Behind the campaign to save a newspaper
Cleveland employees worry their paper will move mostly online
November 14, 2012
Over the past few months, Advance Publications has begun shepherding newspapers in New Orleans, Alabama, Harrisburg, Pa., and Syracuse, N.Y., to a bold new model, eliminating the print edition four days a week and putting more emphasis online. The moves initially took the papers’ hometowns by surprise and sparked protests aimed at getting the company to change its mind, which did not work. Employees at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, another Advance paper, don’t want to deal with a similar surprise. They’ve organized a preemptive campaign that launched this week to convince the company to keep the Plain Dealer as a seven-days-per-week publication. Though Advance has not yet announced any plans to reduce the Plain Dealer’s print edition, the Campaign to Save the Plain Dealer is urging Cleveland residents to log requests with the company to keep the status quo. The campaign will spend thousands of dollars this week, many contributed by union groups, on advertising to raise awareness of the possible changes at the Plain Dealer and encouraging Cleveland residents to contact the Newhouse family directly. John Mangels, science writer at The Plain Dealer, and chairman of the steering committee for the Campaign to Save the Plain Dealer, talks to Media Life about how the campaign got started, what reaction Advance has had, and what would constitute success.
When did you and others at the newspaper begin to worry that your paper could be cut to three days a week?
I think it really came into focus for us right after New Orleans. That's really when we began talking amongst ourselves about the possibility that it could happen here, and what, if anything, we could do about it. We started formally meeting as a group in late June or early July and have been working ever since to plan and execute this campaign.
How did the idea for this campaign get hatched?
It's a pretty diverse group on the steering committee. People that have been here for a long time and some people not so long, but the collective interest is in finding a way to preserve what we do.
We want to save our jobs, yes, but there's a bigger issue at stake, and that's what the newspaper and its staff bring to the community. We're not against online journalism, we do it every day, but if you dismantle the staff that puts together the Plain Dealer, there won't be anyone left to put anything up online.
Can we do what was attempted in New Orleans, but didn't succeed because it happened after the decision was announced? That's an advantage we have, a decision hasn't been made yet. That gives the community a chance to tell Advance what they want to happen, and what they don't want to happen.
Who is shepherding it, and what position do you hold with the group?
I'm leading it as much as it needs a leader. It's a group of journalists that know each other and have worked together well. It's not a matter of leading but channeling the ideas that come up. We're very creative, very thoughtful, have lots of ideas, and it's really just a matter of sorting through these and picking the best ones and letting people loose.
How much will be spent on advertising urging Advance to keep the seven-day-a-week schedule?
The number has changed over time. We started not thinking we would get much of anything. We did approach the Local 1 of the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild, the union that represents the non-management journalists at the Plain Dealer, for help and were given $5,000 in seed money. We also applied to our parent union the Communications Workers of America for a larger grant, which we did get.
So our budget has grown over time. We have a TV commercial in the works and we're also discussing radio commercials. We started the campaign in our own newspaper, to our audience of readers, and bus placards and billboards have just started going up.
I think another important component of the campaign has been reaching out to the public in various ways, and reaching out to people in the community that are leaders either by being elected, or business folks or heads of foundations–we put out a mass email on Sunday to make our case with those folks as well. [We told them] why we started this campaign and that we wanted to alert them that this is a community fight.
We're a community asset, resource and institution. If the community believes we have value, they've got to decide where this campaign goes. So we're looking to kick things off and kindle the fire so to speak. We've likened it to past battles here in Cleveland, for example, to get the Browns back when they left and protect the United Airlines hub that was here. We think the newspaper is in that same realm.
Did you go through an agency to coordinate the advertising, or is this all the work of Plain Dealer employees?
We have heard, and I haven't confirmed this, but it appears the Plain Dealer has retained an advertising firm in response to what we're doing. We're doing this all ourselves. It's been interesting to us to see what that world is like. We've talked about it, but I think for now the feeling is we're doing pretty well getting our message out. So for now we're going to keep it that way.
What are the risks with such a bold plan? Do you have any worries that Advance management will react poorly? Have you heard anything from them?
No we haven't [heard anything from Advance]. They have generally been very quiet about this. They haven’t said what their intent is for Cleveland. We have seen that people who have sent letters to [Advance.net chairman] Steve Newhouse have gotten a response. It's not a terribly revealing response, but he basically says we haven't decided anything yet for Cleveland and we hope to preserve the quality of journalism. We hope he can do that, but we have our doubts. When you cut back on the staff and the number of days the newspaper is published, it's almost inevitable that the quality of journalism will suffer.
I think the campaign has tried very hard to be a respectful and responsible one. If anything we're asking people to support the paper and its journalists more than they may have already. Take out subscription, support the advertisers–this isn't a time to bash the paper or its owners, we just disagree on the strategy as we move forward to the digital age. I don’t see how anyone would retaliate against anyone carrying that message.
What do you think the prospects are for erecting a paywall, and why hasn't Advance followed the march of so many newspaper companies in erecting one?
That's something we've talked a lot about. I can only speculate on what little I've seen. Steve Newhouse did an interview with Poynter a couple of months ago–and I’m paraphrasing so take this with a grain of salt–but it sounds like they're opposed to the paywall idea because they think it would limit or reduce the number of people that see the online product.
I guess our response to that would be a couple of things. One, there certainly are experiments going on in other markets, and it looks like in some places it's working. Again, it's hard to tell, but people are saying if the quality of journalism remains good, they'd be willing to pay for a digital subscription. It's a little insulting to your subscribers to ask them to pay when others are getting content for free, and maybe even quicker than with the newspaper.
There are examples out there that Advance could look at, but it seems they have rejected it without a lot of thought, and what we worry about is if you get rid of the thing that has differentiated us, the breadth and depth of the journalism, how are you going to possibly charge advertisers more or get more eyes on those pages? You're undercutting your competitive advantages. The Advance model seems to greatly diminish the one thing that makes us stand out from others that cover Northeast Ohio.
There was a lot of outcry after Advance announced the changes at the Times-Picayune. What sort of reaction to the potential cutbacks have you heard from Cleveland residents?
It's been overwhelmingly in support of what we're doing and in support of keeping the seven-day-a-week paper and keeping the staff intact. Cleveland is like New Orleans in that there's a fondness for the paper, and it's an older and poorer city. Around 40 percent or more of households in Cleveland don't have internet access. So if you shift resources to online, you're disenfranchising people. And I think that's a real issue here like it was and is in New Orleans.
We've seen a pretty interesting piece in an alternative newspaper site in Birmingham, where another Advance paper cut to three days a week. The reaction there already is people are realizing they're getting a lot less news, they didn't have a say in it, it was forced upon them. And that's what we're trying to have not happen.
If Advance does decide to continue seven days a week, do you worry that the decision will be revisited again, as the industry moves more and more toward digital?
I think it inevitably will have to be [revisited]. We're realists, we know there's a time when print will go away. But I think there's a transition that doesn't have to be this radical and potentially disruptive. It doesn't have to be this abrupt, and I think that's the direction we'd like to steer things to. What we've talked about amongst ourselves is a good outcome would be to do this more gradually, involve the community and journalists in how it's done.
One of the things that frustrates us quite a bit is, because of the structure of the Advance company, the digital business is separate from the newspaper business. While we have a content providing agreement, we don’t have a hands-on ability to affect how Cleveland.com looks and is organized.
Speaking for myself, it's frustrating because we've got great designers and layout people that could make it a much more accessible site. So if we're going to gradually shift to online it makes sense to us to have involvement with the Plain Dealer editors, etc. and then maybe that transition goes a bit smoother.
Tags: advance publications, advertising, campaign, campaign to save the cleveland plain dealer, cleveland plain dealer, cleveland plain dealer campaign, john mangels, new orleans, newspaper, newspapers, online, Plain Dealer, print, print edition, this week
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