‘Resetting’ The Plain Dealer

What’s to become of Cleveland’s daily, a bright spot in Ohio's coverage of election 2012?

OHIO — The frenzy of presidential candidates and entourages overrunning the Buckeye State is history, but questions about how Ohio’s largest newspaper will cover future political campaigns loom large.

Managers of The Plain Dealer of Cleveland—the 19th largest newspaper in the nation and the place I spent 17 years covering Ohio politics and government—are primed to make a major announcement at the beginning of next year. Many believe that the pronouncement will make Cleveland the largest city in the country without a daily print newspaper. That will certainly change how politics is covered. And, as I and others at CJR have noted many times over this past election year, the PD’s political coverage stands out in this state.

The PD’s owner, Advance Publications Inc., of New Jersey, has already replaced daily delivery with digital platforms in several US cities, including the renowned Times-Picayune in New Orleans, where newsroom staff was reduced earlier this year from 173 people to 89. Recently, Advance announced a new focus on digital for daily newspapers in Syracuse, NY and Harrisburg, PA. The company, owned by the descendants of the Newhouse publishing empire, has already made changes at publications in Michigan and Alabama.

In other words, recent history does not bode well. Here is what CJR’s Ryan Chittum wrote in June about changes at the Times-Picayune:

The problem is that rather than using the new-found cash flow created by reducing operating costs to support its news operations, Advance is gutting its newsroom, getting its community off the habit of a daily paper, and moving to what looks for all the world like a hamster-wheel model online. It’s liquidating the newspaper, as Jack Shafer recently wrote. Contrast the Newhouses’ actions to those of Warren Buffett, who has been snapping up papers and promising to maintain news staffs and daily publishing—to invest in them. Buffett’s businesses will be healthier longer than the Newhouses’.

For now, the PD’s newsroom staff can only speculate about what lies ahead, but fear mixed with uncertainty and frustration are predominant sentiments. Many also believe that reducing print editions in favor of digital, which has led to layoffs elsewhere, will seriously impact overall news coverage. A component of the newspaper union’s contract barring layoffs expires in January.

Harlan Spector, president of the PD’s Newspaper Guild Local One, told me that the digital-platform model Advance has been promoting is “all about volume and is click-driven.” The news becomes a constant stream of bits and pieces designed to attract viewers, he said.

“What happens under that model is that the stories that get the most clicks are sex, crime and sports,” Spector said. “That’s a real shift of emphasis where housing and education and other things fall. And then you cut staff and lose coverage and than what? You have to wonder how much serious journalism will get done.”

Stephen Koff, the PD’s Washington DC bureau chief, in an email and interview said he is well aware of the changes, including staff reductions, at Advance’s other publications, but is “cautiously optimistic.” He also understands the natural evolution of Web-based news and reading habits. Nonetheless, drastic reductions in reporting staff would hurt political coverage, he said.

“I don’t think anyone at the state or national level winds up saying that if the PD is not delivered every day of the week (but is online), its political report is diminished—as long as its reporting staff is maintained,” Koff said. “A drop in personnel would be another matter. If you don’t have as many people and as many well-qualified people, you can’t cover public affairs as effectively.”

Spector and other reporters have said that management warned them months ago that layoffs could be coming, and that it might be a good time to consider their future.

Some newsroom folks have left and others are mulling over their options, Spector said. Meanwhile, remaining staff is not sitting idly waiting for the hammer to fall. As reported by the PD’s Robert L. Smith, the Newspaper Guild, representing about 170 writers, photographers, designers and other staff, has launched a “Save The Plain Dealer” campaign.

The campaign—in billboards, bus placards, advertisements and letters to community leaders—is warning readers of the potential dismantling of its print editions and asking them to contact Advance. This staff-driven offensive includes a Facebook page—which, as of Monday, had 3,177 followers—and an online petition, which has been signed by more than 5,000 people.

In a November 17th piece, Ted Diadiun, the PD’s reader representative, examined the situation, and praised the Guild for “conducting a principled campaign,” but also “wish[ed] the Guild had not tried to enlist the paper’s news sources [civic leaders] to help the cause,” citing potential ethical problems.

Spector said no reporter is asking sources for favors, which he called “a loaded word,” but they are explaining the situation if asked, to help promote understanding and community support.

The campaign is picking up steam, generating local and more widespread media coverage, and reader response, prompting Publisher Terry Egger (who unexpectedly announced in September he would retire early next year) and Editor Debra Adams Simmons to write a letter published on the front page of the November 18th Sunday edition.

Egger and Simmons assured readers that no specific plan, timeline or structure has been finalized and that whatever the decision, “this is not about cost cutting.”

The letter acknowledged changes at other Advance newspapers:

While Advance has been developing and refining this effort for several years, it is the role of our leadership team in Cleveland to design the best model to safeguard the future of our enterprise and to preserve the quality of our journalism at The Plain Dealer.

Ours in not an ‘either/or/ decision between print and digital. We must do both.

This, Egger and Simmons wrote, will require a “significant reset of our business.”

In response, the union sent out a letter to four hundred community, political and business leaders asking them to email Advance CEO Steve Newhouse to “ask why he hasn’t taken steps that have worked in other cities and that people in Cleveland say they would support,” such as charging for online news or improving the paper’s quality and then raising the price.

In Smith’s PD story (cited earlier), Steve Newhouse said the company will look “at business trends and industry data, not sentiment.”

Newhouse told the PD: “I think we need to address the economic and media realities that are facing us. If we can come up with a plan that supports local journalism and the great work we’ve already done, that’s the best we can hope for.”

Hopeful, too, was Sabrina Eaton, Koff’s colleague in Washington who also covers politics (though she and her fellow reporters were also, understandably, quite cautious in their responses to me). Eaton told me in an email that she is “extremely gung-ho” about online journalism. Political reporter Henry Gomez echoed that sentiment, pointing to the success of the paper’s “live chats on [presidential] debate nights” which drew more hits and comments, Gomez said, “than the Cleveland Browns game day blog.”

Gomez spoke of wanting to be part of “a solution that preserves the paper,” in a way that even “if it’s not a traditional model, at least it’s journalism,” and he hopes “it can be done in a way [that] we don’t lose legacy subscribers.” If the print product is reduced, Gomez said he “would assume they would at least keep the Sunday paper where we’ve done enterprise and investigative stuff.”

Wrote Eaton via email:

If the paper’s print frequency is reduced, I hope it won’t diminish The Plain Dealer’s news gathering operation because online and print readers in Ohio and across the country expect original content from us that real journalists have to produce. That’s the only way I could see The Plain Dealer’s politics coverage losing any of its bite, as you put it, if the changes occur that people are talking about.

The PD has been the Big Dog for news content in this state for a very long time, including solid political coverage, especially in the past year. Time will tell what a “reset” business means for the robust newsroom required to do all of that. And it may be a harbinger of what awaits political coverage elsewhere as the newspaper landscape continues to change.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.