In what may be a grim foretaste of labor negotiations set to occur in 2019 when the Plain Dealer's union contract expires, the Plain Dealer Publishing Company and its corporate parent, Advance Publications, are now considering outsourcing the jobs of local journalists. The PD News Guild released a statement to that effect on social media Tuesday.
It's as yet unknown how many jobs may be cut or where they'd be outsourced to. Members of the News Guild were unable to speak to Scene about details of the negotiations because they are currently at the bargaining table. Based on the Guild's public statement, though, it sounds like headline writers, page designers and copy editors could stand to lose their positions.
PD Editor George Rodrigue is, atypically, on the other side of the table in the current negotiations. Scene was told he is working alongside labor relations lawyers for Advance. Like Guild members, Rodrigue was unable to provide details, but sent Scene the following statement Wednesday morning.
Local newspapers like The Plain Dealer provide an incredibly valuable service to the community. But it’s an unfortunate reality that the local newspaper business has changed dramatically over the past decade.
In response to economic pressures and technological change, many newspaper groups have created multi-paper production hubs to pool pages and resources. Experience has shown that this system can allow centralized teams to produce pages for multiple papers far more economically than freestanding teams generally produce pages for individual papers.
We have notified the Guild that we are considering options to move the work currently done in The Plain Dealer’s Pub Hub to another company, using a centralized production system. We asked the Guild to sit down and discuss these options and whether keeping the work at The Plain Dealer is a viable alternative. We have shared a great deal of information and talks have been productive. As I write this, we have not yet heard the Guild’s proposal. It’s important to note that a decision has not yet been made. If we decide to use a centralized system for page production, editorial decisions will continue to be made locally.
Regarding the marketing campaign, several staff members have asked for public promotion and marketing to support the paper. We’ve tried to do more of this ourselves, via public appearances throughout the summer. Falls is helping us build a multimedia campaign that can reach more local readers. It’s wise for us to demonstrate our value to readers, subscribers and advertisers, and I’m glad we’re supporting the outstanding work done staffers at The Plain Dealer.
Copy editor Wendy McManamon is chair of the PD News Guild. Without going into specifics, she noted the irony of the PD celebrating local journalism on one hand while preparing to outsource local jobs on the other. The Guild's social media post referenced a recent "marketing blitz."
This is the work of local PR firm Falls Communications, who was recently hired by Advance to produce the "We Are the Stories We Share" series. The material is meant to highlight the work of local journalists and engender good will for the media in an era of distrust, division and violent attacks at news organizations.
But one source told Scene that engaging Falls was a deliberate tactic, essentially running interference while the labor proposals were being hatched and then presented to Guild representatives. A Plain Dealer reporter confirmed that this was more or less the case.
McManamon, by phone, said that it has been an extremely stressful time at the paper.
"Suffice it to say, they look at what we do in the 'pub hub,' the copy editors and the designers and the people who select the stories for the paper, as an expense," she said, "and they think they can do it cheaper elsewhere. That's what it boils down to. What I want to convey is that we believe our quality makes us a worthy investment. We're not just pushing pages out of a printer. We know our writers and our photographers. We have their backs, and we have the readers' backs."
Tuesday afternoon, the Guild responded to a request for a comment with a general statement about its social media posts:
"We put out a statement today on the battle our Guild members face because we believe in transparency," the statement read. "We believe that the community deserves to know the company is considering outsourcing local jobs that are vital to putting out a quality newspaper. We can’t comment on all of the specifics because we are meeting with the company and trying to get them to consider options to keep this work local. We have hope that we can convince them that our talented copy editors, designers and artists bring quality they won’t get from folks who don’t live here. We want to keep Cleveland’s journalism local."
What guild members did not say — it would be superfluous to note — is that by separating the digital and print newsrooms, Advance has created an inefficient operation for producing and editing news.
The print Plain Dealer staff, now working under one roof at the production facility on Tiedeman Road, is union, organized as the Plain Dealer News Guild (News Guild Local 1). The digital cleveland.com staff, led by Chris Quinn and currently working out of 1801 Superior Avenue, is non-union. Reporters from both newsrooms write stories that appear in print and online, yet staffers rarely communicate with each other and work is often duplicated. Most in the public refer to the entire operation as "the Plain Dealer," though the Cleveland.com comments section has cultivated a heinous brand all its own.
If the current negotiations were truly about cost-cutting, about 'creating efficiency,' gutting local page designers and editors from the print shop would not be the lowest-hanging fruit. Nor would doing so be a sensible business decision. As local Guild members have noted, remote headline writers and designers, who aren't plugged into the community, produce a more generic, lower-quality product.
Correction: This story, and its headline, originally referred to Advance Ohio as the Plain Dealer's corporate parent. The company is Advance Publications.
Update: This story now includes a statement provided by PD editor George Rodrigue.