Last night, after word went out that The Plain Dealer’s newsroom layoffs would come today, Ellen Jan Kleinerman stayed late to finish her article, knowing it might be her last.
At 8 p.m., the medical reporter scheduled her story to post on Cleveland.com. It went online this morning at 6 a.m. Four hours later, she and about 44 other journalists were out of a job.
“I was in mourning for my career, for my colleagues, and for journalism in general,” Kleinerman said tonight on the patio of the Market Garden Brewery, where dozens of Plain Dealer reporters gathered for what was dubbed an Irish wake. “The way we cover news is changing. I’m all for change, but I’m not sure I’m embracing the type of change that’s going to come.”
The Plain Dealer slashed its unionized newsroom staff by 30 percent today, part of its switch to a digital-first news strategy and its cutback to a four-day home delivery schedule next week.
About half of the laid-off journalists volunteered to go. Harlan Spector, head of the Newspaper Guild local, and John Mangels, leader of the union’s Save The Plain Dealer campaign, asked to be put on the layoff list. So did columnists Regina Brett and Margaret Bernstein.
For those who chose to leave, the layoff amounts to a generous buyout – a union-guaranteed two weeks’ pay for every year worked. It’s also a chance to save someone else’s job while opting out of Advance Publications’ digital future.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Spector, a 32-year journalist and 23-year PD veteran, after the Guild’s 6 pm rally outside the Plain Dealer offices. “I never thought I’d leave the business. But the way things are going here, I didn’t think I’d get to practice journalism the way I and many others have practiced it.”
The new way is speed and clicks, not ink. Managers are telling PD reporters to think of themselves as working for a website, not a newspaper, one staffer said. While they post news as it happens, a new team of curators will decide which Cleveland.com stories make it to print.
The changes concern Kleinerman, who says editors seem focused on attracting hits, not a story’s value to the community. She fears the PD’s remaining journalists won’t have time to chase unsexy stories that drive change, like her 2009 series about the Cleveland water division’s plague of broken meters, outrageous over-billing and hour-long call times.
“I’ve been in journalism 30 years,” she said. “I love writing. I love the mission. It’s very fulfilling when you do a story and you know that you’ve informed readers and changed lives.”
For 110 journalists and a few dozen nonunion editors, that work goes on. Today -- as if to signal the new regime will support in-depth projects -- Cleveland.com previewed a digital-first investigative series on DNA testing of old rape kits. It’s set to debut Monday, the first day with no home-delivered Plain Dealer. Rachel Dissell, a reporter on the project, says some elements will also run in the paper, but a few, such as an interactive digital timeline, won’t fit a print format.
Tomorrow, Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer will cover Ariel Castro’s sentencing, the finale to the city’s biggest story of the year. It could be a morale boost for the slimmed-down staff – or, at least, a way to work through survivor’s guilt.