Thursday, April 4, 2013

Plain Dealer going to 3-day home delivery, 7-day newsstand edition

The Plain Dealer has announced its big change, and it’s not what most people expected. The paper will cut home delivery to 3* days a week starting in late summer. But it’ll continue publishing a 7-day paper at newsstands and in an electronic edition. [*see update at bottom]

The move, announced this morning, is part of PD owner Advance Publications’ aggressive shift toward a digital-first publishing strategy. But it’ll play out differently in Cleveland than in other cities where Advance owns newspapers. From New Orleans to Harrisburg, Pa., Advance papers have given up on daily print publication in the past several months.

Instead, The Plain Dealer is adopting a strategy pioneered by the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, which reduced home delivery to three days a week in 2009 to cut printing and delivery costs. The PD says it’ll deliver papers to homes on Sundays and two other days to be named later.

The head of The Plain Dealer’s newsroom union, which tried to rally Greater Cleveland against a reduction in the paper’s print schedule, reacted to the news with a mix of guarded relief and continued alarm.

“We’re pleased the paper decided to maintain 7-days-a-week publication,” said Harlan Spector, chairman of the Newspaper Guild’s Local 1. “It perhaps shows that they were listening to the community. However, we still have grave concerns about he staff cuts, the quality of journalism that’s going to be offered with this reduced staff, and the folks that are going to lose out from lack of home delivery four days a week.”

Today’s announcement did not say how much the news-gathering operation will shrink. Staffing decisions will be made this summer, PD publisher Terry Egger said in a press release.

In December, the Guild reluctantly agreed to management’s plan to reduce The Plain Dealer’s news staff from 168 people to 110. But not all of those cuts will be layoffs. Some staffers will be offered jobs with cleveland.com, management told the union at the time. Today’s announcement says news content will be provided by both the Plain Dealer Publishing Company and a reorganized digital operation, the Northeast Ohio Media Group.

Terry Egger, the Plain Dealer’s publisher, will stay to see the paper through the changes. Last September, Egger announced plans to retire this Jan. 1, triggering fears among the staff that the paper was about to become a non-daily. But in December, Egger revealed he was putting off his retirement to work on the transition. Now he plans to leave at the end of 2013.

{Update: Egger and other PD executives lobbied Advance to keep the paper a daily. "We think that's a must in this marketplace, and we were listened to on this point," Egger told newsroom employees, according to Robert L. Smith's article.}

The announcement did not reveal what the newsstand-only editions will look like. In Detroit, smaller, redesigned print editions were rolled out with the switch to 3-day home delivery. Another development in Detroit has cushioned the blow for devoted newspaper readers. Independent distributors have filled the gap, delivering print editions every day to some homes.

The paper broke the news online at about 10 am today, sparking a flood of comments from readers upset about the changes. Plain Dealer managing editor Thomas Fladung and other employees jumped in with responses.

“We will still have staff reductions,” Fladung wrote. “That stinks, but it's dictated by the continuing struggles my industry faces.”

Optimistically, Fladung pitched the changes as a strategy for bouncing back in the long run. “We have to find a way to break out of this cycle of cuts and find the approaches and the products that will again allow us to grow.”

Advance's digital-first strategy has proven controversial in cities where it's been implemented. Critics say its websites are poorly designed and don't live up to the company's digital ambitions. Meanwhile, most newspaper companies are taking a different strategy, erecting paywalls on their websites to shift away from a free-news model.

"Compared with decisions by other owners, [Advance's strategy] looks like an unnecessary and premature surrender of the qualities that make newsrooms worth having—and saving," argued Ryan Chittum in the Columbia Journalism Review in March.

Chittum's story on the changes at the New Orleans Times-Picyaune and its website, NOLA.com, asserted that the quality of news coverage has declined as the New Orleans operation shifts its focus to sports and entertainment.

*Update: The Plain Dealer will be home-delivered 4 days a week, not 3, the paper announced on May 22. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, the paper will be sold only on newsstands. The changes will debut August 5. The paper's announcement was hard to follow; see this Crain's Cleveland Business story for a clear explanation.

1 comment:

Wade Kwon said...

FYI: Advance's Syracuse paper the Post-Standard started the same plan on Jan. 1: Printing daily but offering home delivery only 3 times a week.