When I joined the Plain Dealer as a columnist and reporter in the early 1990s the mood in the paper’s front office was expansive. I had a desk in the PD’s Montrose bureau from which nearly a dozen reporters ranged across Summit and Medina Counties. At one point, Alex Machaskee, the ebullient publisher, demonstrated the PD’s intense interest in a widening role in northern Ohio by driving down to Akron as the host and speaker to a large group of potential advertisers, city officials and general achievers at a luncheon. He wanted to stress the paper’s commitment to winning a lot of new friends in the PD’s backyard that had long served as the Beacon Journal’s unchallenged domain.
As evidence of the PD’s ambitious goal, it lured a number of the BJ’s veterans to Cleveland, including Terry Pluto, Regina Brett, Stuart Warner and Debra Simmons, now the PD’s editor, and several others. But somewhere along the line, after a rah-rah couple of years, the idea of journalistic supremacy as the state’s largest newspaper began to fizzle as the bills arrived for the costly investment against the monstrous challenge of the Internet and online access to news.
The bureau itself was moved from a modern office (overlooking a pond!) in Montrose to a bleak windowless basement quarters on the Medina square for what was described as cheaper rent. There was a buzz that the PD’s bean counters had decided there was a better way to spend its money. The paper lost its swagger as the state’s journalistic commander-in-chief.
Editorial positions were left unfilled as staff cutbacks shrank the numbers. The recently announced planned cuts for 2013 were met with little surprise. According to the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild, 58 of the guildsmen, or one third, would be cut. Harlan Spector, the guild president, said some non-guild managers would also lose their jobs. In hopes of heading off the Draconian plan, the Guild had run big ads appealing to the public to rescue the paper from the assumed cut.
Quite likely the PD’s owner, Advance Publications, will decide to resort to a three-day-a-week home delivery schedule while relying on sidewalk sales the other days. It’s the formula used at Advance papers in Harrisburg, Syracuse and New Orleans, as well as others.
No one denies that newspapers everywhere are trying to stay alive in a technological universe. The challenges are great these days. In the Plain Dealer’s case, the tragedy is that despite its once-powerful Cleveland voice, the PD never enjoyed a broader claim to national distinction in its heyday. Its editorial policies were controlled by cautious editors and publishers who were less than eager to engage in issues that would annoy the establishment.
The paper sent only one reporter early on to cover the Kent State shootings. The Beacon Journal set up a team of reporters for daily coverage that earned a Pulitzer. Tom Vail, the forever-careful editor and publisher told me it was decided not to roil the campus with more reporters! In another moment Vail complained to me in his office that he wanted to build a staff that would win Pulitzer Prizes, something that the PD had not accomplished in a half-century. “When I look down the road at the Beacon Journal and its Pulitzers, I know we have to do something about it here,” he said.
That didn’t happen until columnist Connie Schultz, who is no longer on the staff, won one in 2005, the paper’s first since 1953.
A friend at the paper tells me that the announcement of the staff reduction won’t occur until January, after the Guild contract against layoffs expires. Meantime the Guildsmen will be working in jittery circumstances until it happens. “We think it’s a done deal’’, he said “Who knows what it will be? One thing I’m sure: It isn’t about cost-cutting. We think the paper is profitable now but don’t have the figures. It’s a matter of getting still more out of less.”
As one who worked for both the Beacon Journal and later the Plain Dealer, I can only add for the radically scaled-down paper: “R.I.P.”