"Change is coming, that's clear by what the company has been doing. We don't know when and we don't know what."
That's what Plain Dealer managing editor Thom Fladung told the newsroom, according to multiple sources, at a meeting last week called to announce the retirement of 55-year-old PD publisher Terry Egger, effective January 1, 2013.
Staffers were given less than an hour's notice of the meeting, which was held at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, September 5. Egger's retirement news quickly got shuffled to the back burner as staffers peppered management with questions about the paper's future. Namely: With many of its sister papers being shuttered to a three-day publishing schedule by Advance Publications, did the same fate await Cleveland's daily?
Though vague, the answers represented the starkest admissions to date by PD top brass, public or private, that there will likely be a time in the near future when Cleveland wakes up without a fresh newspaper on doorsteps and newsstands every day.
"If you need to make decisions based on the fact that change is coming, do so," Plain Dealer editor Debra Simmons said after Fladung's candid admission, according to those who were at the meeting.
Egger and Simmons didn't respond to multiple requests from Scene for comment. Fladung responded via e-mail, backtracking from his newsroom statements slightly: "I'm afraid I'm not going to be much help to you here," he wrote. "I'd urge you to talk to Terry about his decision to retire. As to speculation about the future of The Plain Dealer, I can't comment on that. And that would be pure speculation on my part anyway."
Speculation is all anyone in the PD newsroom has had since Advance Publications, the parent company owned by the Newhouse family, began rolling back publication of some of its properties from seven days a week to three. It began with The Ann Arbor News in Michigan, followed by papers in Alabama, the coup de grace coming in New Orleans with the rollback of the Times-Picayune, and most recently, the Post-Standard in Syracuse and the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In each case, the print side has been scaled down while the digital product is being ramped up, ostensibly to make the properties, all coagulated under one digital/print umbrella, more nimble and timely.
Anxieties and rumors abounded in Cleveland earlier this year when the New Orleans announcement was made. The seemingly odd retirement of a 55-year-old publisher in Cleveland did nothing to alleviate those concerns. In fact, it accentuated them.
"Terry leaving is clearly a sign," says one Plain Dealer writer. "He doesn't want to lead another slaughter and be the one that kills the paper in Cleveland. Otherwise, who retires at 55?"
As media journalist Jim Romenesko noted, the publisher of the New Orleans Times-Picayune left the paper just two months before the bloodletting there began. PD staffers see a similar future.
"It's like living with a beloved relative who's terminally ill," says another reporter. "You see the decline and the decay, and it's so painful from so close up. Part of you wants the death to happen and be over with so you can move on. But another part of you is hoping for a miracle to happen so things can go back to normal.
"It puts us in a tight spot. Some of us are jumping off the bridge and hoping for a net. Others are going to wait to get pushed."
Indeed, in just the past month, sports feature writer Bill Lubinger and pop music critic John Soeder have called it quits, along with a copy editor.
Another PD staffer noted that the top spot at Cleveland.com, the current online home of the PD's content, is vacant and management seems in no hurry to fill it. That's consistent with what's happened in other markets slashed to a three-day mandate, with the online portal and print properties becoming one "digital" company under one boss.
Many of the reporters contacted by Scene wouldn't talk, even off the record. But the general feeling at the paper was summed up concisely by one writer: "People are worried."
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