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"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."