Grief and grievances at The Plain Dealer

Advance's paper in Cleveland is embroiled in a labor dispute as it charts a new digital path

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.

A new emphasis on open offices and “backpack journalism” has brought a patina of digital startup to a 172-year-old newspaper. But the very existence of separate digital and print newsrooms—whether or not they are officially part of the same company—smacks of early-2000s digital strategy; The Washington Post, which famously had two newsrooms separated by the Potomac River, integrated them in 2009. (Some veteran employees in Cleveland see the divide as purely a way to break the union, though it’s worth noting Advance has followed a similar approach in markets where its newsrooms are not unionized.)

And while virtually every large newspaper is moving toward more iterative reporting, more social media, and increased attention to web metrics, Plain Dealer management seems to be emphasizing productivity and pageviews—and encouraging a newsroom environment focused on those things—more aggressively than, say, The Detroit News or Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Productivity and pageviews are indeed up. In a Feb. 6 email to the newsroom obtained by CJR, Plain Dealer editor Debra Adams Simmons applauded recent online coverage of a winter storm and United Airlines’ decision to drop Cleveland as a hub. “We had more than 30 United Airlines posts on Monday which generated a significant amount of traffic and helped readers understand the impact of the news,” she wrote. (NEOMG reporters were part of the United Airlines coverage.) And in January, Simmons wrote, “we set an all-time record of 46,919,556 page views”—topping prior records set during the months of the Ariel Castro kidnapping and LeBron James’ announcement that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The goal for March is a new record: 51 million pageviews. To that end, Simmons wrote:

Beginning Monday, Parse.ly data will be available for anyone in Advance to review. We will be able to look at everyone’s traffic and everyone will be able to look at ours. Everyone at The Plain Dealer who provides content should plan to post and engage multiple times each day. Your posts do not need to be fully-reported traditional newspaper stories. Alternative story forms and iterative reporting can help us meet our goals. So can live blogging at events and meetings we are covering. This will be a difficult and challenging work environment for those who are not posting or are not posting and engaging nearly enough.

Simmons added there will be training sessions on topics like photo galleries, search engine optimization, and social media, and she thanked reporters “for your commitment to journalism, for your diligence during this transition and for your flexibility as our business model shifts.”

Advance’s business model, notably, depends on growing digital revenue in a time of falling online ad rates without instituting paywalls, which newspapers elsewhere have increasingly embraced in one form or another.

Among Plain Dealer reporters I’ve spoken to over the past month, the response to these changes ranges from outright hostility to ambivalence and a cautious focus on the future. Some shared familiar complaints about the format and usability of Cleveland.com, which resembles other Advance sites; acknowledged doing less legwork on certain stories in the face of added time and stats pressure; and worried about the quality of the overall editorial product. Others expressed some excitement about having a reporting role of increased influence (in the wake of fewer staffers), acknowledged the importance of digital growth, and appreciated how newsroom restructuring made it possible to work from home most days.

Sabrina Eaton, a Plain Dealer reporter based in Washington, DC, pointed out that staffers “who didn’t want to try the new system were free to seek buyouts when the paper significantly trimmed its staff last year. Many did so. Those who remain are doing good journalism the way the company wants it done.”

And no doubt, the publication continues to produce some excellent journalism, some of which is the precise opposite of click-bait—like this fascinating Feb. 6 story by DC bureau chief Steve Koff, which devotes more than 2,000 words to unpacking the legal and political significance of an unrelated NLRB dispute at a Cleveland TV station.

Under any editorial approach, the remaining journalists have their work cut out for them. Even at 110 employees, the Plain Dealer newsroom was about two-thirds of its pre-layoff size. More than 2 million people live in Greater Cleveland, and while the region is home to solid alternative outlets—Belt, Cleveland Magazine, Cleveland Scene—there’s no match for the best work the paper has produced.

“I think everyone’s experiences have been impacted by the changes,” said Rachel Dissell, a PD reporter who was part of the Guild’s collective bargaining team. “We have fewer reporters and far more work to do. We are trying to figure out, like many media outlets, how to balance digital demands, watchdog reporting, and enterprise.”

“It is difficult sometimes for readers and community leaders to understand why there are two different companies and communication between reporters and editors at the two companies can still be awkward,” Dissell added. “What I hear from most people in the community, though, is that they still want what we had been providing in print. They want watchdog reporting, thoughtful analysis, and for us to cover issues other media in town can’t.”

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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. Tags: , , , ,