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.
This journalism, which can be read as tearful laments, is also powerful in that it highlights the increasingly anomalous position of the Newhouse-owned chain.
In an email this morning, Grzegorek says that while the post didn’t get much attention outside Cleveland, “it’s done bonkers traffic for our site and has been really well-received here in town.”
Advance presses on, but its isolation grows.