Plain Dealer Cuts Revealed

Journalism website has a story up today that confirms one of the rumors that's been in the wind about the Cleveland Plain Dealer's future. It says the paper has told the Guild it will cut the newsroom staff by a third.

To say I have mixed feelings about this is putting it mildly.

Clevelanders are aware — others around the state may not be — that big changes are in the paper's future, although the paper's management and ownership has been cagy about saying exactly what they are. But Advance, the paper's owner, has shrunk its dailies in other markets to three days a week, most prominently the New Orleans Times Picayune.

It has given a lot of lip service to making coverage more immediate by pushing more of it online — this despite a corporately imposed template for all its papers' websites that is ugly, confusing, and difficult to navigate. It's so terrible that Louisiana Senator David Vitter sent its publisher a letter mocking the site — perhaps the only time I have ever agreed with Vitter on anything.

The Plain Dealer, of course, is spinning this as a heightened commitment to serve its readers and its market, as demonstrated by this laughable open letter to readers published in the paper a couple of weeks ago:

Among other things, it said,

We also have a chance to be even more useful and responsive to an audience that in recent years has migrated to digital platforms — looking online, on mobile devices and tablets for news and information we previously provided only in print.

They've had that chance for years now, and they've blown it.

Meanwhile, the newsroom staff has launched a "Save the Plain Dealer" campaign; Clevelanders have undoubtedly seen the "Don't Let It Fade Away" billboard around town. They're holding forums and hosting a Facebook page and trying to rouse some public sentiment.

It feels like shouting into the wind. Obviously, there's a corporate juggernaut — and one not terribly concerned about the welfare of readers or the value of journalists — that's desperately flailing to get back to long-gone days when it barely had to work for a large profit margin. It doesn't seem like it would be open to such pressure tactics. As in New Orleans, some have been urging ownership to sell to someone more committed to seven-days-a-week publishing. It hasn't listened.

My personal conflict about this campaign is that the Plain Dealer that currently exists — whose shortcomings emanate from the same corporate mentality that wants to slash staff and maybe cut the publication schedule — is perhaps not worth saving. It WOULD be worth saving if it were a different paper, one that served as a reflection of the community and ALL its voices, not a shill for the city's wealthy and powerful. Their biased coverage of Cuyahoga's county government reform is only the most egregious example. There are plenty of others.

But why would it change? Where are the signs that it is open to listening to anyone, whether it's the newsroom staff or the people of Northeast Ohio it theoretically serves? If it were responsive, it would have explored ways to make its digital presence more effective years ago. People have been complaining about it for that long — and have been making many suggestions about what it could do better.

I don't subscribe the paper — there are some serious roadblocks to my ever doing so again, such as the continued employment of nasty wingnut columnist Kevin O'Brien. But often enough I get to peruse copies people have left lying around. I see some small stabs at trying to connect with the community more, little features about people coming back to Cleveland, doing grassroots things. That's good. But the paper needs an overhaul — a change of attitude, a change of priorities. Unfortunately, the people who produce the paper don't set those priorities. And it doesn't look like the people at the top will take a serious look at how it can serve the region better.

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