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

From Hell and High Water by Rebecca Theim, © 2013, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing Company, Inc.

After seeing what had happened in New Orleans and the seeming advantage the element of surprise there had given Advance, newsroom employees of the Cleveland Plain Dealer launched their own pre-emptive move in anticipation of being the next Advance newspaper in line for the "digital-first" experience. (Like the Times-Picayune, Advance officials acknowledged that the Plain Dealer was still profitable, at least as of the end of 2012.) The "Save The Plain Dealer" campaign borrowed some of New Orleans's tactics, although it was able to launch a true advertising campaign thanks to the financial support of Newspaper Guild Local 1, one of only four unions left at Advance newspaper nationwide, and the guild's parent organization, the Communications Workers of America. (The other three unions at Advance newspapers are at the company's largest, the Newark [N.J.] Star-Ledger, where employees responsible for printing and production of the newspaper are represented by the Graphic Communications Conference Local 8-N, Teamsters Graphic Communications Conference Local 1L, and Teamsters New Jersey Mailers Local 1100.17)

The Plain Dealer's campaign included half-page ads in the newspaper, bus placards, and YouTube video spots featuring union members and Cleveland celebrities alike (actress Valerie Bertinelli from the TV show Hot in Cleveland was one), emphasizing the importance of a daily newspaper and lobbying for its preservation. "We're trying to get out ahead of this thing and give people a stake and a say in what happens," John Mangels, the leader of the guild committee that created the marketing campaign, told the Plain Dealer in early November 2012. "It really ought to be the community's fight as well as ours."

Advance's target in Cleveland, however, appeared to be less the daily print newspaper, and more the newsroom's union. In a deal reached in late 2012 between the guild and Advance, the union accepted a workforce reduction of fifty-eight employees in exchange for a guarantee of no further large-scale layoffs through 2019. Without the agreement, Advance warned it would purge eighty to eighty-five Plain Dealer employees when the current contract expired in a few months, and also would likely begin docking employees' wages for a portion of health insurance premiums now covered by the company. The new contract instead protects most existing guild members, restores the 8-percent wage cut they had taken to avoid layoffs in 2009, and provides for Advance to shore up their underfunded pension and health care funds.

Although potentially devastating for the roughly sixty employees who have or will ultimately lose their jobs, the union contract looked surprisingly generous on the part of Advance—until one looked at the fine print. Previously, work by non-union journalists was prohibited from appearing in the pages of the Plain Dealer, while Plain Dealer reporters' work appeared both in the newspaper and on, an arrangement that assured the union local would be supplied with new members as long as a print newspaper existed. That, however, changed under the new contract, with online reporters' work now also being allowed into the pages of the newspaper. "It's a major concession by the newspaper guild, and it'll weaken the union over time, since new hires will likely be on the online side," Cleveland Magazine senior editor Erick Trickey wrote on the publication's blog. The change will result in a "shrinking unionized newsroom and a new, non-union digital news staff."

The union acknowledged as such. "A big part of that is we've given them some language that could, over the years, really diminish our numbers," guild chairman Harlan Spector told "That was probably the biggest and hardest thing we gave up, and it was a very contentious point," the guild's administrative officer, Rollie Dreussi, recalled in a May 2013 interview with me.

"We understand what it could mean in the long run, but no one knows for sure how it will work out. Sometimes you have to do what you can to stay in the battle just to keep fighting the war." The symbolism of Advance's checkmate also probably resonated with its historically anti-union owners. The "1" in "Local 1," after all, represents the first. An early predecessor of the Plain Dealer was "the birthplace of the [country's Newspaper] Guild," on March 20, 1934.

After the fifty-odd layoffs that occurred the final day of July 2013, the newsroom stood at 110 employees, down from 350 a decade ago. In earlier negotiations for the union contract now in force, the newspaper guaranteed that only five more employees would lose their jobs in the subsequent six years. Union members have suggested that their campaign may have saved its daily newspaper status. It, like the Post-Standard and the Oregonian, is printed daily, but home-delivered only four days a week, as of August 5, 2013.

When the layoffs finally occurred, management apparently was keen on avoiding the unemployment "death march" scene that had unfolded in New Orleans and Alabama. It directed newsroom employees to stay home, but be by their phones between 8 and 10 a.m. for calls telling them whether they'd be "separated from employment," according to the internal memo circulated the day before. Those receiving the "bad call," as staffers referred to it, were then directed to pick up their severance materials the next day, not at the newspaper, but at its distribution facility ten miles away. (The story on the website of Bloomberg Businessweek detailing the indignities included a photo from the 1996 slasher movie Scream, in which actress Drew Barrymore is screaming into a phone moments before encountering a grisly death.) One-third of the newsroom ultimately was slashed, and the resulting flood of tweets told the story in a way neither the company nor the union could. "I just got the call from [assistant entertainment editor] John Kappes," columnist and former longtime Friday! magazine editor Chuck Yarborough tweeted. "I still have a job, but I want to throw up . . . if I can just stop crying long enough." Among those not so fortunate: business editor Randy Roguski, photo technician Cynthia Baecker and graphics artist James Owens. "Newspaper bosses keep opening veins on the sick patient, thinking if they can drain the body of blood, they can make it better," author and Edmonton, Canada Journal columnist Terry McConnell tweeted in response to the news. (The next day, layoffs began at newspapers across the country owned by the Gannett Company, Inc., the nation's largest newspaper chain.)