DETROIT, MI — There will be many rich politics stories to follow in Ohio in 2013. But when the subject is the media that will be covering those political doings, there’s one story that stands out—and it’s about what will happen at The Plain Dealer, the venerable Cleveland newspaper whose campaign coverage was often admired by CJR last year.
Layoffs loom at the hand of Advance Publications, the paper’s owner, which has already made steep cuts at its other properties, including The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and The Post-Standard in Syracuse. While far-reaching changes in Cleveland have not yet been put in place, news emerged in December that Advance plans to eliminate 58 Newspaper Guild positions, reducing the unionized newsroom staff by more than one-third. Soon after, Guild members approved a new six-year contract that raises salaries by 8 percent and protects employees from further staff cuts through 2019. The Guild issued a blunt statement after the deal was struck:
The agreement allows the company over time to supplant journalism produced by Guild professionals with cheaper content from other entities. But it was necessary to provide our members the best financial package we could, given difficult circumstances at The Plain Dealer. The agreement gives our members options to make decisions for their families and about their own futures. It also prevents more jobs from being cut.
The prior contract expired on Jan. 31, which means that news about layoffs may be imminent. (For updates and informed commentary on changes inside the paper, follow the Save the Plain Dealer Facebook page and PD Now What?, a blog started by a former Plain Dealer reporter.) But it’s not just layoffs affecting the paper—it’s resignations. Several longtime staffers chose to leave after the new contract was signed, including book editor Karen Long and features editor Debbie Van Tassel. As the Save the Plain Dealer campaign explained it in a Jan. 2 Facebook update: “An unfortunate consequence of the state of affairs at The Plain Dealer is talented journalists are fleeing.”
The statehouse bureau in Columbus has been particularly hard hit. A Jan. 17 roundup post by the conservative watchdog site Media Trackers Ohio noted that capitol reporters Joe Guillen and Aaron Marshall departed in January, and Columbus bureau chief Reggie Fields had resigned a month earlier. (Save the Plain Dealer: “That makes three journalists who have resigned from the Columbus bureau since late November. While the newspaper has identified two in-house replacements, the institutional knowledge is gone. And those in-house replacements net two fewer journalists in Cleveland.”)
Few people at Ohio’s biggest newspaper are prepared to talk on the record about how the editorial strategy has shifted so that important political coverage isn’t lost amidst the reshuffling. But from reading the paper online, it seems a great deal of the burden is falling on the “in-house replacements”: Robert Higgs, the new Columbus bureau chief (he’s also the editor of PolitiFact Ohio), and relative newcomer Brandon Blackwell, a statehouse reporter who joined The Plain Dealer last May for a paid internship. After staying on as a general assignment reporter, Blackwell was asked less than a month ago to cover the statehouse. “They wanted me there as quickly as possible,” he told me.
Beat reporters are also being called up to fill the gaps. I heard from one staffer that Metro reporters are being sent to Columbus on two-week rotations at an extended-stay hotel to supplement the understaffed bureau’s political coverage.
With such stretched resources, how did The Plain Dealer navigate this week’s big news cycle in Ohio, highlighted by Gov. John Kasich’s budget speech on Monday?
Kasich expressed support in his speech for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and proposed changes to the state’s tax code over the next three years. The Plain Dealer told the story in its tradition of coverage oriented toward public interest, with a “news you can use” flavor. Kasich’s wonky budget plan got transformed into reader-centric stories, like Higgs’s quick-turnaround piece “Answers to some of your questions on John Kasich’s budget plan” and one of his short follow-up items, “Ohio sales tax changes: What Gov. John Kasich’s budget proposal means to you“—a quick post that in turn grew into a full-fledged article. This straightforward tack on budget coverage shows that, amid editorial flux, the paper still keeps readers first.
Plain Dealer reporters also did a good job of staying with the budget, which has yet to move through the Ohio legislature, rather than leaving it behind and turning instead to Kasich’s forthcoming state of the union address. In another follow-up by the tireless Higgs, he reported on a new website created by Ohio Republicans to defend Kasich’s plan. It’s a solid piece, supported by numerous interviews, that makes an important catch: in several places, the site misleads (or is downright wrong) about the allegedly “job-killing” votes made by Democratic legislators.
Meanwhile, Rex Santas—not a staffer, but a Kent State University journalism student and a fellow at Ohio University’s statehouse news bureau—wrote an article (with contributions from a staff reporter) on a part of Kasich’s plan that would turn over control of Lakefront State Park to Cleveland. Blackwell took up an interesting story on how Kasich’s proposal is reverberating in the insider politics of Columbus, written with help from reporter Henry J. Gomez, a key contributor to the paper’s election coverage last year.
And Patrick O’Donnell, an education journalist reporting from Columbus ahead of the budget speech, wrote a substantial story, with contributions from reporter Edith Starzyk, that focused on how Kasich’s numbers will overhaul Ohio’s school funding. The piece was nicely supplemented with a graph comparing the property values in nearly 100 school districts, and a breakout of bullet points with highlights from Kasich’s two-year school proposal.
This is all admirable work, especially as its done on unsteady ground. But tight resources are evident in how many bylines are coming from just a handful of people, often in collaborations, and not necessarily staffers. Meanwhile, The Columbus Dispatch is picking up important stories on how Kasich hasn’t seen the numbers for his own school funding plan—numbers that show how 368 of 612 school districts will get zero additional funding for the next two years, including public schools in Cleveland.
In an interview Friday, Blackwell acknowledged the loss of institutional knowledge in The Plain Dealer’s statehouse coverage, while emphasizing that the paper takes political reporting seriously. The paper is, he said, “making every effort to make sure that it continues that important coverage, in spite of these changes, and is still a force to be reckoned with.”
And while Blackwell is still getting to know the beat, he said his inexperience can in some ways be an asset: “Because I’m brand-new to it, and I have to explain (statehouse politics) to others who are brand new to it, in plain language. I’ll teach as I learn.”
That’s an approach that sounds consistent with an emphasis on ordinary readers over insiders. But how this learning, and editorial rearranging, will play out for the paper’s long-term reporting, and the citizens who depend on it, is yet to be seen. The Plain Dealer’s transformation, or even its survival, is pivotal for those with a stake in Ohio politics—and, given the look of the nation’s electoral map, that includes not just locals, but all of us. We’ll be keeping an eye on how this story unfolds.