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Thursday, February 13, 2020

Cleveland is What Happens When You Gut a Newsroom

Posted By on Thu, Feb 13, 2020 at 1:51 PM

click to enlarge The Plain Dealer Plaza at 1801 Superior Avenue - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • The Plain Dealer Plaza at 1801 Superior Avenue

As the McClatchy chain cedes ownership and control of its 30 newspapers to a hedge fund after filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the city it covers should serve as cautionary tales for what happens when profit-oriented owners gut newsrooms and centralize production.

Roughly one year ago, the Plain Dealer, Ohio's largest newspaper, outsourced 29 unionized editorial positions, members of what was known as the Pub Hub. Those staffers molded and laid out the print product: They selected and organized top stories, wrote headlines and created original graphics, work which is now performed by a non-local production team that simultaneously does the same thing for 19 papers across the country. A few weeks later, a brutal round of newsroom layoffs reduced the Plain Dealer's unionized editorial staff to roughly 30, a 90-percent reduction since 1990.



Editor George Rodrigue told Scene at the time that the centralized production model had been "industry-tested and proven to be effective." In a letter to readers, he said that the decision would allow the PD to remain a "local institution" and would allow reporters and editors to retain "editorial control."

"This change offers savings where they are least likely to harm the quality of our newspaper," he wrote. "It preserves local editing of local stories. It allows us to focus on the coverage that matters most to our community: in-depth breaking news, investigative journalism, stories that explain issues and events, and coverage that helps people make the most of everything Northeast Ohio has to offer." 

A year later, Rodrigue's letter reads exactly like the corporate PR schlock it was. The quality of the paper has clearly been harmed. And it sure hasn't been the case that saving money on design allowed the PD to hire additional reporters or make investments in the important coverage Rodrigue highlighted, (unless we're to assume that these savings were spent in their entirety on "Case Closed.") Indeed, shortly after Rodrigue's letter, the paper saw fit to part ways with some of its most senior reporters and photographers. 

As the News Guild fought to save their colleagues' production jobs last year, one of their main fears was that a non-local team would create a generic product. That fear has been borne out repeatedly. It is now standard for miscellaneous national stories to take precedence over local news. Thursday's top front-page story, for example, came from the Associated Press. It was about T-Mobile's acquisition of competitor Sprint and what that "means for you." Monday's top story, also from the Associated Press, was a piping hot report about almonds and food labeling.

The front pages are now identically constructed, a template that allows for one major story above the fold and two newsy local items beside and beneath it, generally harvested from Cleveland.com, the Plain Dealer's digital, non-union, sibling.

So far in February, there has been only one featured above-the-fold story written by a local reporter (PD or Cleveland.com) on any day other than Sunday: Michelle Jarboe's Feb. 7 piece on Sherwin-Williams' decision to remain in Cleveland, with a fabulous accompanying photo by Marvin Fong. Eight of the other 10 non-Sunday top stories were from the Associated Press. One was from the Washington Post. One, about the U.S. Senate's decision to reject witnesses in the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, was from "wire reports."

Whether by preference or by accident, these wire reports generally supersede local reporting and analysis on identical topics. Cleveland.com sent its chief political writer, Seth Richardson, and (curiously) a private-citizen correspondent to Iowa to cover the caucuses there, but the PD's front-page coverage after the electoral SNAFU came from the Associated Press.

In the two Sunday editions this month, the top stories have been a feature about local poet Honey Bell-Bey, by Mike McIntyre, and a story about UH's new Chief Transformation Officer, by Brian Albrecht.


The interior of the paper is not much better. Which is to say: every day but Sunday, there's barely enough locally reported content to fill the few pages that precede the sports section. Other than wire reports, rewrites of Cleveland.com stories populate Metro capsules—murders and the like—and the occasional court story from Cory Shaffer or Eric Heisig, criminal report from Adam Ferrise and county update from Courtney Astolfi (which are often quite good), and various statehouse dispatches from the Columbus team, fill in gaps.

And just to be clear, it's not like the Sunday edition is some paragon of local coverage. While it tends to cobble together top stories from the week, it's by no means the case that there are hard-hitting watchdog investigations, fun arts and culture packages, and long, magazine-style narratives printed regularly. What can be said for it is that it sometimes approximates what a newspaper should strive to be: a home for original reporting with coverage that matters to the community. (Education reporter Patrick O'Donnell's recent coverage of the school voucher debate at the Ohio statehouse is one example.)


The paper's sterile design and grab-bag editorial sensibility has reportedly been exacerbated by communications issues between local reporters and national layout folks. Due to burdens on the centralized production team, Sunday stories that require graphics must be submitted nine days in advance, a schedule that precludes the publication of so-called "in-depth breaking news" stories when they require illustration.

At best, these issues and restrictions limit the paper's ability to exist as a living, urgent, essential document for the region. At worst, it eliminates that ability altogether.

The Plain Dealer, in other words, has been thoroughly degraded. If you're not a person of means, who's supporting journalism kind of like how you'd support the Animal Protective League, anything other than a Sunday-only subscription is very hard to justify. We're told that to support journalists we should subscribe to our local papers, and that's certainly true. But the paper needs to provide value to its subscribers if it wants to be more than a charity case. That means having a sufficient number of reporters on staff to cover the breadth of the region's happenings, (and not just its pro sports teams); having knowledgeable and courageous editors to steer bold investigative work; and having illustrators and designers to present it all in engaging ways. 

Like in other industries, individual workers at the PD are doing extraordinary work in the face of immense pressures and frustrations, to say nothing of the financial predations of Advance executives and the hedge funds pillaging and plundering across the industry. (It should go without saying that Advance's corporate leadership, much like the glossy Patrick Batemans of Chatham Asset Management who will soon preside over the McClatchy titles, do not give one iota of a shit about what papers need to do to provide value to subscribers. Their interest is immediate profits, and those have generally been obtained by making dramatic newsroom cuts and "creating efficiency" by centralizing production.)

But unlike in many other industries, the killing of local journalism has dangerous and sweeping ramifications. Look no further than the state of Cleveland's democracy, the economic performance of its citizens and the tumult of its institutions to clock some of its effects. "Newspaper closures hurt Ohio communities," was the headline of a Policy Matters report on the subject last year. It cited research about the correlation of voter turnout, government performance and community news literacy with the strength of the local press. 

Advance already dealt Cleveland journalism its death blow when it cracked the Plain Dealer into two competing newsrooms, a union-busting scheme disguised as a "digital first" approach. Now, as it pursues the galaxy-brain strategy of alienating its readers by letting its flagship print product wither and die, citizens should recognize that it's not just their paper that hangs in the balance.

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