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Can The Plain Dealer Be Saved? 

In short, no. Cleveland will soon be left without a daily newspaper

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.

"My decision to leave The Plain Dealer after 14 wonderful years there as the pop music critic was a difficult one," he says. "However, in light of the uncertainty surrounding the newspaper business, not just in Cleveland, but everywhere, it felt like the right time to move on."

Advance's previous hatchet jobs drew community outcry not just because cutbacks were made at beloved civic institutions, but because it was an outsider swooping in to ravage a local product. As the Cleveland drama has played out, Advance has been very careful to say that a local leadership team will be making decisions. But who exactly is on that team?

"I really don't know," says PD science reporter and Save the Plain Dealer committee member John Mangels. "I presume it's part Terry [Egger] and Debra [Simmons], but we don't know that. We really wish whoever it is would get in contact with us, because we have a pretty good channel to a large number of people who are customers, and who say quite clearly what they want and don't want, and are even saying they would pay more for the paper."

Reached via e-mail, Advance Chairman Steve Newhouse said, "I have nothing more to say on the subject. The leadership team in Cleveland is working to develop a localized approach that will allow The Plain Dealer to continue to fulfill its commitment to quality journalism in an increasingly digital world. I suggest you direct questions to them."

When pressed to comment on the Save the Plain Dealer campaign, Newhouse followed up with, "Any comment must come from our local leadership."

Simmons and Fladung did not respond to requests for comment from Scene, but Egger, presumably part of the "leadership team in Cleveland," did. Sort of. His response suggests that no such team really exists, at least in a decision-making capacity.

"As you know rapid changes are occurring in the way people can and want to receive news and information, not only in Cleveland but globally," Egger said in the beginning of an e-mail. That sentence, with only a minor change in punctuation, is identical to an e-mail Steve Newhouse sent to Dan Yurman, a blogger for Cleveland Digital Publishing Users Group.

Egger did not respond to a follow-up e-mail asking whether Steve Newhouse wrote the e-mail for him directly, or if perhaps there's a PR guidebook to draw from, plug-and-play style. But employees have no misconceptions about where direction is coming from.

"They're not saying, 'What should our model be?'" says reporter Rachel Dissell, also a Save the Plain Dealer committee member. "They're just hashing out the details. I think all the decisions are being made [at Advance headquarters] in New Jersey."

That would be the same place that wanted a black and yellow color scheme for the recent Cleveland.com redesign, until someone informed them those are Steelers colors.

Local leadership, indeed.

***

The demise of The Plain Dealer is part of a sea change in the newspaper industry, which has been plagued by declining revenues as more and more readers get their news online, where ad revenue has yet to even come close to matching the tidy sum netted by print ads. Adjusted for inflation, newspaper ad revenue for 2012 is back to where it was in 1950, according to data compiled by the Newspaper Association of America. Revenue has dropped for 25 straight quarters, according to the NAA, and fell 6.4 percent last year alone.

Advance's audacious plan in the face of those problems is basically to forego short-term revenue from print advertising, focusing on the digital platform and waiting for online advertising to make up the difference.

"I have no idea if they have enough cash to see if they're right," says Andrew Beaujon, a media reporter for the Poynter Institute. "The thing that's interesting is that print still delivers between 70-80 percent of print organizations' profits. So if Advance can do without what it would be getting from the print product on those four days while they wait for digital ads to catch up, then maybe they're right. But I think there's a really good chance they're betting the farm on a theory."

One of the reasons Advance can do this, and rebuff almost every inquiry and objection, is because it's a private company — no shareholders to report to, no public information required.

"They enjoy a flexibility that other news organizations would like to have," says Beaujon. "They've said they're going to leave decisions to the individual markets, but these rollouts happen in exactly the same way. And I think Advance has shown itself to be pretty resistant to attempts to change its mind."

***

Nevertheless, the Save the Plain Dealer campaign is trying to do just that. And the situation here is unique in at least one respect: The other papers were blindsided by the announcements. When news of the cuts in New Orleans broke in May, the PD staff decided to get proactive and try to rally community support before Advance made similar changes in Cleveland.

"It became real clear to me there'd be an impact here when New Orleans happened," says John Mangels. "We all talked about it in the newsroom and had the same concerns. It was a national strategy Advance was following. We needed to react in some way, and let the readers and residents know what was coming and give them a chance to shape the outcome."

The committee members included Mangels, Harlan Spector, Rachel Dissell, Evelyn Theiss, Wendy McManamon, Andrea Simakis, Tom Breckenridge, Ellen Jan Kleinerman, Diane Suchetka and Karen Long. Other reporters would publicly voice support along the way.

Launched with a full-page ad in the Sunday, Nov. 12 paper and media stories on NPR, WKYC, and other outlets, the committee's Don Quixote effort has also plastered the city with ads and produced a television commercial. Its Facebook page has over 3,900 likes; the petition at Change.org has over 5,900 signatures. "Hot in Cleveland" star Valerie Bertinelli lent her star power to the cause, and local leaders like Councilman Joe Cimperman have taken up the flag as well. Events have sprung up, like a Save the Plain Dealer party at Market Garden Brewery and Distillery this week, all aimed at getting Advance to respond to public pressure.

A similar effort arose in New Orleans after Advance's plans were announced there. "Save the Times-Picayune" was launched by dozens of local luminaries and community leaders, whose efforts included attempts to buy the paper. Possible ownership groups were brought to the table, including New Orleans Hornets and Saints owner Tom Benson, though no financial details were made public, and no one knew how serious their offers really were.

It really didn't matter. As Warren Buffett once quipped, the Newhouse family has never sold anything in their lives. Last year, Buffett spent $142 million to purchase 63 newspapers from Media General. In an open letter of explanation, he wrote, "It seems to me that three days a week is simply unsustainable over the longer term. Either a publication is a newspaper or a periodical, and I think three days a week crosses the line."

Meanwhile, the Save the Times-Picayune effort didn't work.

"You hope and wish that it's different in Cleveland," says Rebecca Theim, a spokesperson for Save the Times-Picyaune and founder of thirtyDashthiry.org, a nonprofit that raises funds for the casualties of Advance's cuts. "But history has shown that if the Newhouses have made up their mind, that's what's going to happen."

Still, Save the Plain Dealer committee members remain hopeful.

"I've asked myself what the chances are of this working," says Mangels. "But I know the answer is zero if we don't do anything."

Last week, Local 1 of the Newspaper Guild, the union that represents PD staffers, began negotiations with the paper's labor representatives. Guild Chairman Harlan Spector says management made it clear that layoffs would come after the current agreement ends Jan. 31, 2013. Assuming that the standard playbook is followed, a cut in print production will follow soon afterward.

Which days the print edition will survive, beyond Sunday, are up in the air. Some papers have gone to Wednesday and Friday, others Tuesday and Thursday. No one has offered any guesses yet on what the PD's new publishing schedule will look like. It's also unclear how the changes will affect Advance's other print property in Cleveland, the 11 Sun News papers.

Earlier this week, the Guild publicly announced that management intends to lay off approximately 58 newsroom positions at the PD, slashing the staff by a third. There are also plans to shave 20 more jobs over the next five years. Some staffers will be offered positions at Cleveland.com, though no one knows how many.

According to several sources, PD negotiators have promised that the layoffs will not come until after May 1, 2013, provided that an agreement in the current negotiations is reached. If there is no agreement, however, management says the layoffs will come sooner. Beaujon believes the final body count will fall below the 33 percent mark.

"They do their layoffs, and then they hire back, so only about 20 percent are let go," he says. "I think the biggest problem from the journalists' point of view, besides the obvious trauma, is that their content will only be on one of Advance's sites, and that's not a great prospect."

Advance's sites are notoriously poorly designed and borderline unnavigable. Prominent stories get buried, while updated stories, no matter how trivial, find their way to the top of the page. Archives are best reachable through Google searches.

But the quality of the content is what's most troubling to The Plain Dealer staff.

***

Camilla Terry, 20, was arrested recently for the murder of her three-year-old son, whose body was found in a garbage bag. Her story is long and complicated — Terry has a long history in the foster care system, which now has custody of her two remaining children —and Rachel Dissell has been covering the case.

When reached for comment on this story, Dissell had just picked up a 600-page file on Terry and attended a hearing. It's the sort of work she fears won't be possible under Advance's new structure.

"I think that the company can say, as they have time and time again, that they're committed to quality journalism," she says. "But as I look at the websites, I don't see big quality enterprise projects. And when I talk to reporters at those papers, they feel like they're being driven to produce more and more, told to post X times a day. Sure, they might give you a Mac and a tote bag and tell you to rove the city. But when the object is to post as much as you can online, what are you going to do? From what we're hearing and seeing, they're just taking online stories and reworking them for the paper three days a week. "

Guild President Specter has similar fears, as well as concerns about what stories reporters will be told to focus on.

"What happens under that model is that the stories that get the most clicks are sex, crime and sports," Spector told the Columbia Journalism Review. "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."

The Plain Dealer is by far the largest news operation in Cleveland. No matter where you get your news, there's a good chance that it originated with or was enhanced in some way by the paper's 170 writers, reporters, editors and photographers. Though it can be rightfully criticized for ignoring years of clues and arriving late to the party, the PD was ultimately a driving force behind uncovering corruption in Cuyahoga County and bringing about a new government. Those investigations took untold hours; some pieces that relied heavily on data analysis and public records requests took months.

For all its failings — and we point them out frequently — The Plain Dealer is still the primary watchdog of Northeast Ohio.

"It would not be a slight to our friends in TV and radio to say that a lot of what they do starts with what The Plain Dealer does," says Mangels. "Whatever happens to The Plain Dealer will diminish the quality and quantity of coverage. We are not perfect, and we are less of a paper than we were 10 years ago. But if that foundation goes away, if this core group of people goes away, you can't reassemble that. It's gone for good."

And it's hard to imagine their efforts being matched by a smaller staff, four fewer days of print, and an online product driven by clicks.

The Times-Picayune's move to three days a week was official on Oct. 1. So it's too early to measure what the impact there has been.

"There's a general feeling, when I talk to other reporters in the area, that things are up in the air," says Steve Myers, who covered Advance at Poynter and is now at The Lens, a New Orleans journalism nonprofit that provides content to area news organizations. "We try to do in-depth public-service journalism, the sort of thing that's really in jeopardy these days with private companies shifting to a web-first mentality, where it's high-churn content and a lot of blogging. There's a lot of uncertainty about who will get to a story. Overall, I think all news organizations are still figuring it out."

"You probably need a year to judge properly," says Beaujon. "It'll take that long to see if they're still serving the city in the same way."

The timetable on The Plain Dealer's current situation isn't nearly as long.

"If you're going to take up this cause, if the business leaders and community leaders and public think it's a worthwhile cause, the actions need to come very, very soon," says Mangels. "Because the window is closing."

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