DETROIT, MI — Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs was one of the last hires of the Cleveland Plain Dealer during its hiring spree in the early 1990s. She had been recruited from the Dayton Daily News, and she arrived in Cleveland to cover suburban communities. She later became a metro columnist and then a minority affairs/general assignment reporter. Looking for a sabbatical from journalism, Scruggs voluntarily left the paper in 2001 to spend time teaching and training in design and online technology. But when she wanted to return a few years later, Scruggs found that there was no longer any room at the paper.
The Advance-owned Plain Dealer was then at the beginning of cutbacks and reorganization that most recently included its announcement that it will cut home delivery to three days a week, while continuing to print daily editions, and create a new digital company. Layoffs will be coming later in the year. At CJR, we’ve been watching closely how Advance has managed other strong regional publications, including the New Orleans Times-Picayune—see Ryan Chittum’s critical take for CJR here. I’ve written before about how the Plain Dealer has reported good political stories, even with a diminished reporting team. CJR’s Dean Starkman recently evaluated Advance’s plans for the Plain Dealer, and remains unimpressed.
Scruggs has become an independent journalist in Cleveland, writing, for example, columns for True/Slant about serial murders in the city, a piece on the importance of journalism education for Poynter, and a broadcast commentary for American Public Media’s “Marketplace” about family members as property. When she wrote a feature in 2007 for Cleveland Magazine, a voice mail came to the editors, thanking them for including her: “I thought she was one of the finest writers that the Plain Dealer had, and I’m glad to see her in the magazine.”
Scruggs has also taken a special interest in reporting on her former employer. She’s observed Advance’s impact on papers like The Ann Arbor News, which discontinued its 174-year run in 2009 and became AnnArbor.com. (“I actually applied for a job at that site,” Scruggs told me.) As the Times-Picayune story unfolded, Scruggs saw the hook to create PD Now What?, a blog dedicated to “covering the transformation of Cleveland’s major newspaper.” In her blog’s “About” section, she writes:
I see the newspaper differently now that I’m outside it. I’ve watched it diminish as pages counts dropped, and employees were bought out or laid off. Content has shifted to a web site that’s more perplexing than informative.
Yet the [Plain Dealer] is still the big dog. Here’s an example of its clout. For several years I volunteered with a high school journalism program. On opening day, the participants introduce themselves and share their career goals. Almost to a student, they wanted to work for the Plain Dealer.
The Plain Dealer isn’t what it was, that’s for sure. Not that it was perfect; the paper hasn’t covered poverty or minority affairs well at all. Still, the Plain Dealer is too big to ignore because it sets the news agenda for the region. Its future isn’t clear.
Scruggs embraces digital media and is sympathetic to the Advance’s dilemma as it faces communities that are increasingly adopting mobile technologies. “I’m not invested in the idea of a ‘newspaper’, per se,” she said. And in trying to keep her coverage balance, she declined an invitation to post on her blog the petition from the Save the Plain Dealer campaign, a staff-led drive that is pushing back against Advance’s plans.
Nonetheless, Scruggs said that the way Advance is carrying out the Plain Dealer’s transformation is “quite unsatisfactory.” I spoke with Scruggs about the Plain Dealer’s future and how it impacts Cleveland’s African American community in particular. What follows is an edited version of our phone conversation.
Why is the Plain Dealer important?
The Plain Dealer drives the news agenda of the area. It really does. I know people talk about Facebook and social media. But what I see is people posting newspaper stories—sharing them, liking them, commenting on them. But ain’t nobody pulling the public records on a story, okay? Let’s be real.
When I was a columnist, I used to get up in the morning and watch CNN and listen to the news radio on the way to work, and then realize I’d seen the same story four times. There are all these outlets, but they’re just that—just “outlets.” They’re not pulling from different sources. I think it’s worse now. If there is a story in The New York Times about the area, they probably picked it up from the Plain Dealer. It used to be that at public radio—WCPN, WKSU—they had stronger news teams and were real competitors [with the Plain Dealer]. But even from them, we’re not seeing the same level of reporting.