By now, anyone who cares knows the details of the Plain Dealer newsroom’s union and its struggle to affect decisions about the newspaper’s future. Time will soon tell whether the “Save the Plain Dealer” was a desperate slogan or a victory cry.
We already know, however, that the newspaper is fading. In a single year, the daily Plain Dealer lost roughly 13,000 readers. Next spring, one-third of the 168 people in the newsroom could hit the door. And that’s the best-case scenario. If Newspaper Guild members reject a tentative contract, 80 folks could be packing almost immediately. Fewer reporters, editors and journalists will cover fewer events and examine fewer controversies. The newspaper’s leadership – whoever that might be – will have to ration and allocate resources.
Right now, though, the newspaper’s most important asset – its readers – have little idea where the paper/site is actually headed. More importantly, we don’t have a clue what the revamped produce will contain.
The new normal: web first, Plain Dealer later
Make no mistake; the online product will get time, attention and affection. The newspaper will probably get leftovers. The sign comes from a concession in the agreement allowing web content to flow into the paper. The provision widens the door for so-called “reverse publishing.” If you’ve ever read a book that started as a blog, you’ve experienced reverse publishing.
Patrick Beeson critiqued the approach back in 2008. Beeson, who directs digital communications for Wake Forest University, also noted people use web and print differently. He suggested a way to get the best from both media.
“Online content producers should concentrate on … breaking news, database creation and multimedia… The print content producers will be deployed on stories that play well on paper. Examples of this are long-form storytelling and in-depth perspectives of issues.”
Under this theory, newspapers don’t have to be dailies; weekly publication would suffice. Beeson doesn’t see that as a tragedy. “This makes sense with the media audience shifting from print to online,” he wrote.
It could work very well with local controversies, like the shooting in East Cleveland. Breaking news announcing the shooting and audio from the police dispatches would go online, just as they do now. A longer, more analytical story, such as one examining police policies and procedures in high-speed chases, would fill a newspaper. The content could still be cross-platform. For example, the longer stories, with embedded links to the web, could be formatted for an e-reader for those wanting the entire package.
Syracuse’s present is the Plain Dealer’s future
Following Beeson’s advice requires the Newhouse family, which owns the Plain Dealer, to recognize and adapt to the differences between print and the web. That’s not likely. A look at the paper’s sister sites in Alabama and Syracuse, N.Y. confirms what a Plain Dealer employee told me: Newhouse likes to do everything the same way.
Besides, why should the company care about the paper? Its workers are unionized; those on the web side aren’t. Folks in and out of the Plain Dealer newsroom made a blunt prediction: Newhouse will never hire another newsroom employee.
Here’s the painful truth: the Plain Dealer is fading away. So perhaps it’s time for the community to stop clinging to the idea of a daily publication. Instead we should organize to ensure news – real news – gets covered and published, whatever the method of delivery.