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P(l)ain Dealing

On March 9, 2009, Douglas A. McIntyre, writing in an article about the ten most endangered newspapers in the United States, predicted that the Cleveland Plain Dealer would be shut down or go digital by the end of the next year. Although written for 24/7 Wall Street, Time Magazine posted the article on its website, linked to a Time cover article on how to save newspapers. The Plain Dealer‘s publisher called the reports of the paper’s imminent demise “baseless,” and the paper is, indeed, still publishing and printing a daily newspaper, as of Dec. 7, 2012. Unfortunately, several sources are reporting that there may soon be a switch to having a printed version of the newspaper as few as three days a week, along with a renewed focus on the digital version of the paper.  Advance Publications already made similar changes in other cities, such as New Orleans, Birmingham, and Harrisburg. In 2009, the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News became the first papers in a major U.S. city to limit home delivery to three days per week. Paper, ink, and fuel costs were starting to cut in to money for journalists. Although 37% of readers lacked broadband access to best access the daily electronic version of the papers, it still was not cost effective to pay for the fuel and vehicles that covered 300,000 miles each night. Some papers, such as the Rocky Mountain News, shuttered print operations completely.

While politicians have argued that the Newhouse family, which owns Advance Publications, should sell the Plain Dealer if it is not willing to publish a daily print edition, that scenario is unlikely. According to Vince Grzegorek (Can the Plain Dealer be Saved…), the response of the Newhouse family and its local leadership to concerns about the future of the paper has been:  “… rapid changes are occurring in the way people can and want to receive news and information, not only in Cleveland, but globally.”

When his company purchased 63 newspapers from Media General (a newspaper publisher competing with Newhouse/Advance) for $142 million last summer, Warren Buffet said that publishing a newspaper, especially one covering a local community, only three days a week seemed “simply unsustainable in the long run.” Even Berkshire Hathaway, however, could not save one of the papers– the Manassas News and Messenger was shuttered in November, resulting in 33 lost jobs.

In June, 2009, approximately 500 Plain Dealer union employees agreed to pay cuts and furloughs to keep seven-day delivery viable, as the recession and other factors negatively impacted advertising revenue. In return, the Union received a no layoff/concession agreement that was valid until Jan. 31, 2013. The Newspaper Guild in Cleveland is now faced with the Hobson’s choice of extending the agreement through 2019, while losing fifty-eight jobs in 2013, instead of possibly losing eighty or more jobs. The Newspaper Guild argues that either scenario – reducing the number of journalists by 1/3 or 1/2 — will have a negative impact on the community. As reported by Newsnet5.com, the tentative agreement gives assistance to the nearly sixty employees who will be laid off, while restoring pay cuts (8% of the previous 12% cut), improving health benefits, and enhancing job security through 2019 for the 100 remaining Newspaper Guild employees. While some laid-off employees may be hired for new positions at Cleveland.com, the agreement specifically allows the company to hire non-Guild members for such positions. It also allows the web content to be used in the print version of the paper. It does not address how often the print version of the paper will be published.

Proponents of keeping the Plain Dealer as a daily newspaper have launched the requisite petition and Facebook page. While acknowledging the vested interested in keeping their jobs at the paper, supporters of the daily paper point out that everyone does not have internet; all news stories cannot be suitably covered in blog and tweets; and cutting experienced staff may impact the paper’s ability to deliver quality news stories, reflecting high journalistic standards. Another option for print subscribers who do not have internet access at all might be same-day delivery via the U.S. mail, if the traditional paper is still published and printed, while home delivery is curtailed or eliminated.

While the Washington Post is joining other major newspapers in instituting a paywall, it is not clear whether local papers, such as the Plain Dealer, can successfully add paywalls to their websites. One “blogmeister” claims that the Cleveland.com is not very user-friendly to navigate, and that the Plain Dealer may not even have complete control over the website, further impeding its ability to focus on its digital content.

Unfortunately, the loss of jobs among journalists will be accompanied by the loss of revenue for independent newspaper carriers in the future, if seven-day delivery is not maintained. Nonetheless, how the future of print and digital news publication unfolds will be interesting.

Rebecca Theim recounts eight things for Plain Dealer staff to expect, based on the Times-Picayune transition, during which the company reduced its newsroom approximately 50% and its total workforce 30%.

Local 1 of the Newspaper Guild voted to accept the agreement on Dec. 11, 2012.

While answering a question at the New York Times Dealbook conference on Dec. 12, 2012, Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the internet browser Netscapesaid that the New York Times should shut down its print edition “as soon as possible.” “It’s not that you can’t make money in print newspapers… It’s not that there aren’t people who love them.” Dealing with transformative technology requires going “on 100% offense.”

Dec. 13, 2012:  The Plain Dealer will hold three meetings with community leaders (closed to the media) next week to discuss the future of the newspaper.

Dec. 10, 2012: Orange County Register is expanding its newsroom and focusing on its print edition.

Dec. 20, 2012: WKYC’s interview with the Plain Dealer publisher

 

 

 

 

 

One single comment

  1. Andrew Plumb-Larrick says:

    This essay just appeared on the website of the New Republic, using the issues at the Plain Dealer as the takeoff point for the argument about the lost accountability function of local/regional newspapers. http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/110952/if-tree-falls-in-ohio