Not since LeBron James packed up his wallet and left town has anything bestirred the Plain Dealer’s readers more than the paper’s official announcement that it would implode to a three-day-a-week delivery system this summer. The angry letters to the editor and telephone calls to the downtown offices were not unexpected as rumors circulated for weeks that the PD would suffer the same fate as other papers owned by Advance Publications that were abbreviated. “The readers are really upset about it,” says Harlan Spector,the guild president and 22-year veteran of the paper’s news staff. “They feel betrayed.”
Although Spector has had the nearest view of the paper’s plans as the union’s representative, he admits there’s not much more that he knows beyond what the paper’s front office has reported. “There are a lot of unanswered questions.”
The readers’ responses in letters have run the gamut from disbelief (“crappy, shortsighted, narrow-minded fat-out wrong” ) to the old chestnut that liberalism was the culprit for the paper’s decline. (The “endless, slavish drumbeat for Democratic ideas might just be the problem”.)
Sorry to disengage anybody from that stale curse. The PD has long been in league with the city’s powerful conservative establishment that heads out to the eastern suburbs each evening after office hours. But there’s far more to the story. Try, for example the crushing blow of the social media that is draining the life blood from what we once took for granted as newsprint journalism.
Investor-conscious Wall Street owners of the corporate media have eagerly sought ways to eliminate unions from their bottom lines. In Cleveland, the paper has negotiated the removal of 60 full-time company drivers and re-hired some of them on a part-time basis – a not-uncommon sleight-of-jobs by other big employers to erase health-care and other benefits.
Finally, there have been strategic decisions that turned out to be false gods. The Beacon Journal, for example, once tried a full-court circulation press on Canton, only to absorb a lot of red ink before it called off a failed venture.
In Syracuse, where Advance Publications converted the Post-Standard to a three-day delivery cycle, the outcome has been pathetic. Columbia Journalism Review reported this week that the paper is printing no more than 12,000 newsstand copies on the non-delivery days – less than a sixth of its daily circulation on the former home-delivery days. At that, the newsstand buyers are getting no more than a 16-page skeleton.
The PD and BJ were once such rivals that one seldom saw the other’s name in the local print. That, too, has changed as the papers across the state now ride piggyback with each other’s stories, complete with bylines and attribution . It was interesting, then, to see a series of ads in the BJ now promising seven-day home delivery. Just one more sign of the desperation rattling the papers these days.
Ryan Chittum, the writer of the CJR report, was hardly impressed with the Plain Dealer’s message to its readers that the paper was “adapting to better serve our community”.
“Saying the changes are to “‘better serve our community’ is insulting to readers and the 53 journalists the paper is about to fire,” Chittum wrote.
Actually, it had been 58, but five have already pulled out on their own.
The PD’s guild contract doesn’t expire until 2019, but as one reporter sighed: “By then there will be nobody left anyway”.
Defeat is in the air. And that’s not news anymore.