Thursday, March 7, 2013

The news inside Plain Dealer is painfully gloomy

(Now posted on Plunderbund)

In view of the Plain Dealer news room's mission to report the news, the absence of news about the people who are supposed to report the news of others has left the staff in a state of day-to-day  suspended animation.  And hardly feeling secure in their line of work.

The problem, of course, is the presumed impending doom of the state's biggest and often most puzzling newspaper (as we now know it), a deeply ensconced establishment journal that has tight-roped for years through local issues in a diverse city that has needed little encouragement to become unruly.

Ever since the word got out last year that the PD's absentee owners were serious about slicing another third of the paper's news staff (58 from about 165 is the operative number) and had a track record of  reducing publication to thrice-weekly in other cities, it was only natural for reporters and on-site editors to wonder about their own survival.    You still won't get an answer  to the fate of the yet-to-be named outcasts. The hit list won't be known, we were told by staff sources, until May.

Nobody is more frustrated by the current lull in the action than Harlan Spector, the Guild president who  has sat  through  meetings with the brass that recently ended with still more union concessions and few specifics about the layoffs. In a way, the Guild faced the option of death by hanging or firing squad.

 "I'd love to know what they're planning," Spector  said  when I called him a few days ago.  The "they" in this instance is Advance Publications owned by the Newhouse family.   The company has already revealed its  course with other papers in its grasp with  something called the Michigan model.  It started with the conversion in 2009 of the Ann Arbor News from print to digital.  Along the way, the owners squeezed such papers  as the New Orleans Times-Picayune into a three-day format. That seems to be where the PD is headed, if the speculation rules the reality. Some time in the spring, the PD's readers could be getting the paper on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday - if the current subscribers decide they want it at all.

Again, Spector and others on the staff with  whom I spoke can do no more than rely on Advance's past actions.  Besides, they suspiciously noted that Editor Debra Simmons and Managing Editor Thom Fladung just visited New Orleans when the  Mardi Gras was only a memory.

"Everybody's on edge," a veteran reporter told me.  "There are no decisions being made here - it's all being handled by the (Advance) New York office where the guys are preparing to do it (expletives deleted)."

The talk now is that the paper will see the rise of "curators"  - a post -journalism term about the folks who will post news on the Internet.  I'm not at all familiar with the precise process and will leave it at that.  However, it has been evident for some time with the challenge of digital news that newspaper owners almost never inject the word "journalism" into their outlooks.  It's become a meaningless distraction to the business model and therefore undefinable in today's alternate communications universe.

Journalism as it was once known didn't disappear overnight as it was painfully debilitated by the space-time speed of electronic transmission in the palms of a new generation's hands.

Still, during the print media's slow trek to the graveyard, it would be nice to meet somebody high up in the business slip  in a nod to journalism just so we have a hint of what nobody on Wall Street seems to be talking about anymore.


1 comment:

David Hess said...

The blame for the decline and demise of newspapers is so widespread and persistent that it's almost impossible to center on one cause. Is it rooted in the multi-city aggregation of newspapers under a corporation that then went public and submitted to the sharks of Wall Street and private investors with no other purpose than to maximize profit margins? Is it attributable to the rise of the Internet and the failure of publishers to figure out a plan for digitizing their news product and establishing a new source of revenue? Is it a spreading public apathy for caring enough about the democratic process of self-government that they believe they don't need a sentinel to stand vigil over elected officials or the economic manipulators who largely control their lives? Take your pick. I'd choose "all of the above." The consequence, alas, of the diminishing presence of newspapers -- apart from the loss of talented people who gather and package the news -- is the heavy blow it deals to the preservation of an informed electorate, indeed to democracy itself.