Advance to nowhere

Newhouse-owned chain slogs forward with discredited free-news model, now in Cleveland

Advance Publications’s announcement today on the future of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was less dramatic than the one a year ago in New Orleans, when, in the name of a dubious digital strategy, the New York based-company slashed the newsroom and chopped four days from the Times-Picayune’s weekly publication schedule, outraging local residents and puzzling media analyst far and wide.

In the Cleveland case, the Newhouse-owned chain deadened the shock by agreeing to continue to print seven days week, even if home delivery will now only be available on three of the days, and holding off on previously announced staffing cuts, which are expected to be draconian. John Mangels, a science writer and 22-year veteran of the paper told Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon that the news was “better than what we had expected.” And the Save the Plain Dealer campaign called the news “bittersweet” in a Facebook posting.

Actually, there is little cause for optimism. This is the model (seven days print, three days delivery) Advance has already used in Michigan (except Ann Arbor), Syracuse, and Pennsylvania, to poor reviews. And the main components of the New Orleans plan are in place here: Advance will create a new digital startup, Northeast Ohio Media Group, that will produce content for the website. Crucially, and unlike news organizations across the country and around the world, online content will not be protected by a paywall and online revenues will be based solely on digital ads—a model that has shown no potential for growth to make up for falling print ad revenue and carries with it ironclad incentives for high-quantity, low-quality news. This is hamster-wheel theory played out in real life.

In his seminal piece in CJR last month, Ryan Chittum showed the havoc the model has visited on the Times-Picayune. He also made the compelling case that the model has nothing to do with the future of news but is much more likely an “orderly liquidation” of Newhouse assets cynically carried out under the banner of digital progress. As he wrote:

By cutting costs well ahead of perpetually declining revenues from the … the print edition, the Newhouses can ride the Times-Picayune down profitably while minimizing the loss of money. Once the paper reaches terminal velocity, they can shut down Advance Central Services, the print wing, tie up any potential liabilities from the paper, and pitch them into the Mississippi.

Many observers were puzzled as to why the Newhouses so firmly resisted offers to buy the paper. But as Ryan pointed out, the profits accrued during the wind-down would far outweigh any realistic price from a sale.

One difference from NOLA in Cleveland is that the old newspaper company, The Plain Dealer Publishing Company, will continue to exist and will continue to produce content, according to the press release. How much content is unknown. In New Orleans, the digital company, NOLA Media Group, took control of all content, leaving a skeleton staff to put out the paper in another building.

In Cleveland, two staffs—one print, one digital—will produce news copy. It’s an improvement over New Orleans, but it raises obvious questions that did not escape staffers.

From our own Anna Clark:

Plain Dealer Publisher Terry Egger met with the newsroom this morning to inform the staff about the changes, and encountered a lot of questions about how coverage will be coordinated between The Plain Dealer and the new company. According to a Plain Dealer staff member, Egger told reporters and editors that he hopes to avoid coverage overlap between the groups, but with details yet to be shared on the leadership of the media group (aside from Hogben’s appointment), it isn’t yet clear how this balance will be struck.

Another question is how spreading the same staff—and after layoffs expected this summer, probably a far smaller one —over two newsrooms improves news coverage.

A final question is whether Advance will ever make the case—with numbers—that its is a growth agenda rather than a winding down of important community resources when others might actually want to make a go of it.

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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: , , , ,