OHIO — The frenzy of presidential candidates and entourages overrunning the Buckeye State is history, but questions about how Ohio’s largest newspaper will cover future political campaigns loom large.
Managers of The Plain Dealer of Cleveland—the 19th largest newspaper in the nation and the place I spent 17 years covering Ohio politics and government—are primed to make a major announcement at the beginning of next year. Many believe that the pronouncement will make Cleveland the largest city in the country without a daily print newspaper. That will certainly change how politics is covered. And, as I and others at CJR have noted many times over this past election year, the PD’s political coverage stands out in this state.
The PD’s owner, Advance Publications Inc., of New Jersey, has already replaced daily delivery with digital platforms in several US cities, including the renowned Times-Picayune in New Orleans, where newsroom staff was reduced earlier this year from 173 people to 89. Recently, Advance announced a new focus on digital for daily newspapers in Syracuse, NY and Harrisburg, PA. The company, owned by the descendants of the Newhouse publishing empire, has already made changes at publications in Michigan and Alabama.
In other words, recent history does not bode well. Here is what CJR’s Ryan Chittum wrote in June about changes at the Times-Picayune:
The problem is that rather than using the new-found cash flow created by reducing operating costs to support its news operations, Advance is gutting its newsroom, getting its community off the habit of a daily paper, and moving to what looks for all the world like a hamster-wheel model online. It’s liquidating the newspaper, as Jack Shafer recently wrote. Contrast the Newhouses’ actions to those of Warren Buffett, who has been snapping up papers and promising to maintain news staffs and daily publishing—to invest in them. Buffett’s businesses will be healthier longer than the Newhouses’.
For now, the PD’s newsroom staff can only speculate about what lies ahead, but fear mixed with uncertainty and frustration are predominant sentiments. Many also believe that reducing print editions in favor of digital, which has led to layoffs elsewhere, will seriously impact overall news coverage. A component of the newspaper union’s contract barring layoffs expires in January.
Harlan Spector, president of the PD’s Newspaper Guild Local One, told me that the digital-platform model Advance has been promoting is “all about volume and is click-driven.” The news becomes a constant stream of bits and pieces designed to attract viewers, he said.
“What happens under that model is that the stories that get the most clicks are sex, crime and sports,” Spector said. “That’s a real shift of emphasis where housing and education and other things fall. And then you cut staff and lose coverage and than what? You have to wonder how much serious journalism will get done.”
Stephen Koff, the PD’s Washington DC bureau chief, in an email and interview said he is well aware of the changes, including staff reductions, at Advance’s other publications, but is “cautiously optimistic.” He also understands the natural evolution of Web-based news and reading habits. Nonetheless, drastic reductions in reporting staff would hurt political coverage, he said.
“I don’t think anyone at the state or national level winds up saying that if the PD is not delivered every day of the week (but is online), its political report is diminished—as long as its reporting staff is maintained,” Koff said. “A drop in personnel would be another matter. If you don’t have as many people and as many well-qualified people, you can’t cover public affairs as effectively.”
Spector and other reporters have said that management warned them months ago that layoffs could be coming, and that it might be a good time to consider their future.
Some newsroom folks have left and others are mulling over their options, Spector said. Meanwhile, remaining staff is not sitting idly waiting for the hammer to fall. As reported by the PD’s Robert L. Smith, the Newspaper Guild, representing about 170 writers, photographers, designers and other staff, has launched a “Save The Plain Dealer” campaign.