Plain Dealer Plans To Lay Off A Third of Unionized News Staff

The headquarters of Advance Ohio, formerly the Plain Dealer's newsroom, on Superior Avenue in Cleveland. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
The headquarters of Advance Ohio, formerly the Plain Dealer's newsroom, on Superior Avenue in Cleveland. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
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Twenty-nine union employees at the Plain Dealermostly copy editors, page designers, and illustratorswill be laid off after March 2019, according to George Rodrigue, the paper’s Editor and President. The plan is to outsource most of those jobs to a New Yorked-based company called Advance Local, which is a subsidiary of the PD’s parent company, Advance Publications. 

The decision caps weeks of negotiations between company management and the PD News Guild, a union that represents 68 Plain Dealer employees including reporters, copy editors, designers, photographers, and illustrators.

Wendy McManamon, a copy editor whose job is among those slated to be cut, said the paper's managers are saving money by trading in journalists with local perspective.

"Journalists care, their readers care," said McManamon, who also heads the PD Guild. "Maybe one day the people who run these newspapers will care again." 

“We make this decision with some sadness," Rodrigue said in a statement Thursday, “but with the long-term preservation of The Plain Dealer at heart." 

Over the past decade or so, improvements in technology have made it possible for groups of newspapers around the country to pool their resources, especially on pages of national and international news, sports, or features. This concept has been tested industry wide, and has proven to be both efficient and effective. It allows local newsrooms to focus their editing efforts on their local journalism, which means quality can be sustained at lower cost.
 
The Plain Dealer began in October to explore the question of whether we, too, could benefit from such production efficiencies. We solicited bids from companies that specialize in centralized production services, and invited the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild to discuss keeping production local. We have carefully reviewed all those proposals, including an offer from The Guild, and have chosen to contract with Advance Local for production of The Plain Dealer.  

— George Rodrigue, President and Editor, The Plain Dealer
 

Despite the changes, “The Plain Dealer will remain a local institution,” Rodrigue said, “Editorial decision making will remain the responsibility of The Plain Dealer’s editors.”

Local stories, which make up about half of the newspaper, “will be selected and copy-edited by veteran journalists based in Cleveland.” He added that those who are laid off will have a chance to apply for those positions.

As the news sank in, some current and former Plain Dealer employees expressed dismay and frustration on social media. Rachel Dissell, a reporter at the paper since 2002, tweeted that the company was "following rather than leading":

"Just like it followed when other papers decided to give content away for free online. Because that worked out well...." she added.

The statement announcing the layoffs was "designed to confuse and deflect," said Josh Crutchmer, a former design and graphics editor for the PD, who currently works for the New York Times:

The PD Guild followed the announcement with a series of tweets, accusing the company’s management of “union-busting” and opting for “cost savings and efficiencies” over quality. 

“The Plain Dealer unit of the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild for months has fought to keep this work in Cleveland,” read one tweet, “because the Guild knows that having local journalists, with knowledge of the community, would produce the best newspaper.”

One tweet also called into question Rodrigue’s statement that the editorial decisions will remain in the hands of PD editors: “Plain Dealer Editor George Rodrigue told the public that all decisions about content would rest with The Plain Dealer but, based on Guild conversations with Rodrigue, that does not appear to be entirely true.”

PD Guild members have a contract negotiation coming up in February. Until then, McManamon said, their focus will be on getting the best deal for those who will be laid off.

In recent years, other publishers have consolidated their newspaper operations to save money, including GateHouse Media, which owns the Akron Beacon Journal. McManamon said she worries that by following that trend, the Plain Dealer's news coverage will become "cookie-cutter."

"Cleveland readers deserve to have a newspaper that reflects their city," she said. If the PD has fewer in-house artists and copy editors who live and work in the region, she said, "The quality, I fear, will suffer."

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