In view of 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-a-week 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,” 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. Instead it was painfully debilitated in recent years 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.