Sometime early in the new year, an announcement will be made that The Plain Dealer is cutting its print edition to three days a week. Along with that change, there will be layoffs and a restructuring of the paper under a new digital umbrella.
Despite an impassioned campaign launched by newsroom staffers, there is simply no evidence or reason to believe that any other possible fate awaits Cleveland's 170-year old daily newspaper.
Advance Publications, the PD's parent company, has already slashed or announced plans to slash print production to a thrice-weekly schedule at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Post-Standard in Syracuse, three papers in Alabama, and the Ann Arbor News in Michigan, which went online-only in 2009.
Advance has done so with zero regard for nostalgia or tradition, and little public comment aside from vague declarations of a continued commitment to quality journalism through a refocused "digital-first" format.
In an open letter to readers on page one of the Sunday, Nov. 18 Plain Dealer, Publisher Terry Egger and Editor Debra Simmons admitted that changes were coming and acknowledged Advance's resumé of downsizing. It was an unusual and unprecedented public statement from the top two at the paper, prompted in part by the Save the Plain Dealer campaign, which was trying to proactively spread word of the looming danger.
"While Advance has been developing and refining this effort for several years, it is the role of our leadership team in Cleveland to design the best model to safeguard the future of our enterprise and to preserve the quality of our journalism at The Plain Dealer," Egger and Simmons wrote. "We do not have a specific plan, timeline or structure for Cleveland. But we will — very soon."
Which is bullshit. The Newhouse family, which runs Advance Publications, knows very well what the plan and timeline is for The Plain Dealer. It's the same plan rolled out in all the cities mentioned above. And when it's done here, Cleveland will be the largest city in America without a daily newspaper.
When Advance Publications abruptly announced plans in May to reduce print publication to three days a week and cut staff at the storied Times-Picayune in New Orleans, anyone working at an Advance property had cause to worry. This was no soft-launch toe-dip into experimental pools of news ink. This was color-by-number; it was just a question of what page your paper fell on in the coloring book.
Advance, which has ownedThe Plain Dealer since 1967, tallies over 25 dailies in its portfolio. Its properties include the Condé Nast magazine empire, Reddit.com, the American Business Journals, and Advance Internet, which runs the affiliated local websites for the daily papers. In 2009, Forbes ranked Advance the 48th largest private company in the country. The Newhouse family, of S.I. Newhouse newspaper magnate fame, runs the show from New York and New Jersey.
After the announcement about the Times-Picayune, PD Managing Editor Thom Fladung made the rounds of the newsroom to spread the party line and ease tensions. The message from the top was that the PD would not be cutting its publication days, and business would continue as usual. Sources say that staffers assumed there was an unspoken ellipses hanging off his assurances: ...for now.
Then Egger announced in September that he would retire on Jan. 1, a move in keeping with how changes have gone down at other Advance papers. Fladung and Simmons held an all-newsroom meeting that day, where questions quickly shifted from Egger to the paper's future. According to people who were at the meeting, Fladung said (paraphrasing): "Change is coming. That's clear by what the company has been doing."
Simmons added: "If you need to make decisions based on the fact that change is coming, do so."
Which echoed what most staffers were thinking about Egger's departure, according to one PD employee: "We're assuming it's just so he doesn't have blood on his hands."
Some took Simmons' advice to get while the getting was good. The paper lost a number of talented writers in 2012, including sports feature writer Bill Lubinger and pop music critic John Soeder. Newsroom sources say others had offers outside of the journalism field, but opted to stay after management came back with a rare thing these days: an offer of a raise.
Soeder was one of the few former PD staffers who would speak on the record.
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