Thursday, November 15, 2012

Plain Dealer's future dominates public forum

Will The Plain Dealer remain a daily newspaper? That question dominated the conversation at today's forum at Trinity Cathedral about the future of the news in Cleveland.

“There’s a lot at stake; it’s not just our jobs,” said Harlan Spector, chairman of the Newspaper Guild's Plain Dealer chapter and one of the leaders of the union's Save The Plain Dealer campaign, launched Sunday.

The Plain Dealer's owner, Advance Publications, has been converting its daily newspapers in several states to three-day-a-week publications and cutting their staffs by about 50 percent. The realignment toward online publication has already happened at Advance's papers in Michigan, Alabama and New Orleans, and it is slated to take place in Syracuse, N.Y., and Harrisburg, Pa. in January.

Plain Dealer staffers fear Cleveland will be next. A no-layoffs pledge in the journalists’ union contract expires in January, and the company has told leaders of the newsroom union that layoffs and unspecified changes are coming.

“This really undermines the ability of the press to function as it should in a free society,” Spector argued to the audience of about 30 at today's forum, sponsored by the Cleveland chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Spector pointed to paper's coverage of the 2009 Cuyahoga County reform effort. “The Plain Dealer was all over county reform. We covered it at every turn of the screw,” he said. “That would not have happened if it weren’t for a daily newspaper coming to look at that day in and day out. That’s the kind of thing you’re going to lose.”

Without a daily paper, many people will be cut off from the news, Spector argued. “The physical paper serves a role that I don’t think can be replaced digitally,” he said. “There are a lot of elderly in the city, and they’re not just going to go on the website to get their news.”

Print newspapers nationwide face declining circulation and revenue as readers move online. People at the forum agreed that social media is accelerating the change and becoming many readers’ main source of news.

“News was a one-way thing, where we printed it and you read it. We played the gatekeeper role,” said Jean Dubail, a senior regional editor at Patch.com and a former Plain Dealer staffer.

“We would sort through all the myriad of things that were happening in Cleveland and boil them down into a manageable package that you could read every day,” Dubail said. “Now that function is being performed by your friends.”

Plain Dealer reporter Diane Suchetka, in the audience, argued that her colleagues are providing reliable reporting online and in print. “We’re tweeting, we’re on Facebook, but we’re giving people a quality product just like in any other industry,” Suchetka said. “You want the suit coat that you buy, or the glasses that you buy, or the shoes that you buy to be good, and you’re willing to pay for good quality. That’s what we’re asking.”

The Save The Plain Dealer campaign's online petition has attracted nearly 1,000 signatures in the past 24 hours, totaling at 3,629 supporters as of this afternoon. The campaign hopes to receive 5,000 signatures and encourages the community and long-time followers of The Plain Dealer to show their support over the next several weeks by signing the petition, subscribing to the paper and writing letters to Advance executive Steven Newhouse.

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