Editor’s note: The photo that appeared above this post has been removed at the request of the photographer. References to the photo in the story have been edited for clarity.
DETROIT, MI — As a major reorganization of the Cleveland Plain Dealer takes shape, veteran reporters are adjusting to “backpack journalism,” the division of staff into two companies, a looming move to a new office, and demands to post stories more quickly.
At the same time, they are memorializing their old newsroom in striking images that are circulating on social media and in email chains. One such photo was sent to CJR by a former Plain Dealer employee with the subject line, “This used to be a newsroom.”
Over the past year, the Cleveland paper has followed much the same plan that owner Advance Publications carved out in New Orleans and elsewhere: it reduced print delivery, shed staff through layoffs and buyouts, and saw the creation of a new, non-unionized digital company under the same corporate umbrella. The Plain Dealer Publishing Co. and the new company, Northeast Ohio Media Group, are separate entities, but both contribute material to the free website Cleveland.com and to the print newspaper, which saw its newsstand price rise to $1 this week.
The changes aren’t just to the org chart. Amid an overhaul of the editorial workspace, the paper’s “newsroom culture is gone,” one Plain Dealer reporter told me. (He, like the other current Plain Dealer staffers in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity.)
The old Plain Dealer newsroom, at 1801 Superior Ave., is in a building constructed in 1999, during what we can now see as the beginning of the end of an era. A press release at the time said the building would “house about 1,000 employees” across the news and business divisions. A second longtime Plain Dealer reporter described it as “overbuilt” even when it was new; for the last few years, the company leased one floor to a software firm, she said.
After the most recent wave of layoffs, the second reporter said, the staff was so depleted—The Plain Dealer now reportedly has about 95 editorial and production employees—that “it was deemed not worth it to keep us there in the main newsroom.” Most of the paper’s reporters and editors will soon relocate to the Skylight Office Tower at Tower City Center, a shopping mall/office/transit complex in downtown Cleveland, where they will occupy space above Cleveland’s Hard Rock Café. Meanwhile, the “Pub Hub,” a group of about 30 to 40 designers, editors, and print production staff, will move to the company’s printing and distribution plant in the Cleveland suburbs. And Northeast Ohio Media Group—which has hired new staff in recent months and still has several job openings—will move its employees into renovated space at the Superior Avenue building. (They are currently based in office space in The Flats, a neighborhood along the Cuyahoga River.) The moves are expected to be completed around March.
When the changes were announced on Cleveland.com in November, Andrea Hogben, president of NEOMG, said, “the newly renovated space is designed to showcase our digital capabilities and promote a culture of innovation and creativity.” An “open office” will feature “a variety of collaboration areas” for media group employees, the announcement said.
In the same item, Virginia Wang, general manager of The Plain Dealer Publishing Co., added that the newspaper’s move to Tower City “allows our reporters to continue being the voice of the community from a centrally located downtown facility.”
But a set of changes to newsroom practice during the transition period, veteran Plain Dealer journalists say, is actually encouraging them to work remotely and hindering collaboration.
(Seeking a management response to these concerns, I made several attempts by phone and email this week to reach Wang, Plain Dealer editor Debra Adams Simmons, and Plain Dealer managing editor Thomas Fladung, but at the time of publication have not received a reply. We will update this story if we hear from them. Here’s an account of Plain Dealer and NEOMG editors discussing the recent changes at a public event in September.)
Plain Dealer editorial staff are currently working out of extra space in the Superior Avenue building, organized in the cubicle-free “open office” concept that both companies will find in their refurbished newsrooms. In order to incentivize “backpack journalism”—and generate more multimedia content for Cleveland.com—reporters and editors were also given iPhones and laptops, along with actual backpacks, so they can work from home or cafes. “They are very much encouraging us to be mobile, to not claim particular places and not keep a lot of stuff there,” the first Plain Dealer reporter told me. “What they envision is like when you go into a cafeteria and just find a spot.”