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Perspective | Plain Dealer layoffs: Need or greed?

8:26 AM, Aug 2, 2013   |    comments
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The importance of a news story is often measured by how many people it affects or its larger impact.

So by those standards, the layoff of about a third of the Plain Dealer's editorial staff was the most important story in Thursday's paper.

The action will touch everyone who pays attention to Cleveland news and will have a dramatic effect on how well the community is informed.

But the Plain Dealer didn't put it on the front page. It received a well-written and balanced story. But the 16 paragraphs were spread between pages C-1 and C-4, given less space and a less prominent place than an article about a new coffee company entering the marketplace.

Laying off a third of the veteran reporters and photographers, who find  prepare and write the news will hurt the community economically, as would job reductions in any business.

But it will also impact the new hybrid digital/print news company's ability to be the news and editorial compass for the community it's been until now.

About two dozen staffers volunteered to be laid off, either believing it made economic sense to take a severance package, or personal and professional sense to leave a changing business model they did not wish to be part of.

Yes, other journalists, especially the old-school variety like this one, are probably more upset by cuts than ordinary readers. After all , some of those fired are personal friends and familiar competitors.

But Plain Dealer readers are losing the experience and dedication of many news professionals. Casualties include experts in transportation, religion, science, three of four savvy high school sports reporters and two columnists who regularly wrote about positive efforts and inspiring subjects that will be sorely missed.

Some stories won't be discovered or written. Others won't be as accurate or complete.

All mainstream media, like newspapers and television news departments, are trying to reinvent themselves with a business model that makes sense and makes money.

But the Plain Dealer and its sister papers owned by Advance are seemingly trying to force a model on many readers and advertisers who aren't ready.

Advance is the most aggressive newspaper company in downsizing and diminishing printed papers in favor of digital content. But many other newspaper groups are starting to charge online readers for content that's been available for free.

Advance has rejected that approach outright.

More than a year ago, Advance's New Orleans Times Picayune stopped publishing a daily paper, switching to three days a week. But this May, there was a surprising new development. Or make that a surprising old development.

The Times Picayune announced it would resume printing a paper every day. And there are other signs dying daily papers have more life than some thought.

Efforts to dismantle them are being dismantled. The Philadelphia Inquirer resumed printing a discontinued Saturday edition. The bottom line is printed newspapers combining quality news coverage and informative ads dropped on readers doorsteps are still the best moneymakers newspapers have.

The Plain Dealer switched plans to have home delivery just three days a weeks after angy auto dealers demanded a Saturday paper to run their weekend ads in.

Unquestionably, news consumers are getting more and more news from digital devices.

But lots of questions about the looming Plain Dealer switch remain unanswered. It's a private business with a public purpose. So it's not required to deliver the same kind of transparency it expects of those it covers.

Why haven't any members of the Newhouse family come to Cleveland to publicly discuss the changes being made or demonstrate a personal commitment to the community?

How will the new business model serve to make the paper more profitable and productive?-Why is the pay-wall strategy a logical move for other newspaper chains, but not Advance?

What role, if any, did community input play in fashioning the business model? In a business where circulation remains important, how will eliminating 80 percent of circulation that comes from home delivery three days a week be beneficial?

The Plain Dealer remains profitable. How much more profitable is it projected to be under the new business model?

Did Greater Cleveland's business, political and civic leadership attempt to ask any of these questions?

Publicly, almost nothing was said or done to preserve a daily home-delivered paper.

New Orleans' efforts to have a local owner buy the Times-Picayune were spurned. And, candidly, many younger readers don't read and won't miss daily print and ink.

Hopefully, laid-off Plain Dealer staffers will find jobs that put their communications skills to good use and keep them involved in a community they care about.

Change is always painful. For better or worse, it starts Monday.


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