Good Til The Last Drop: The Future of Advance Publications and The Plain Dealer in the Wake of "Digital-First" Media 

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If contentions by the Plain Dealer union were true, the day's events did seem to further demonstrate that the guild itself was a target as much as any employee. By the time the specific cuts were announced, about two dozen newsroom employees already had voluntarily left the newspaper, Cleveland.com reported, which the union assumed meant that fewer than the previously agreed-to fifty-eight would face the chopping block. Guild President Spector and "Save the Plain Dealer" Leader Mangels both volunteered for layoffs, in an attempt to spare others, and at least a half-dozen other employees also voluntarily left the newspaper (in addition to the earlier departures that occurred in the months since the news of the coming cutbacks first broke).

However, the guild cried foul, saying the company reneged on the original agreement to first extend offers to any employees it wanted to hire at Cleveland.com and count those "transfers" against the original number of mutually agreed upon layoffs. The company instead distributed its telephonic pink slips and plans to extend employment offers at Cleveland.com later, meaning that any departures of survivors who choose to leave the Plain Dealer in favor of Cleveland.com will further reduce the ranks of unionized employees at the company. For its part, the company insisted that it had bargained with the guild in good faith. "This has been our practice in the past and we will continue to do the same in the future," publisher and president Terrance Eggers said in a statement reported on Cleveland.com.

Another twenty employees lost their jobs at the Sun News, a chain of eleven Advance-owned weekly newspapers circulating in the Cleveland suburbs. "Will the last journalist out of the newspaper business please turn off the lights?" one tweet asked. By the middle of September 2013, "digital first" would claim about 1,600 jobs at Advance newspapers from Portland, Oregon, to Mobile, Alabama.

"Noise Out There"

The day the details of the changes and the resulting layoffs were spelled out for Advance employees in New Orleans and Alabama, Steven Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net and presumed arbiter, if not mastermind, behind the company's digital-first strategy, gave a rare interview to a publication not owned by Advance.

Most of his reported conversation with Campbell Robertson, the New York Times's New Orleans-based Southern correspondent, was unremarkable, but one thing Newhouse said about the Times- Picayune raised the ire of just about every New Orleanian who read or heard it: "We have no intention of selling, no matter how much noise there is out there." Although stunning in its insensitivity, Steven Newhouse's pronouncement confirmed the type of relationship the secretive and tight-knit Newhouse family was seen to have with its nearly three dozen newspapers spanning both coasts: a seemingly contradictory combination of laissez faire management that generally deferred to the sensibilities and predilections of local publishers and their perceptions of the community, but a stance that also could enforce a corporate overlord mentality on major, and usually controversial, issues—or as a 1992 New York Times headline described it, "Newhouse Maintains Loose Reins with a Tight Grip." It also perhaps revealed a shift in how the third, and latest generation, of the Newhouse family viewed and expected to conduct business with the Times-Picayune, and by extension, its other newspapers.

Advance had owned the Times-Picayune just a few months short of fifty years at the time of Steven Newhouse's proclamation, and the utterance was a slap in the face to New Orleanians who cared deeply about their daily newspaper. "Hello? Steve Newhouse? It's WTF calling," was the headline on a column appearing on NolaVie, the nonprofit lifestyle and culture website that shares select content for posting on NOLA.com. "That was the eulogy Steven Newhouse read at Tuesday's funeral for our beloved Times-Picayune," columnist Brett Will Taylor wrote. "Only he didn't deliver it in person. He read it over the phone. To the New York Times. Which leads me to ask all of us mourners, we familymembers of the dearly departed, the following question: What. The. F%*#?"

Others also weighed in, including an editorial in the region's alternative weekly Gambit, published two days after Taylor's column:

"Noise?" Is that what he thinks New Orleanians have been pouring out from their hearts? What Mr. Newhouse calls "noise," we recognize as the voices of our friends and neighbors. When a billionaire absentee owner refers to the heartfelt pleas of his customers as "noise," it tells us that all the pretty puffery about a more "robust" news product is pure bunk. Local business owners, many of whom for years have faithfully advertised in Mr. Newhouse's paper, know all too well that ignoring the voices of customers—particularly in New Orleans—is a recipe for failure. Oddly enough, we suspect that's the Newhouse plan: sooner rather than later, there will be no printed edition of the Times-Picayune. Steven Newhouse later in the summer backpedaled from the harshness of his remark and some of the tactics that had been employed by Advance newspapers as they implemented "digital-first."

"Some of the criticism was well founded," he wrote in the August 2012 commentary on Poynter.org, about the outrage and negative media coverage that greeted the company's "forced march to digital," as newspaper analyst Ken Doctor coined it. "We could have communicated our decisions more openly and sensitively to our employees, our readers and our communities." It nonetheless is almost impossible to imagine Steven Newhouse's father, Donald, the family member who has overseen Advance's three-dozen-odd daily and weekly newspapers for roughly six decades, making such a tone-deaf public comment about any of the company's properties.

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