page that reads “Unable to locate author.”

The layoffs had been pending for months, so that by the time Plain Dealer journalists were asked to stay home Wednesday morning to await the call that would let them know whether they still had a job, one of the dominating moods was relief—at least now, they know. As one reporter told me, the waiting has been “slow torture.”

Among those whose jobs were cut are one of the two K-12 education reporters, a night editor, the business editor, three high school sports reporters, and at least one page designer. Also gone are columnist Margaret Bernstein, transportation writer Tom Breckinridge, photographer Scott Shaw, and reporter Stan Donaldson. Dave Davis, once a star reporter, is gone too. The Plain Dealer’s Washington and Columbus bureaus appear to be intact, however.

Of the dozens departing, most were volunteers (albeit under duress), with only a handful forcibly laid off. Medical reporter Harlan Spector, president of the Newspaper Guild chapter representing many Plain Dealer employees, was among the voluntary layoffs.

There is still some uncertainty, however, even for those who got the “good call.” One Plain Dealer reporter told me that now that the layoffs have occurred, Advance plans to hire some of the keepers away to the website, Cleveland.com, which is now operated by a separate digital company. The Guild “had thought offers for [the] site would come first… coming after layoffs will cut the number of Guild members even lower,” said the reporter, who is staying on at the paper. He is therefore “still cautious” and wants to see what will happen with the digital company—“who gets offers, what kinds of offers, how duties will be divided between digital” and The Plain Dealer—before easing into any comfort at his job.

Relatedly, a story Wednesday in Cleveland Crain’s Business reported, “Others laid off are eligible to apply for jobs at the Northeast Ohio Media Group, a new company that will produce digital content for Cleveland.com. “

Meanwhile, as Dean Starkman notes in a separate piece here at CJR, some Plain Dealer staffers contend that Advance reneged on an earlier commitment to keep 110 union jobs in the newsroom. There’s more on that part of the story in an article published Tuesday in Crain’s.

Even those who kept their jobs today felt a resounding sadness for the massive losses at the paper. “So many people I care about are gone,” one reporter told me. When reporter Micheal Heaton got the call, he tweeted “I am alive at the Plain Dealer. Thanks to family friends who have endured this with me.” Columnist Bill Livingston also tweeted about receiving the nod to stay on: “No elation, just relief on PD D-Day. So sad for so many others who loved it just as much and won’t do it anymore.” And Chuck Yarborough on Twitter: “i just got the call from john kappes. i still have a job. but i want to throw up … if i can just stop crying long enough.”

As I’ve written before, the Plain Dealer newsroom has been able to turn out strong policy reporting even while understaffed. But the paper is entering a whole new plane of challenges, as it aims to maintain its standard of high-quality coverage with even fewer experienced reporters on the job. The advocacy campaign Save the Plain Dealer addressed the scale of the challenge in its post-layoffs statement: “Collectively, (the loss of about 50 reporters and staff) eradicates hundreds of years of institutional knowledge and experience. …They will diminish the flow of information upon which democracy depends.”

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit. Tags: , , ,