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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Plain Dealer Put Out to Pasture. In Final Death Blow, Remaining Reporters Given Impossible Choice

Posted By on Tue, Apr 7, 2020 at 9:07 AM

click to enlarge SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
On the first workday after a brutal and debilitating round of layoffs at The Plain Dealer, Editor Tim Warsinskey delivered what will be the paper's final and cruelest blow. He told the 14 remaining newsroom staffers that they would henceforth be forbidden from covering stories in Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, and Summit County and could no longer report on anything that might be deemed a "statewide" issue. Those vast content areas will now fall under the editorial jurisdiction of cleveland.com, the PD's non-union sister newsroom. 

If the PD staffers choose to remain employed, Warsinskey said, they will have to do so as members of a "bureau" responsible for reporting on Northeast Ohio's outlying counties: Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Medina and Portage.



This announcement came as a shock to those who had survived Friday's purge and were only now coming up for air. Some level of reorganization within the newsroom was expected—hence the Monday meeting—but the total theft of their beats was "incomprehensible," according to a statement from the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild Local 1, posted moments ago to its Facebook page. 

And so the paper's remaining staffers are now faced with a devastating decision: they can either leave and let the state's largest paper, (and the country's first News Guild), die, ceding victory at last to the Newhouses of Advance Publications who've been ruthlessly and methodically busting the PD's union for years; or they can stay on, suffering the indignities of filing low-stakes stories on distant locales that haven't been part of the paper's regular coverage area for years.

Exceptions have been made for four remaining employees, according to the Guild's statement. Terry Pluto and Philip Morris will be permitted to remain as columnists; Steve Litt can stay on as the region's art and architecture critic; and Susan Glaser can still cover regional travel.

But the rest will have to sacrifice their beats—in many cases, beats which they've been covering for decades and for which they are by far the most equipped and knowledgeable reporters in the region—to cleveland.com.

Rachel Dissell and John Caniglia, for example, the paper's two ace investigative reporters, will no longer be allowed to pursue their meaty enterprise work. Arts and culture writers John Petkovic and Laura DeMarco will be forbidden from covering movies and music. Real estate reporter Michelle Jarboe, who has been accessibly breaking stories about the sales and acquisitions of downtown properties for years, can no longer do so. Ginger Christ, who reports on the region's hospitals, will be removed from that critical beat during the COVID-19 pandemic. Patrick O'Donnell will be taken off the education beat, where he has reported rigorously on the predations of Ohio's online and charter schools and broken complicated stories about funding scandals within the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Greg Burnett, a features writer who's also responsible for the Friday Magazine event listings, will be relieved of those responsibilities as well. And the paper's two remaining photographers, Gus Chan and Lisa DeJong, will be barred from photographing anything in Cuyahoga County. 

Feelings of anger, despair and betrayal attended Warsinskey's announcement Monday and persisted through the evening. These restrictions were so outrageous, so brazenly contemptuous of the reporters and their local readers, that they didn't seem real.

And yet they were.

Warsinskey, incidentally, will soon have nothing to edit, no job to perform, no function to serve. Chris Quinn will manage the content farm at cleveland.com and a remote production team will populate the print templates for publication. It seems clear that Warsinskey was promoted for one reason only: to kill the thing he was titularly being put in charge of. His complicity in Advance's final gutting maneuver has been perceived by his former colleagues as ratlike behavior, motivated purely by self-interest. 

He reportedly told staff Monday, with a straight face, that the "bureau" decision was the result of a "company-wide strategy" and that the two-newsroom operation (PD / cleveland.com) was "never going to become tenable or permanent."

"In effect," the Guild statement read, "he is admitting that this decision is part of a broader move to eliminate The Plain Dealer and its staff altogether and not an attempt to provide meaningful coverage on areas the company has stopped reporting on in any depth for years... A move like this is incomprehensible and can only be interpreted as a way to punish people for belonging to a union." 

Moreover, Warsinskey's comments contradict his recent messages of reassurance to readers. In two letters announcing the layoffs—the most recent of which was buried deep in the Saturday print edition—he stressed that little would change at the paper. The PD and cleveland.com would remain separate newsrooms as they had for years, he said, and both would contribute content to the print edition.

"Between The Plain Dealer newsroom and the newsroom at our sister company, cleveland.com, we will have 77 journalists and content producers sharing the stories that matter to you," Warsinskey wrote, "including health care, business, arts and culture, sports, local government and, especially, coverage of the pandemic impact that is gripping us all."

(Warsinskey also noted preemptively in an email to local editors that he would not be participating in any interviews on the subject. True to his word, he has declined to answer Scene's most recent questions. "I think I'll pass," he wrote in a text message early Tuesday morning.)

It should be obvious, though, that there will be nowhere close to 77 journalists covering the region after the 14 on the PD side make up their minds this week. Equally obvious is the fact that Tim Warsinskey and Advance Publications could not care less about "the stories that matter to you," least of all "the pandemic impact that is gripping us all." 

Actions do, in fact, speak louder than words. As of last Thursday, (and long before the spread of COVID-19), The Plain Dealer had a three-person team covering health in the region. Brie Zeltner, who covered the intersection of medicine and public health, and Julie Washington, who wrote stories about individual patients and medical technology, were both laid off Friday. Ginger Christ covers the hospitals. During the biggest and most destructive public health story in a century, Advance Publications has chosen to rob the region of its most skilled and deeply sourced health reporters. That's how much they care.

The Guild is correct, then, in its assessment that this "strategy" has absolutely nothing to do with Advance's interest in meaningful coverage of Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Medina and Portage counties. That's a bad joke and should be interpreted as such. The purported coverage area, ("outlying counties"), is so geographically broad and remote as to be meaningless as a beat. And yet it's simultaneously so restrictive ("no stories about Cuyahoga or Summit counties or any statewide issues") that reporting on it would paralyze any news reporter who takes the job seriously. 

That's deliberate. The "bureau" might as well be covering "Ohio's adjacent states," but not Michigan, Pennsylvania or New York. This move is indeed, as Warsinskey noted, part of a "company wide strategy." But the strategy is one calculated to maximize the number of Plain Dealer reporters who throw up their hands in disgust and walk. It has been designed, with monstrous efficacy, to force those who have devoted their professional lives to covering Northeast Ohio to abandon their posts in the most humiliating and painful way possible.

***
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