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“Saving” the Plain Dealer

29 November 2012 One Comment

There’s a campaign going on right now in Cleveland to preserve the seven-day-a-week print version of the Plain Dealer. It is led by reporters at the paper with support from their union. The paper’s owner, Advance Publications, has hinted that there are big changes coming, and reporters apparently suspect that the company is planning what they did to their New Orleans Times Picayune — which is go to a three-day-a-week print schedule and focus more on the online product. The reporters have good reason to be concerned about their jobs; Advance laid off about half its staff in the transition.

The result of this campaign has been a fair amount of civic hand-wringing, and a petition. Without the print edition of the newspaper, reporters say, many poorer people won’t have access to the news. There will be less political coverage, less scandals uncovered, less civic dialogue. But I don’t think it will be as bad as all that and I say that as a former newspaper reporter who got laid off four years ago this month.

As for poor people, I am skeptical that there are a lot of people that can’t afford computers paying the PD’s $20+ per month subscription fee to read the paper seven days a week. Obviously, I can’t provide any numbers. I live in a poor neighborhood though and when I go to the library, people aren’t lined up to read print newspapers. In fact, there seems to be little to no interest in any printed materials whatsoever. People are lined up to use the computers.

Meanwhile, any great community work that the Plain Dealer is doing can just as easily be done online. In fact, it would be better. It would be better because it would be more timely. It could contain links and videos. It would allow discussion in a comments section. It would be available to anyone in the world.

Print as a medium, I truly believe, is dying. Although I know there are some people that disagree loudly, I think this is based mostly on nostalgia (I admit, I find these folks to be awfully sanctimonious). Anyway, there certainly aren’t enough of them anymore to warrant chopping down trees and printing news on them and then driving around to individual people’s houses and throw on their doorsteps in 2012, just so the pages can announce 12 hours after anyone who cares already heard, who won last night’s baseball game.

Now I don’t necessarily think Plain Dealer reporters are out there arguing that print is inherently better than web publishing. I think they are more concerned about the staff losses that they expect to accompany the transition. And I am sympathetic to that because no one wants to see anyone lose their job and there are some very talented, hard working people at the Plain Dealer. (I also think there’s some bad ones, but they are a distinct minority.)

But job losses are nothing new at the Plain Dealer. As long as the paper is reliant on a dying medium as its breadwinner, there will be job losses until there are no more jobs to lose. The only way to really “save the Plain Dealer,” it seems to me, is to focus on the side of its business that has any chance of growth: and that’s the web.

Obviously, that would be a difficult transition. But difficult transitions are coming for newspapers one way or another. The longer the Plain Dealer delays building a web presence that is responsive to the emerging market for it — the worse it will ultimately be for the news organization.

Now, pretty much everyone agrees, I think, that it’s not the newsprint itself that is valuable, but the reporting. But of course, not all the reporting the Plain Dealer currently does is particularly valuable, at least to the public interest. The fashion page, which I am just totally mystified every time I see they still bother with, is a good example. Who goes to the Plain Dealer for fashion advice in 2012? As a 30-year-old, single woman, I certainly wouldn’t dream of it. But of course, it is clearly not targeted at women like me. That is another problem with print. The PD is still behaving like a monopoly, where people would read whatever you put in front of them because they didn’t have any other alternatives.

Of course, the Plain Dealer’s important work, as is being emphasized in this campaign, is their government reporting, their efforts to ferret out corruption. I heard a PD reporter say that the PD is going out and demanding public records and that other people can’t do that. But that of course is not true. Public records are available to anyone. She may have misspoke, on that point, but the suggestion was that web reporters couldn’t/wouldn’t do serious reporting. But I think they are wrong about that. The idea that web journalists and start ups can’t do the kind of work Plain Dealer reporters do is only true to the extent that there is no market for the kind of work Plain Dealer reporters are doing.

Right now, there are huge opportunities in the web media market in Cleveland. It is absolutely miraculous, in my opinion, that a web competitor to the Plain Dealer has not yet established itself. When I lived in Toledo, four years ago, Glass City Jungle was nipping at the City Hall reporters’ heels. Columbus Underground, begun more than 10 years ago by a college student, now has five full-time employees — and they mostly only write for people in their 20s who live in the city proper.

I was talking with a guy in Seattle not that long ago. He was eeking out a living running two blogs: one about bicycling and one about a specific neighborhood. He told me almost every neighborhood in Seattle had a local news blog devoted to it that was providing someone with a full or part-time living.

Plunderbund, who covers statehouse politics from a progressive stance, is a great example of a start up that is doing amazing journalism and building something potentially lasting. They have 6,000 Facebook followers. They just broke a corruption story that the Dayton Daily News then followed up on.

I myself, since making the transition from a print journalist to a web journalist, have broken government corruption stories that newspapers never would have — just because the more niche publication I now work for allows me to delve more deeply into the topic I cover than a general newspaper could.

My point is, if this community really wants to “save the Plain Dealer” it will focus on transitioning to the web as quickly as possible. That seems to be Advance’s goal, and they have plenty of financial justification for doing so.

I’m not going to sit here and say their methods are necessarily right: they haven’t even explained them yet and someone told me they made a lot of mistakes in New Orleans. But doing nothing — not changing — in the face of such a profound transition in the industry is not good for journalism in Cleveland. And if the Plain Dealer, or its reporters acting individually, don’t get out there and seize those markets, other people, like Plunderbund, will sooner or later. It takes time to build a brand on the web and right now the Plain Dealer has a huge head start.

One of the things that frustrates me about Cleveland is sort of a resistance to change, or fear of the future. But the future could be better and brighter. It has been for me.

-A.S.