Management cuts at The Plain Dealer signal a new era of uncertainty

On April 8, Plain Dealer Editor Susan Goldberg called the paper's non-union employees to a conference in "The Fishbowl," a sleek glass conference room on the first floor. It's where private meetings are public displays, and where rumors leak at a pace slightly slower than the speed of sound.

For years, rumors had swirled that this day was coming — that The Plain Dealer's parent company, New York-based Advance Publications, was planning to drop "The Pledge," a long-honored written promise not to cut non-union employees.

Advance had warned of the repeal more than six months ago, but Goldberg made it official. A buyout package was offered to dozens of non-union employees. In the newsroom, that includes around 40 editor and manager types — positions spared the axe during a string of reporter layoffs over the last four years.

"It's a good thing," says one editorial union member who asked to remain anonymous. "It represents fairness. We shed blood when our people were laid off. And nobody's happy for anybody to be laid off, but it's their turn to shed some blood. If anything, this puts us in the same boat, so they can feel the same tensions and fears we have."

The buyout offers come after a quiet year leading up to this summer's union contract talks. Non-union employees offered the package have until June to decide; if not enough workers accept the offer, involuntary layoffs are likely.

Goldberg, Plain Dealer Publisher-President Terrance Egger, and VP of Labor Relations William Calaiacovo did not respond to Scene's requests for comment. Last fall, when rollback of The Pledge was announced, AdvanceNet Chairman Steve Newhouse told Editor & Publisher, "It was not a pledge that applied to the kind of transitional moment in the newspaper industry that is basically struggling to survive."

Since 2006, The PD has lost around 100 members of Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild Local 1 to buyouts, layoffs, and other attrition. In March of last year, union and non-union workers took pay cuts to avert the elimination of a projected 60 more positions. The union accepted a contract amendment that combined an 8.1 percent wage reduction with 11-day furloughs. For the first time, 450 non-union workers also stepped up, accepting 8 to 10 percent salary cuts, with some taking 10-day furloughs.

By one writer's assessment, the non-union buyout offers are "not generous" in comparison to union offers of years past. The deal reportedly maxes out at six months' severance pay — even for workers with 20 or more years of service — though it does include up to six months of continued health-care benefits.

By contrast, in 2006, when the paper bought out more than 60 union workers, employees over age 50 with 20 years of service were offered a buyout of 2.5 years' salary. In 2008, the buyout topped out at a year's pay with no benefits. Employees now refer to that offer as "the good buyout."

Union spokesman Harlan Spector had no comment on the discontinued Pledge, though his silence surely didn't come easy. Union and non-union employees alike have long complained of a workplace rife with dead wood — "editors on top of editors on top of editors," as one reporter puts it — while writers are laid off and bought out.

By the union's last count, The PD had one manager for every three union members, which includes reporters, photographers, copy editors, and clerks, among others.

"We're the worker bees," says one union member. "We're the content providers. [Editors] go to meetings and don't do anything but criticize our work. It's ridiculous to be cutting staff who do the work, but keep meeting-goers with the big, fat salaries."

Unlike the March 2009 concessions, PD management didn't give a financial target for post-Pledge cuts. Non-union employees won't begin to guess how many of their ranks will take the offer, but some may have help deciding: While union regulations prohibit management from targeting individual union employees for buyouts, no such stipulation exists for non-union labor.

The guy The Plain Dealer pays to spin such developments was one of the first high-dollar, non-union employees to go. Reader Representative Ted Diadiun, a former metro and sports editor turned management shill, stepped down as a full-time employee at the end of April, though he'll still pen his public-relations column that addresses assorted reader concerns. Diadiun confirmed his departure, but had no further comment.

Reporters routinely complain about being stretched to the breaking point, between increasing print duties and demand for online content. The PD has been mum on how cuts might further affect its product. Though the paper demands transparency from other institutions, it hasn't been an exemplar of the value. And some cuts are worth explaining — or at least announcing. Diadiun isn't the only writer to switch sides.

Last week, Assistant Metro Editor Mike Tobin announced his plans to leave the paper to become spokesman for the Cleveland Federal Prosecutor's Office. He'll leave in mid-May, just short of his 10th anniversary at The PD.

The departure of Tobin, respected for his coverage of the city's botched rape investigations and water department corruption, is seen by peers as a justifiable escape from an unstable work situation. Which doesn't make it any more comforting.

"Managers are shitting their pants over Mike leaving," says a union employee. "They're worried about the loss of talent."

They're not the only ones. Talent loss is a problem at newspapers nationwide, including Advance's 20 publications. In April, the company's Birmingham News killed a column in which writer John Archibald pondered how staff cuts are affecting his paper. In Cleveland, Jim Nichols, a reporter and editor for 24 years, left at the end of 2009 to work for the nonprofit Cleveland Foundation. Education reporter Janet Okoben is moving away, and former Fashion Editor Kim Crow has been relegated to part-time work.

"There's almost a natural selection going on," says a newsroom worker. "When people have another option, they leave."

Though cutbacks were averted in 2009, editorial staffing levels have sunk. Management hasn't refilled vacated positions, even as the union pleas to bring back laid-off journalists still looking for work. Management declined, but did offer laid-off union workers $2,000 to $3,000 each to go away quietly — "a slap in the face," in the words of one union member.

The PD's current union contract is valid through 2014, though amendments made last year open the door for discussion in June. Spector hopes the current stasis will hold. But for others, uncertainty has become certain.

"We don't know how thin they'll thin the herd," says a union worker. "You wonder how much thinner it can get. But you look at how many people the Akron Beacon Journal runs on, and the answer is thinner."

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