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According to several sources, PD negotiators have promised that the layoffs will not come until after May 1, 2013, provided that an agreement in the current negotiations is reached. If there is no agreement, however, management says the layoffs will come sooner. Beaujon believes the final body count will fall below the 33 percent mark.
"They do their layoffs, and then they hire back, so only about 20 percent are let go," he says. "I think the biggest problem from the journalists' point of view, besides the obvious trauma, is that their content will only be on one of Advance's sites, and that's not a great prospect."
Advance's sites are notoriously poorly designed and borderline unnavigable. Prominent stories get buried, while updated stories, no matter how trivial, find their way to the top of the page. Archives are best reachable through Google searches.
But the quality of the content is what's most troubling to The Plain Dealer staff.
Camilla Terry, 20, was arrested recently for the murder of her three-year-old son, whose body was found in a garbage bag. Her story is long and complicated — Terry has a long history in the foster care system, which now has custody of her two remaining children —and Rachel Dissell has been covering the case.
When reached for comment on this story, Dissell had just picked up a 600-page file on Terry and attended a hearing. It's the sort of work she fears won't be possible under Advance's new structure.
"I think that the company can say, as they have time and time again, that they're committed to quality journalism," she says. "But as I look at the websites, I don't see big quality enterprise projects. And when I talk to reporters at those papers, they feel like they're being driven to produce more and more, told to post X times a day. Sure, they might give you a Mac and a tote bag and tell you to rove the city. But when the object is to post as much as you can online, what are you going to do? From what we're hearing and seeing, they're just taking online stories and reworking them for the paper three days a week. "
Guild President Specter has similar fears, as well as concerns about what stories reporters will be told to focus on.
"What happens under that model is that the stories that get the most clicks are sex, crime and sports," Spector told the Columbia Journalism Review. "That's a real shift of emphasis where housing and education and other things fall. And then you cut staff and lose coverage and than what? You have to wonder how much serious journalism will get done."
The Plain Dealer is by far the largest news operation in Cleveland. No matter where you get your news, there's a good chance that it originated with or was enhanced in some way by the paper's 170 writers, reporters, editors and photographers. Though it can be rightfully criticized for ignoring years of clues and arriving late to the party, the PD was ultimately a driving force behind uncovering corruption in Cuyahoga County and bringing about a new government. Those investigations took untold hours; some pieces that relied heavily on data analysis and public records requests took months.
For all its failings — and we point them out frequently — The Plain Dealer is still the primary watchdog of Northeast Ohio.
"It would not be a slight to our friends in TV and radio to say that a lot of what they do starts with what The Plain Dealer does," says Mangels. "Whatever happens to The Plain Dealer will diminish the quality and quantity of coverage. We are not perfect, and we are less of a paper than we were 10 years ago. But if that foundation goes away, if this core group of people goes away, you can't reassemble that. It's gone for good."
And it's hard to imagine their efforts being matched by a smaller staff, four fewer days of print, and an online product driven by clicks.
The Times-Picayune's move to three days a week was official on Oct. 1. So it's too early to measure what the impact there has been.
"There's a general feeling, when I talk to other reporters in the area, that things are up in the air," says Steve Myers, who covered Advance at Poynter and is now at The Lens, a New Orleans journalism nonprofit that provides content to area news organizations. "We try to do in-depth public-service journalism, the sort of thing that's really in jeopardy these days with private companies shifting to a web-first mentality, where it's high-churn content and a lot of blogging. There's a lot of uncertainty about who will get to a story. Overall, I think all news organizations are still figuring it out."
"You probably need a year to judge properly," says Beaujon. "It'll take that long to see if they're still serving the city in the same way."
The timetable on The Plain Dealer's current situation isn't nearly as long.
"If you're going to take up this cause, if the business leaders and community leaders and public think it's a worthwhile cause, the actions need to come very, very soon," says Mangels. "Because the window is closing."