The most intriguing question at this week’s Ohio City Writers forum on the Plain Dealer’s future wasn’t the Plain Dealer’s future. Most panelists seemed resigned to the fact that the paper will shrink this spring by cutting a third of its news staff. Instead, the talk became a brainstorming session on how nonprofit and for-profit startups might rise up to fill the growing holes in Cleveland news coverage.
“[Will] the Plain Dealer be vulnerable to competition?” asked moderator Dan Moulthrop of the Civic Commons. Perhaps, he suggested, the 58 journalists the paper's owner plans to cut from the newsroom after May 1 “could start a new news organization for the city.”
The Tuesday talk at the Happy Dog was the second time in a week that a West Side bar became a forum for heated talk about layoffs and seven-day publication at Cleveland’s daily paper. But the vibe Tuesday night was far different than at the newsroom union’s 7-Day Lager party last week.
Rachel Dissell, PD reporter and a leader of the Newspaper Guild's Save the Plain Dealer campaign, shared the stage with a skeptical panel that reflected Cleveland’s changing media landscape, including a moderator from a civic-journalism website, a politician-blogger and two former newspaper reporters gone digital. Some panelists, such as Pepper Pike city councilwoman Jill Miller Zimon, said they’ve become platform-agnostic, reading news both in print and online.
At first, the talk became a debate of sorts between Dissell and Angie Schmitt, a co-founder of the website Rust Wire who’s written critically about the Save the PD effort.
“It’s really a shame to see anyone laid off,” said Schmitt, who was laid off from the Toledo Blade four years ago. “But the reliance on print makes layoffs inevitable as print declines.”
“Does it take fewer people to ask questions and report stories for a 24-hour website than it does for a seven-day newspaper?” Dissell shot back.
Layoffs are business decisions, Schmitt replied. The web is “where you’re going to see growth in the media in the future.”
Online news is a “really tough business,” added Schmitt, a writer for the nonprofit Streetsblog, but “in some ways, it can be good for consumers, because there’s a really direct way to tell how your stories are being received and what people value.”
That defense of click-driven journalism alarmed Dissell. “On cleveland.com, the stories that get the most hits are the ones with the words, ‘Free,’ ‘Naked,’ and ‘Browns’ in them,” she replied.
Dissell recalled her work researching and writing mini-bios of 136 figures connected to the Cuyahoga County corruption investigation. Who else besides the Plain Dealer has the resources to do such a thing? she asked.
Halfway through, the talk turned on Moulthrop’s question: would a smaller PD face new competition? Schmitt said it would open up opportunities for journalism entrepreneurs.
“In Seattle, somebody told me, every single neighborhood has a hyperlocal blog that’s supporting a full- or part-time journalist,” Schmitt said. “In Cleveland, I think our new media landscape hasn’t been evolving the way you’d expect it to. It’s lagging behind places like Columbus and Toledo.”
Dissell said Patch.com, a leader in neighborhood coverage, hasn’t figured out how to be profitable. Maybe a nonprofit news organization will have to fill the gap, she said.
Two other panelists, freelancer Afi-Odelia Scruggs and Thor Wasbotten, director of Kent State’s journalism school, debated whether crowd-funding can pay for investigative reporting. Scruggs said it seems to work best when crowd-funded journalists partner with established news organizations. Dissell said the Save the Plain Dealer campaign was looking into partnerships with nonprofits to cover areas the staff most wants to cover.
Wasbotten recommended journalist entrepreneurs approach the Knight Foundation, which has roots in Northeast Ohio. “They’re looking for great ideas,” he said.
All the talk of webby innovation brought Dissell back to the union’s frustrations with Advance, the Plain Dealer’s parent company. “We have no control over almost any of the website,” she says. “We can’t create our own apps. We can’t put out our own iPad version every day.” She once suggested creating digital news-alert notifications and was told the company wouldn’t allow it.
“If you go to the company with an idea and say, ‘I really think we need to do this online,’ you get radio silence,” she said.
Panelists kept returning to the main irony of Advance’s moves in Cleveland and elsewhere: It’s pursuing a digital-first strategy, but doesn’t create first-rate websites. That makes its risky bet even riskier.
“Go find the Advance Publications site,” Scruggs told the smartphone users in the audience. “When you look at that site, I want you to answer this question: Why do we expect them to do for us what they aren’t doing for themselves?”
Update, 12/17: You can listen to the forum here.