As in New Orleans, where Advance downsized the Times-Picayune, Cleveland has a robust campaign to push back against the impending downsizing. The odds of course are long, but Cleveland’s “Save the Plain Dealer” campaign has one advantage:
[T]he situation here is unique in at least one respect: The other papers were blindsided by the announcements. When news of the cuts in New Orleans broke in May, the PD staff decided to get proactive and try to rally community support before Advance made similar changes in Cleveland.
“It became real clear to me there’d be an impact here when New Orleans happened,” says John Mangels. “We all talked about it in the newsroom and had the same concerns. It was a national strategy Advance was following. We needed to react in some way, and let the readers and residents know what was coming and give them a chance to shape the outcome.”
The committee members included Mangels, Harlan Spector, Rachel Dissell, Evelyn Theiss, Wendy McManamon, Andrea Simakis, Tom Breckenridge, Ellen Jan Kleinerman, Diane Suchetka and Karen Long. Other reporters would publicly voice support along the way.
Launched with a full-page ad in the Sunday, Nov. 12 paper and media stories on NPR, WKYC, and other outlets, the committee’s Don Quixote effort has also plastered the city with ads and produced a television commercial. Its Facebook page has over 3,900 likes; the petition at Change.org has over 5,900 signatures. “Hot in Cleveland” star Valerie Bertinelli lent her star power to the cause, and local leaders like Councilman Joe Cimperman have taken up the flag as well. Events have sprung up, like a Save the Plain Dealer party at Market Garden Brewery and Distillery this week, all aimed at getting Advance to respond to public pressure.
And the piece zeros on in the real issue: the ability of a newsroom to produce quality, in-depth local news under a model based in large measure on the quantity of posts published and the numbers clicks they can generate:
Advance’s sites are notoriously poorly designed and borderline unnavigable. Prominent stories get buried, while updated stories, no matter how trivial, find their way to the top of the page. Archives are best reachable through Google searches.
But the quality of the content is what’s most troubling to The Plain Dealer staff.
Camilla Terry, 20, was arrested recently for the murder of her three-year-old son, whose body was found in a garbage bag. Her story is long and complicated — Terry has a long history in the foster care system, which now has custody of her two remaining children —and Rachel Dissell has been covering the case.
When reached for comment on this story, Dissell had just picked up a 600-page file on Terry and attended a hearing. It’s the sort of work she fears won’t be possible under Advance’s new structure.
“I think that the company can say, as they have time and time again, that they’re committed to quality journalism,” she says. “But as I look at the websites, I don’t see big quality enterprise projects. And when I talk to reporters at those papers, they feel like they’re being driven to produce more and more, told to post X times a day. Sure, they might give you a Mac and a tote bag and tell you to rove the city. But when the object is to post as much as you can online, what are you going to do? From what we’re hearing and seeing, they’re just taking online stories and reworking them for the paper three days a week. “
Whatever its merits in other settings, the free model is proving itself wildly inappropriate for already existing large-scale regional papers. And while the Advance plan still seems as inevitable as the tide, things can change. Even The Washington Post, a free-news holdout among major papers, has changed course.
The Scene story adds to a growing volume of good local coverage on the Advance strategy and its impact at its properties around the country. This includes the likes of the Gambit on the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and Willamette Week, on the Oregonian, in Portland.