Friday, January 17, 2014

Latest CJR Dispatch Paints Fractured Picture of Plain Dealer Newsroom Culture

Posted By on Fri, Jan 17, 2014 at 10:50 AM

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Big Changes at The Plain Dealer/Sun News/Northeast Ohio Media Group have been in effect for a while now, and the Columbia Journalism Review (already not the biggest supporter of Advance Digital's business model) has seen fit to check in and update the public on how it's all going down at 1801 Superior Ave.

The article is worth a read, if only for getting an on-the-ground look at how the region's biggest news-gathering process takes place. Much of the input, provided via Plain Dealer reporters on grounds of anonymity, is dreary.

Significant among takeaways is the replacement of "newsroom culture" with less collaborative environs. Repeatedly, NEOMG sources laud the "backpack journalism" method, which traditionally makes more sense in, say, reporting stories from conflict zones abroad. The tech-heavy news operation now places a premium on live-blogging and reportage from the scene of press conferences, city council meetings, and at times even the frontlines of network television.

Last summer, newsroom layoffs canned much of the paper's institutional knowledge. Out with the old, in with the new: It's not a process unique to Cleveland, but the churn certainly puts to rest some of the classic models of journalism. Dig into the CJR article for details on how Plain Dealer and NEOMG staff are kept geographically and institutionally separate, which just seems so odd. Here's an excerpt (the quotes are from anonymous PD reporters):

“There’s not a newsroom buzz. There’s not the camaraderie of a newsroom, where everyone is always hearing what’s going on. You’re all off doing your separate thing.”

The second Plain Dealer reporter said she is productive whether working from home or an office, but “what you’re missing is the collegiality, the chance to sit down and hash out stories, the newsroom atmosphere.”

There is also concern for how the new structure relates to the quality of the editorial product, both in print and online. Plain Dealer reporters said that, in addition to increased attention to online metrics, they have noticed less rigorous editing—they directly post in-process stories online, writing their own headlines—and a thinner print publication.

The comments are contrasted sharply by the tone of on-the-record quotes from NEOMG reporters. Brandon Blackwell, who works on the crime team (one of the more robust aspects of the new regime), tells CJR that the backpack model is effective. “I like to think of the city as my newsroom now,” he says.

All of the differences in opinion seem visible to the common reader of Cleveland.com - the landing pad for PD, Sun News, NEOMG, and freelance stories. Ditto for the pulp left on newsstands each day, which now costs $1, by the way. Internal grumbling is one thing - a huge thing, given the company's services - and external, reader-based complaints are another. Both have reached startling levels in Cleveland.

But, again, there's a difference between bitching about Big Media and actually conceptualizing an impact of changes on the community a newspaper is supposedly serving.

Six months out from the changeover to the Northeast Ohio Media Group, what are some of the strengths and weaknesses of how the company is now performing journalism? What's working better than the old ways? What's not? Drop a comment and chime in on the CJR piece.

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