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Cleveland paper braces for change

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By USA Today
Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
 

Ohio's largest newspaper, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, could soon face the end of its 170-year run as a daily print publication.

But employees and community leaders aren't about to let it happen without protests. The “Save The Plain Dealer” campaign, largely orchestrated by its employees, has bought billboard ads opposing the possible cutbacks planned by the paper's owner, Advance Publications, which is based in Staten Island, N.Y.

The campaign's Facebook page has been collecting worried posts. Local celebrities, including actress Valerie Bertinelli, have spoken out in support. Community meetings have gathered those concerned, and politicians have had their say.

But the prospect of losing the 7-days-a-week publishing schedule of the Cleveland newspaper is more acute now that its publisher has all but confirmed major changes in coming weeks.

In a letter to readers on Nov. 18, Terry Egger, The Plain Dealer's publisher, said Advance Publications will implement a restructuring that will signify “a bold move to sustain our mission and viability in the future.”

“It is the role of our leadership team in Cleveland to design the best model to safeguard the future of our enterprise and to preserve the quality of our journalism at The Plain Dealer,” he wrote in the letter, published in the paper. “Ours is not an ‘either/or' decision between print and digital. We must do both. We do not have a specific plan, timeline or structure for Cleveland. But we will — very soon.”

There have been weeks of nervous chatter in the newsroom and the community that Advance Publications would mirror the cutback tactics it's used for other newspaper and reduce the number of publishing days to three a week and lay off a large number of employees.

If the anticipated changes occur, the largest American newspaper to date would abandon daily print publishing — driven by the waning love affair between readers and home-delivered newspapers as more people go online for news and plummeting ad revenue for publishers.

Managing the growth of their digital units while clinging to costly print editions has been a perplexing conundrum for newspaper owners.

While no one doubts that online ads and other digital revenue sources will make up the bulk of revenue growth, printed newspapers still deliver most of the profits needed to maintain newsrooms and production facilities.

In the third quarter, newspaper ad revenue fell 6.4 percent from a year ago to $4.5 billion, according to the Newspaper Association of America. Meanwhile, online ads rose 3.6 percent to $759 million.

Cutting the number of publication days “would be quite a blow,” said John Mangels, a science writer at the paper and a leader of the “Save the Plain Dealer” movement. “That's part of the conversation with those in the community. It'd be a psychological blow, and it would have tangible impacts, as well. The city needs an information point,” he says. Without it, “a certain amount of the fabric of the city begins to unravel.”

Egger and Advance Publications, which is controlled by Donald and S.I. Newhouse Jr., did not respond to requests for comment.

There has been no confirmation that the paper will reduce publishing to three days. But the clues left by Advance have been clear and consistent, said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute.

Advance reduced the newspaper publication to three days a week at the Ann Arbor News in 2009 and at other papers in Michigan, as well as six other papers in four other states — The Huntsville Times, Mobile Press-Register and Birmingham News in Alabama, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Harrisburg Patriot-News in Pennsylvania and the Syracuse Post-Standard in New York.

The size of the staffs at these papers were cut 50 percent, according to the Save the Plain Dealer campaign.

Mangels said that Plain Dealer staffers, who have been informed of coming layoffs, are bracing for similar operational changes at the Plain Dealer in “the next 12 to 18 months, possibly sooner.”

“All we have to guide us is what they have done in other markets,” he said.

The paper has 170 non-management staffers, including reporters, editors, photographers and designers, who are represented by Local One, of the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild. But they're not unfamiliar with cutbacks. In 2008, the newspaper laid off “dozens of employees,” and staffers took a 12 percent voluntary pay cut to prevent further downsizing, the campaign says. Their 401(k) contributions are not matched, and pensions have been frozen for five years.

In addressing the publication schedule cutback, Advance CEO Steve Newhouse has said that maintaining daily print operations is no longer sustainable, given falling revenue. But the company has steered more resources and beefed up staffing at its newspaper websites and affiliated local websites, such as MLive.com and Cleveland.com.

 

 
 


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