DETROIT, MI — Ever since owner Advance Publications notified staff at the Cleveland Plain Dealer of looming layoffs late last year, questions have swirled about the future of the venerable Ohio newspaper—its staffing levels, its distribution, its format, and its relation to the community it covers.
Today, some answers started to arrive in a press release posted under a banner headline at Cleveland.com. The basics: the print edition will continue to be published seven days a week, but home delivery will be reduced to three days a week, including Sundays. “Staffing decisions”—i.e., layoffs—which had been anticipated as soon as May 1, are now on hold until the summer. And, in a move that echoes Advance’s strategy in New Orleans, a “new, digitally focused company” called Northeast Ohio Media Group will be created.
According to the press release, Andrea Hogben, currently senior vice president of sales and marketing at The Plain Dealer, will serve as president of the new entity, which “will be responsible for all ad sales and marketing for The Plain Dealer and oversee the operation of Cleveland.com and Sun News.” (Sun is a weekly community paper serving the Cleveland area.) The release adds, “The Northeast Ohio Media Group and The Plain Dealer Publishing Company will provide content for all print and digital platforms.”
At the same time:
The Plain Dealer Publishing Company, which will continue to publish The Plain Dealer, will be led by Virginia Wang as General Manager. Wang, who is currently Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of The Plain Dealer, will oversee production, distribution, finance, information technology, accounting and other support services provided to The Plain Dealer Publishing Company and Northeast Ohio Media Group.
Plain Dealer Publisher Terry Egger met with the newsroom this morning to inform the staff about the changes, and encountered a lot of questions about how coverage will be coordinated between The Plain Dealer and the new company. According to a Plain Dealer staff member, Egger told reporters and editors that he hopes to avoid coverage overlap between the groups, but with details yet to be shared on the leadership of the media group (aside from Hogben’s appointment), it isn’t yet clear how this balance will be struck.
“Editors pretty much acknowledge that waiting for approval to still print seven days has slowed the planning. Egger said that now that is set, they will work out other details,” I was told by the staff member.
The employee added that the reaction in the newsroom this morning was mixed. Many were quite happy about what seemed to be mostly good news about the future of the paper—and their future with it. Others had mentally prepared for layoffs on May 1, and were prepared to take the summer off. Still, a couple more months of being on edge means that “a few are pissed off,” I was told.
Similarly, Plain Dealer science writer John Mangels told Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon the news was “better than what we had expected.” And the Save the Plain Dealer campaign called the news “bittersweet” in a Facebook posting, adding:
We also are saddened that the company intends to go forward with plans to let go more than one-third of The Plain Dealer’s newsroom staff. That will happen sometime later this summer, we learned today, rather than on May 1, which originally was the target date. Losing dozens of experienced, talented journalists inevitably will reduce the news coverage that Greater Clevelanders rely on.
The Plain Dealer’s is reportedly the only unionized newsroom in Advance’s portfolio. Ownership and the Newspaper Guild agreed to a new contract in December that included an 8% pay increase. The hike, to go into effect on May 1, is not so much a raise as a restoration of salaries to levels where they had been before a temporary cut imposed a few years ago. Guild members agreed to the pay cut in exchange for a temporary no-layoff pledge.
I’ve written before about how staffing changes and questions about The Plain Dealer’s future have put pressure on the paper’s talented political reporting team. And CJR’s Ryan Chittum has written critically about Advance’s overhaul of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. Those developments raise questions about the paper’s institutions ability to tackle challenge stories and deliver hard-hitting news in the years ahead. Today’s news offered some information—but we don’t yet have answers to those questions.