DETROIT, MI — Are the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the new Northeast Ohio Media Group two separate companies? Both are owned by Advance Publications. Both contribute to the print newspaper (now delivered three days a week) and to Cleveland.com. But they have distinct editors and work from separate newsrooms. And, pointedly, while The Plain Dealer is unionized, NEOMG is not.

The two-company question is at the heart of a National Labor Relations Board charge filed in December by the local chapter of the Newspaper Guild, which argues that the Advance companies violated an agreement about how many union reporters would remain in The Plain Dealer newsroom following major layoffs last summer. After those cuts, 110 employees were left, just as the agreement stipulated. But by 5 or 6 am the next morning, emails started arriving in the inboxes of some remaining staffers. The messages were invitations to meetings later that day about job opportunities at NEOMG, a digital news company created simultaneously with the layoffs. Employees, still dazed from the loss of their colleagues, were given to understand that they should decide whether to take the job offers quickly—within 24 hours would be best, so that the transition would be easier and the set-up of their benefits packages wouldn’t be delayed. Thirteen Plain Dealer employees went on to NEOMG, leaving 97 in the paper’s newsroom. Through attrition, there are now about 95 people left, according to several sources at the paper.

The Guild argues that because the PD and NEOMG are essentially the same company—“a single employer, joint employers, and/or alter ego of each other,” according to the NLRB charge—the job offers violated its agreement with management. “From the beginning, the company held up the NEOMG jobs as alleviating the pain, not adding to it,” said Wendy McManamon, Guild chairwoman and a Plain Dealer copy editor, wrote in an email to CJR.

According to Rollie Dreussi, the Guild’s executive secretary, management’s counter-argument is that because the PD and NEOMG are in fact two companies, the offers were perfectly fair—it’s no different than if the reporters had taken job offers at The New York Times. No stipulations require management to replace PD staffers who retire or leave the paper for new jobs.

CJR made email and phone requests for comment from 10 Plain Dealer and NEOMG management executives, as well as the two law firms listed as representing the Plain Dealer Publishing Co. and Northeast Ohio Media Group, LLC, in the NLRB complaint. The only response came from Chris Quinn, NEOMG’s vice president for content. He wrote this, in full:

Your magazine and web site have demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to report accurately and without overwhelming bias on our efforts to forge a successful business model for journalism in a rapidly evolving digital environment.

I do not trust you to start reporting responsibly now, so I respectfully decline.

The Guild’s NLRB charge also seeks to force management to turn over a wide range of documents related to the creation of NEOMG and the organizational and financial relationship between the digital company, The Plain Dealer, and Cleveland.com—essentially, an “open your books” demand to Advance, a private company with a reputation for being closely held.

According to Dreussi, the union first sought the information in September when it formally requested a grievance meeting. Management has since turned over some but not all of the information the union is seeking, he said. Meanwhile, both sides are moving now toward selecting an arbitrator for the grievance.

In the course of reporting this story, I reached out to several NEOMG reporters—some who moved over from the PD and some new NEOMG hires—about why they took jobs with the new company. Many either did not respond or declined to answer questions. Those who did communicate with me mostly did not want to be named or quoted. One response I did get without those stipulations came from columnist Mark Naymik, who wrote: “I’m not interested in participating in the discussion. I’m too focused on producing the best work I can for the Northeast Ohio Media Group.”

‘A difficult and challenging work environment’ for some

The dispute with the union is playing out as Advance management in Cleveland embarks on a series of initiatives that seem designed to deliberately disrupt newsroom culture—changes that sometimes reflect the direction of the rest of the newspaper industry, and in others chart a path that peer publications have begun to move away from.

Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.