Wednesday, March 11, 2009

PD to close? Not so fast

Maybe you saw the prediction that the Plain Dealer will close or go digital-only. It swept across Cleveland blogs and inboxes this week, and the PD responded with this article, calling the prediction "baseless."

The prediction seems pretty weak. It's speculation based on two facts: 1) Cleveland is struggling economically. 2) The chain that owns the PD threatened to close its paper in Newark, but backed off.

I'll concede the first point. But the Newark Star-Ledger was on track to lose $40 million last year. The PD is still in the black, editor Susan Goldberg said at her City Club talk last month.

However, the PD's response is also weak. Most of it was spent pointing out that the doomsday prediction comes from the financial blog 24/7 Wall St., not Time, though the article appears on because of an online partnership.

The comments from Publisher Terry Egger (pictured) on the paper's health did not reassure me much (emphasis mine):

Egger said that newspapers are having financial difficulties, but The Plain Dealer made money in 2008. Though it laid off a significant number of employees late last year, Egger said, the paper budgeted to make money in 2009.

Egger said The Plain Dealer and its parent corporation, Advance Publications, remain committed to producing news both in print and online. "Every plan we have for the immediate future is to make that work," he said.

I doubt the PD will fold or go all-digital. It'll just lay off more employees if goes into the red. But the doomsday prediction reminded me of a less drastic but still alarming option.

The Detroit News -- another paper on 24/7's doomsday list -- and Detroit Free Press are cutting back on home delivery, going down to only three days a week starting this spring.

Some days of a newspaper attract way more ads than others. Sunday papers are huge, while Monday and Tuesday papers are tiny. The Detroit papers are going to deliver only the lucrative editions, and send readers online or to newsstands for 32-page mini-papers the other four days a week.

I couldn't help but notice that Egger's denial was published in a Tuesday print edition that included a 6-page A section and 6-page B section. If ad sales keep falling, there is not much left to cut on Tuesdays.

I don't want to predict that the Plain Dealer will eventually adopt Detroit's strategy. It seems like a great way to alienate your core audience (the read-my-paper-with-breakfast crowd), and there is plenty of news to report on your average Tuesday. But if the paper's ad base keeps shrinking, I have to imagine they're at least going to look at the Detroit model.

Update: This New York Times article considers the possibility that some cities might soon be left without a newspaper, but it doesn't name names.

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