(Editor’s note: This post originally ran on Cleveland Scene. For background, here’s a post from yesterday on Cleveland’s newspaper crisis and the bigger one on the horizon.)
When former journalists and alumni of the New Orleans Times-Picayune heard the news about the imminent changes at The Plain Dealer, our hearts broke for Cleveland.
Both newspapers are owned by New York-based Advance Publications, a chain of nearly three dozen dailies and weeklies stretching from Portland’s Oregonian to Staten Island, New York’s Advance. (Advance and its sister company, Condé Nast — publisher of The New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair and other high-profile magazines — are owned by the billionaire Newhouse family.) For decades, Advance newspapers have been among the most stable in the United States, with a hands-off management philosophy that generally allowed local publishers to run papers as they saw fit and a formal and highly unusual job security pledge that helped to retain employees by promising never to render them jobless.
As we all now know, that began to change in 2009, initially at Advance’s eight smallish papers in Michigan. The company slashed staff there, reduced editions from daily to two-to-four a week, and sought to drive readers to its universally derided websites.
Although Times-Picayune employees were certainly aware of what had occurred in Michigan, most felt New Orleans would be different. The 175-year-old newspaper is, after all, older than the tradition-bound city’s other famous institution, Mardi Gras. And the Picayune was widely lauded (four Pulitzer Prizes), universally beloved (largely for its heroic coverage of the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina), and perhaps most important in the eyes of the Newhouse family, consistently profitable.
Yet shortly before midnight on May 23, that confident denial began unraveling when The New York Times broke a story on its website that the Picayune would be the next Advance paper subject to the company’s “digital first” strategy. The following four-and-a-half months were a blur of protests, rallies, petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and yard signs. The New Orleans Saints billionaire owner Tom Benson offered the buy the newspaper, while everyone from liberal actor Ed Asner (TV’s newspaper editor “Lou Grant”) to conservative suburban Congressman David Vitter publicly condemned the changes. But Advance was unmoved. “We have no intention of selling, no matter how much noise there is out there,” Advance.net Chairman Steven Newhouse declared to The New York Times in mid-June. About 30 percent of the newspaper’s total staff was cut, including almost one-half of its newsroom. Beginning October 1, the previously daily newspaper began being printed on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.
So, New Orleans has been where Cleveland is now, and we feel your pain. Your experience no doubt will be different in important ways, mainly because you saw it coming, but I get no satisfaction in advising that you’re still in for a wrenching ride. One would hope Advance learned some valuable lessons from its very poorly managed New Orleans experience, but having grown accustomed to seeing companies and millionaires (not to mention billionaires) behaving badly, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Based on what we saw at our revolution, below are eight things you can expect:
1. Skulking around. Yes, you know something bad is coming, but The Plain Dealer’s management still has a lot of sensitive and emotional decisions to make, including who will be fired and who will be spared, when it will happen and how everyone will be told. Based on the New Orleans experience, expect off-site, super-secret meetings from which employees — even those not in attendance — may end up divining their own fates. For example, The Times-Picayune’s two longtime managing editors, Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea, basically deduced they were in trouble because they weren’t invited to said top-secret meetings their colleagues were attending. As a privately held company, Advance is required to disclose very little about its business, and generally declines to voluntarily share information, no matter how nicely — or often — a community asks. So scores of inscrutable, seemingly bone-headed decisions will be made in those meetings — and never explained to anyone other than a handful of executives.
2. Your own twisted memes. Ostensibly unrelated places, utterances and events will take on their own, usually slightly perverse, meanings. For example, those super-secret meetings occurred in New Orleans at the super-luxury Windsor Court Hotel, which is also where The Times-Picayune’s new publisher, Ricky Mathews, stayed when he made the trek from his Gulf Coast home. “Ensconced at the Windsor Court” became a favorite phrase of derision for the seemingly out-of-touch management team. In Page One opinion pieces and statements about the changes, management often referred to the coming “robust content” or “more robust newspapers” — a word choice that only served to make “robust” the new way of expressing anything but.