In Cleveland, bracing for a free-news fallout

Fear and loathing at The Plain Dealer

Cleveland Scene magazine ran a fine, overlooked story on the ticking clock at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, as journalists and readers alike await Advance Publications’s next move in its remorseless campaign to make its regional newsrooms fit a free-news model.

Vince Grzegorek talked to current and former staffers, executives and analysts, and delivers a chilling and very likely correct analysis: What happened in New Orleans is about to happen in Cleveland.

Can The Plain Dealer Be Saved? In short, no. Cleveland will soon be left without a daily newspaper

The issue, as the piece makes clear, isn’t so much cutting back print delivery, but the massive staff cuts that accompany Advance’s strategy of relying solely on digital ads to supplement a weakened print operation. This is a model—”the future of news,” circa 2009—that the rest of the industry has already begun to put in its rear-view mirror in favor of taking the now demonstrated ability of digital subscriptions to help offset print losses. But Advance continues on an increasingly lonely—entirely voluntary—path that doesn’t just risk, but requires dramatic, immediate, value-destroying newsroom cuts. This is already a done deal in New Orleans and the South, as well as Michigan.

Here’s the nut section, with Grzegorek’s conclusion in the last paragraph:

Advance has done so with zero regard for nostalgia or tradition, and little public comment aside from vague declarations of a continued commitment to quality journalism through a refocused “digital-first” format.

In an open letter to readers on page one of the Sunday, Nov. 18 Plain Dealer, Publisher Terry Egger and Editor Debra Simmons admitted that changes were coming and acknowledged Advance’s resumé of downsizing. It was an unusual and unprecedented public statement from the top two at the paper, prompted in part by the Save the Plain Dealer campaign, which was trying to proactively spread word of the looming danger.

“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,” Egger and Simmons wrote. “We do not have a specific plan, timeline or structure for Cleveland. But we will — very soon.”

Which is bullshit. The Newhouse family, which runs Advance Publications, knows very well what the plan and timeline is for The Plain Dealer. It’s the same plan rolled out in all the cities mentioned above. And when it’s done here, Cleveland will be the largest city in America without a daily newspaper.

The report casts a deeply skeptical eye on Cleveland management’s claims that decisions will be made locally, and not by Advance’s senior management in New Jersey. And staffers aren’t buying it either:

“They’re not saying, ‘What should our model be?’” says reporter Rachel Dissell, also a Save the Plain Dealer committee member. “They’re just hashing out the details. I think all the decisions are being made [at Advance headquarters] in New Jersey.”

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 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.

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.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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: , ,