The Newspaper Guild, a union for journalists, estimates that nationally, 3,000 industry jobs have disappeared since May. In recent weeks, more than 400 local newspaper employees have been offered the chance to walk away from the ailing business. Some were cut without a choice.
On Tuesday, August 19, The Plain Dealer offered buyouts to approximately one-third of its workforce, including most of the paper's 370 non-union office employees. All of them were business-office and support staff, ranging from administrative clerical workers to editorial managers. According to the Cleveland paper, 64 newsroom employees accepted a similar offer in 2006, long after the internet had begun snagging irreplaceable readers and advertising dollars but before the industry began seriously downsizing as a way to adapt to the new age.
PD Editor Susan Goldberg declined to comment and passed the buck to publisher Terry Egger Ð who fobbed it off to the director of marketing and community affairs, who simply pointed out the obvious: "We're looking to get expenses in line with our revenue."
The same day the PD announced buyouts, the Akron Beacon Journal offered buyouts and early retirement packages to its entire newsroom. The offers represented the paper's third major round of cuts in recent years. The news was a surprise but not a bombshell. Having bonded after the previous attrition, the newsroom survivors accepted the announcement with resignation. Those who weren't already updating their résumé for public-relations or teaching gigs went to their Word files to create one. "I don't think this is a surprise to anyone," says Beacon Journal Editor Bruce Winges. "Because this is going on throughout our industry." Beacon Journal employees were given 45 days to contemplate the offer. Winges says if not enough employees accept to meet the target dollar figure, the paper will proceed with layoffs.
He says he can't project how the cutbacks will affect the paper's content until employees decide whether they'll stay or go. The editor, trying to remain optimistic about both his paper and his profession, expects the Beacon Journal to be in business in 2028. But for now, he can't project what form it will have in two months. One source in the newsroom says the paper already plans to cut its Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday feature sections.
Bigger shops like The Plain Dealer always have some deadweight, and even a smaller newsroom (the Beacon Journal's has around 100 employees) can usually benefit from some strategic cuts. But Winges admits that he's facing some hard decisions, and it's not a challenge he's looking forward to.
"The only upside I can see is, it forces us to take a re-examination of everything that we do," says Winges. "And sometimes that can be a good thing."
It's a good point: The same week PD columnist Dick Feagler reflected on the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Akron's PBS TV station sent two University of Akron students to cover the 2008 one in Denver - you know, the one actually happening at the time.
Farther south, where times are even leaner, there's less fat to trim. The Canton Repository closed its one-man Columbus bureau on August 12. The same day, parent company GateHouse Media informed the Guild that it wanted to cut eight jobs from a newsroom that currently staffs between 60 and 65 employees. Two writers have been let go from a team of 12, in addition to some sales and production positions - so far.
Edd Pritchard, a Repository reporter and Newspaper Guild Local Chairman, says the two lost jobs are "not a huge amount, but it's a pain in the ass … that's a big bite. We'll just have to rearrange reporters and sort out who's going to cover what areas now."
At least the Repository knows where it stands: It loses one general assignment reporter. The other worked in Jackson Township and Canal Fulton - the northwest corner of Stark County, a competitive reporting area with good readership.
There's no good way to make the necessary cuts. At papers like the Beacon Journal and Repository, the first employees to go are new journalists who, arguably, are the ones best suited to help newspapers adapt to a multimedia age. Papers like The Plain Dealer have more leeway when deciding who stays and who goes. And the new leaders could benefit from the presence of newsroom veterans, the best of whom would rather work than take an early retirement.
For newspapers, the next round of cutbacks could mean life or death. But not everyone thinks the prognosis is grim.
"I still think this newspaper should be around 100 years from now, despite what everybody says about the industry," says Pritchard. "I just think [industry executives are] not very creative and wrong about what they're saying. Right now, it doesn't really help things when you're trying to put out a product and you're taking away from the folks who help produce stuff for that product. It doesn't strike me as being the smartest thing to do, but [management] decided they needed to save money."
Regardless of which employees take the hits, as the number of newspaper employees decrease, so does content, in one form or another.
"People are not going to get the quantity and quality of information they have in the past, especially at a local level," says Richard Hendrickson, a 40-year veteran reporter and past president of the Society of Professional Journalists' Cleveland chapter. "There's nobody to go get the story, and there's no space to run the story."
Hendrickson has seen cycles come and go. As buyouts and layoffs thin the herd of journalists, he sees reporters spending more time on the phone and less time pounding the pavement. The quality of ongoing investigative journalism will suffer. And when they have fewer writers, editors are forced to run whatever they can get, from whomever will give it to them: press releases, wire copy from services like the Associated Press and even so-called "citizen journalism" - reports from untrained witnesses who type up some observations from the town council meeting.
"We'll always need journalists - people to gather, write and present information," says Hendrickson, who now teaches at John Carroll University. "I'm a little concerned that we won't always be able to pay for it. I'm telling kids to learn all [they] can, because you might not be able to get a job as a beat reporter on the local paper. But people will retire and move on. There will be openings here and there. The smart publishers will find a way to bring new blood and keep the veteran mentors. The others will lose."
On September 15, SPJ will convene a panel called "Can Cleveland Save Its Media?" ("After mergers and buyouts make headlines, what's going on with local media? Cleveland media executives talk about what they face in the months ahead.") See www.spj.org/cleveland for more information.