‘This used to be a newsroom’ — the scene at the Cleveland Plain Dealer

As a diminished staff adapts to new rules and new space, "newsroom culture is gone"

Editor’s note: The photo that appeared above this post has been removed at the request of the photographer. References to the photo in the story have been edited for clarity.

DETROIT, MI — As a major reorganization of the Cleveland Plain Dealer takes shape, veteran reporters are adjusting to “backpack journalism,” the division of staff into two companies, a looming move to a new office, and demands to post stories more quickly.

At the same time, they are memorializing their old newsroom in striking images that are circulating on social media and in email chains. One such photo was sent to CJR by a former Plain Dealer employee with the subject line, “This used to be a newsroom.”

Over the past year, the Cleveland paper has followed much the same plan that owner Advance Publications carved out in New Orleans and elsewhere: it reduced print delivery, shed staff through layoffs and buyouts, and saw the creation of a new, non-unionized digital company under the same corporate umbrella. The Plain Dealer Publishing Co. and the new company, Northeast Ohio Media Group, are separate entities, but both contribute material to the free website Cleveland.com and to the print newspaper, which saw its newsstand price rise to $1 this week.

The changes aren’t just to the org chart. Amid an overhaul of the editorial workspace, the paper’s “newsroom culture is gone,” one Plain Dealer reporter told me. (He, like the other current Plain Dealer staffers in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity.)

The old Plain Dealer newsroom, at 1801 Superior Ave., is in a building constructed in 1999, during what we can now see as the beginning of the end of an era. A press release at the time said the building would “house about 1,000 employees” across the news and business divisions. A second longtime Plain Dealer reporter described it as “overbuilt” even when it was new; for the last few years, the company leased one floor to a software firm, she said.

After the most recent wave of layoffs, the second reporter said, the staff was so depleted—The Plain Dealer now reportedly has about 95 editorial and production employees—that “it was deemed not worth it to keep us there in the main newsroom.” Most of the paper’s reporters and editors will soon relocate to the Skylight Office Tower at Tower City Center, a shopping mall/office/transit complex in downtown Cleveland, where they will occupy space above Cleveland’s Hard Rock Café. Meanwhile, the “Pub Hub,” a group of about 30 to 40 designers, editors, and print production staff, will move to the company’s printing and distribution plant in the Cleveland suburbs. And Northeast Ohio Media Group—which has hired new staff in recent months and still has several job openings—will move its employees into renovated space at the Superior Avenue building. (They are currently based in office space in The Flats, a neighborhood along the Cuyahoga River.) The moves are expected to be completed around March.

When the changes were announced on Cleveland.com in November, Andrea Hogben, president of NEOMG, said, “the newly renovated space is designed to showcase our digital capabilities and promote a culture of innovation and creativity.” An “open office” will feature “a variety of collaboration areas” for media group employees, the announcement said.

In the same item, Virginia Wang, general manager of The Plain Dealer Publishing Co., added that the newspaper’s move to Tower City “allows our reporters to continue being the voice of the community from a centrally located downtown facility.”

But a set of changes to newsroom practice during the transition period, veteran Plain Dealer journalists say, is actually encouraging them to work remotely and hindering collaboration.

(Seeking a management response to these concerns, I made several attempts by phone and email this week to reach Wang, Plain Dealer editor Debra Adams Simmons, and Plain Dealer managing editor Thomas Fladung, but at the time of publication have not received a reply. We will update this story if we hear from them. Here’s an account of Plain Dealer and NEOMG editors discussing the recent changes at a public event in September.)

Plain Dealer editorial staff are currently working out of extra space in the Superior Avenue building, organized in the cubicle-free “open office” concept that both companies will find in their refurbished newsrooms. In order to incentivize “backpack journalism”—and generate more multimedia content for Cleveland.com—reporters and editors were also given iPhones and laptops, along with actual backpacks, so they can work from home or cafes. “They are very much encouraging us to be mobile, to not claim particular places and not keep a lot of stuff there,” the first Plain Dealer reporter told me. “What they envision is like when you go into a cafeteria and just find a spot.”

At Northeast Ohio Media Group, where the staff is generally younger, these changes may be taken in stride. “I like to think of the city as my newsroom now,” said Brandon Blackwell, who formerly worked at the Plain Dealer’s Columbus bureau and now covers crime for NEOMG. “I miss many of the faces from the old newsroom, but I’m not attached to the old ways. I still get to do what I love—I just do it a little differently now.”

But at The Plain Dealer, the first reporter said, the adjustment has been less smooth. Many staff members are using “piles of stuff” to fashion makeshift offices. The reporter said he staked out a regular spot to work in the open office, but had to give it up to a graphic artist who needed a better wireless connection. By then, most of the good places were already taken. “People are territorial,” the reporter said. “They want their own little place.”

Nowadays, he went on, “I plant myself in one of the cushy side offices that no one can claim for good, but are usually open.”

That’s when he shows up at all: like many others, this reporter is working from home more and more. Staffers quickly learned they don’t need to ask for permission to work at home, he said, and the practice is “completely encouraged. [Managers] don’t care.”

Many Plain Dealer journalists appreciate the convenience and flexibility, the reporter said. But as a result, “There’s not a newsroom buzz. There’s not the camaraderie of a newsroom, where everyone is always hearing what’s going on. You’re all off doing your separate thing.”

The second Plain Dealer reporter said she is productive whether working from home or an office, but “what you’re missing is the collegiality, the chance to sit down and hash out stories, the newsroom atmosphere.”

There is also concern for how the new structure relates to the quality of the editorial product, both in print and online. Plain Dealer reporters said that, in addition to increased attention to online metrics, they have noticed less rigorous editing—they directly post in-process stories online, writing their own headlines—and a thinner print publication.

Though the flexibility has advantages, the office reshuffling is the most visible manifestation of a series of decisions that have frustrated veteran Plain Dealer staff. A third longtime reporter described those moves, including the division of staff into two companies—one union, one non-union—and the displacement of the Plain Dealer newsroom as “crushing” to the newspaper.

Stephen Esrati, a former copyeditor who has not worked at The Plain Dealer for years but now edits a newsletter for alumni of the paper, received a photo of the now-abandoned newsroom over email from a current staff member who will be relocated to Tower City Center. “That got me going,” Esrati said. “I couldn’t imagine people being scattered all over the city and putting out a website.”

The office moves also raise a question that’s been unsettled since Advance first began making changes in Cleveland: what will the relationship between Plain Dealer and NEOMG editorial staff be, and how long will the bifurcated arrangement last?

The third Plain Dealer reporter I spoke with described the current situation as “divisive.” Blackwell, the NEOMG reporter, said he had “little to no interaction” with newspaper staff, “unless we are passing along a tip or checking to make sure we aren’t covering the same story.” But the first Plain Dealer reporter said that despite the barriers, some collaboration is happening; he shares material with NEOMG reporters, and they return the favor. “An NEOMG guy gave me a cell number for someone I needed to reach just last week,” he said.

Plain Dealer reporters are also taking it upon themselves to create communication across the broader company—including with colleagues at Advance papers in other cities. Referring to the family that owns Advance, the reporter told CJR: “Newhouse people need to communicate with other Newhouse people. Talking to you guys is a service for all the people in Newark and New Orleans and Portland.”

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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: , , ,