Plain Dealer Editor Tim Warsinskey is a Liar and Advance Publications Doesn't Give a Shit About Cleveland

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SCENE MAGAZINE
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Like others in Northeast Ohio and roughly 3.5 million people around the world, I am a digital subscriber to the New York Times. The Times has long been what’s referred to as the “paper of record,” meaning that, according to a certain first-world sensibility, something doesn’t count as having happened on planet Earth unless it’s printed in its pages. The paper’s motto and ad, “All the News that’s Fit to Print,” was meant to be a declaration of impartiality by former owner Adolph Ochs, in 1897. But it also served as a (patently unrealistic, though self-edifying (if not self-deifying)) covenant: to publish not just the news but every last scrap of the worthy kind.

Imagine my dismay, then, when – as a reporter myself – I learned that the esteemed Times of New York City, the world’s foremost journalistic institution and its most handsomely equipped news-gathering force, would not be sending a team, nor even a single correspondent, to cover Cleveland City Council meetings. Imagine my crisis of faith when the Times neglected to opine, each Spring, on the local rancor over the Indians’ use of Chief Wahoo. Imagine my profound dissatisfaction when the Times’ national desk could not rouse itself to dispatch a journalist to cover the tumult in Cuyahoga County when as many inmates died at the local jail over the course of eight months in 2018 and 2019 as have died at Guantanamo Bay since its inception as a military prison camp in 2002, (nine).



If you imagined I experienced any of the above, your mind has led you astray! I do not read the New York Times for news about Cleveland, and neither does anyone else. Doing so would be a gross misunderstanding of the paper’s value, a deficiency of what I think is called media literacy.

Higher propensity local news consumers know that to understand what’s really going on in Cleveland, and to secretly knee-slap through critiques of the city's institutions and systemic woes, you pick up the alternative weekly, Scene. To siphon specialized news of interest from local business circles, and to track data on the region’s companies and executives, you settle into Crain’s Cleveland Business, (to which I also dutifully subscribe). To listen to conversations about regional topics du jour, you set your radio dial to 90.3 FM, (WCPN, the local NPR affiliate). And to indulge in the occasional glossy narrative adventure, you snag a Cleveland Magazine from the nearest newsstand or dentist’s office.



But for the Northeast Ohio news enthusiast–and indeed, for the casual consumer–the most vital publication is of course The Plain Dealer, the region’s only metro daily since June 18, 1982, the day after the rival Cleveland Press halted publication for good.

Until recently, the PD functioned as Cleveland’s paper of record. Much like the Times on the world stage, the PD was meant to cover all the news fit to print in the region: every high school tennis match; every suburban levy issue; every movie opening and concert; every visiting speaker and opulent foundation gala; every road closure, homicide and high-profile legal embarrassment; every piece of legislation stalled or greenlit by the Cuyahoga County and Cleveland City Councils; and, crucially, every news item from Columbus and Washington D.C. that impinged upon the lives and tax dollars of Northeast Ohioans.

Twenty years ago, this was not only feasible but expected. In the early aughts, The Plain Dealer employed nearly 350 reporters and editors who scoured their beats for daily news and sniffed out tips for deeper stories. Alongside designers, they produced a constantly updating record of events, history’s so-called “first draft,” and published engaging packages every week that ranged from the pugilistic to the joyously frivolous. The paper was a bazaar of flavorful local personalities and perspectives, to say nothing of sports. In 1993, The Plain Dealer sports department alone was roughly the size of cleveland.com’s total staff today. (Cleveland.com, which I’ll get to, is the PD’s non-union sister newsroom.)


There’s no need to recapitulate the ways in which the internet has disrupted the journalism industry. Suffice it to say that with limited exceptions (the Times, notably) staffs have shrunk by orders of magnitude in the past 20 years, and editors have recognized the need to streamline coverage in order to ensure that audiences get the biggest bang for their buck out of individual reporters. (As it happens, owners also tend to want to get the biggest bang for their buck out of individual reporters, a desire which has reached a grotesque apotheosis in the age of digital #content, where hedge fund executives strap 24-year-olds to computer chairs and make them churn out 4-6 aggregated blog posts per day, recycled material that is increasingly produced without effort and consumed without pleasure.)

In the same way that it suddenly didn’t make much financial sense, in the early aughts, for all but the largest papers to continue operating bureaus in Sarajevo and Saigon when they could just as easily print wire reports from the Associated Press, it didn’t make sense to have reporters filing stories from the suburbs when their talents could be brought to bear on more broadly important topics, particularly those of core cities where—please don't make this controversial—more people live and more things happen.

Specializing or focusing coverage, though, is a just a gently euphemistic way to talk about beats being eliminated. These editorial decisions can have dire effects on a region’s civic IQ as staffs get smaller and smaller. It’s not just exurban traffic coverage that gets axed, after all. Essential reporting on the city’s most important institutions and powerful leaders are sacrificed or radically downgraded too. For an editor, this process is less like deciding between wearing a rain jacket and carrying an umbrella than it is like deciding to cut off your arm or your leg.

After the “painful adjustment” at the PD a year ago, in which the paper’s production department was outsourced and 12 veteran reporters and editors were promptly laid off, then-editor George Rodrigue was forced to wield just such a hacksaw. He penned a column about how he intended to marshal the paper’s remaining resources, which in defiance of reality he regarded as “substantial.” He admitted what everyone had known for years: that The Plain Dealer could no longer serve as the region’s paper of record.

“We need to be more informative and more useful,” he wrote. “To do that, we have to pick our spots. If we pick wisely, we can offer greater depth in the areas that matter most to readers.”

Rodrigue referenced local watchdog reporting, which he hazarded to suggest was likely “the greatest service we provide,” and said extra attention would be paid to local health care coverage. (In private conversations with Scene, Rodrigue said that the sort of deep investigative work produced by veteran reporters like Rachel Dissell and John Caniglia was something the PD could do that no other local outlet could, and was therefore the most valuable.)

“We’ll add a new focus on keeping business accountable, as well as government,” he wrote. “We’ll search for solutions, as well as identifying problems. And we’ll report more comprehensively about the underlying causes of things that bedevil our region, from high taxes to high infant mortality to high unemployment.”

Named editor of the PD in early 2015, Rodrigue was neither a firebrand nor a public intellectual during his Cleveland tenure. He was far less of a civic presence than his cleveland.com counterpart, Chris Quinn.

In the confused popular understanding of the local paper, The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com are not discrete newsrooms but a single entity, almost an abstraction, known together simply as “The Plain Dealer” or "The PD." And in that conception, Quinn has always been the most prominent figure. He was the City Editor at the PD before the newsroom cleavage. In hindsight, now that Rodrigue has vamoosed to Virginia to avoid the current implosion on the print side, the erstwhile editor looks to have fulfilled the role of hospice nurse more than anything else.

But Rodrigue’s editorial prerogatives, couched though they were within the parameters of Advance Publications’ larger union-busting paradigm, were at least ostensibly responsive to public concern. He held regular meetings at local libraries to get feedback from readers, and seemed to genuinely want to produce high-quality journalism, even if his fetish for milquetoast “solutions” stuff generally superseded the sort of accountability reporting required in a city as brutalized by bad leadership as Cleveland has been for decades.

As of Monday, Rodrigue’s polite directives have been tossed out the window. What The Plain Dealer purports to be concerned with now, coverage wise, is not public corruption or health care but the region’s outlying counties. An unlikely plot twist! New editor Tim Warsinskey said that the company has determined, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, that a wave of new subscribers from the Cleveland exurbs and points beyond merit specialized coverage of their own, and so the paper will redeploy 10 of its 14 remaining reporters to the woods.

“Lake, Geauga, Portage, Medina and Lorain counties have been underserved by media in this market for years despite making up a large percentage of The Plain Dealer’s subscription base,” Warsinskey wrote in his letter, which he published in lieu of answering questions from local and national reporters.

SAM ALLARD'S PHONE.
  • Sam Allard's phone.
The Plain Dealer, along with our sister company cleveland.com, has an opportunity to change that with The Plain Dealer’s new focus on these five nearby counties. This broadening of our coverage area is especially important in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when all of our readers, regardless of where they live, deserve to know how the virus is affecting their local communities and how their local communities are responding.”

To the question, 'When did most readers recognize that Warsinskey’s column was full of more shit than Lake Erie after a hard rain"? The answer is, 'Instantly.' 

Indeed, here was an example of corporate line-toeing spectacularly preserved in its virgin state, a letter erumpent with obvious lies and omissions, one that dared to paint the morning’s devastating news in the bland boss tones of company realignment, of "shifting our focus" and "[having an] opportunity." 


The Orwellian language of Warsinskey should be locally familiar. As recently as February, the United Way of Greater Cleveland was similarly touting an increase in what they called targeted funding to local nonprofits to disguise what was actually a substantial decrease in total funding. The rhetoric is identical here. Warsinskey describes an effort to "broaden" and "expand" the PD's coverage—in an earlier column, he used the word "amplify" in the same context—to disguise what will actually be the paper's final, fatal contraction. It's the endgame that Advance has been methodically working toward since late 2012.   

Documenting Warsinskey's lies in any systematic way probably wouldn’t be useful. It’s easier (and just as accurate) to wave away the entire column as a piece of Advance Publications propaganda and move on from there. But a few brief correctives are urgently necessary for those, including national audiences unfamiliar with the peculiarities of the local journalism scene, who might not recognize the stupidity on its face.

***

Before rebutting Warsinskey's central claim—that the PD cares about covering Cleveland's outlying counties at all—thereby defending the provocative title of this piece, it might be helpful to clear up a few things about the situation on the ground in Cleveland.

The news Monday was indeed a death blow for the Northeast Ohio News Guild Local 1, the union that represents the 14 remaining print staff. In my view it was also needlessly cruel, as it arrived on the heels of layoffs Friday. But it is not the case that there will no longer be a daily newspaper in Cleveland.

This gets lost in the noise on Twitter sometimes, but cleveland.com is a thing that still exists. There are 63 reporters, editors, social media managers and #contentcreators of assorted stripes on hand there, working, when not quarantined, out of The Plain Dealer building at 1801 Superior Ave. They will presumably continue to #create #content for both the website (cleveland.com) and the paper (The Plain Dealer), which doesn't look like it's going to stop printing seven days a week and getting home-delivered four. But who knows! 

The cadaverous employment numbers, (the Guild membership, for example, which has fallen from 340 to 14 in about 20 years), is depressing beyond dispute, but it's not the case that there are now only 14 total reporters whose work appears in the paper, 10 of whom will be dispatched to outlying counties.

It is true that the cleveland.com outfit doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence, especially among the most engaged local news consumers. Though it is unfair and reductive, the generally accepted consensus holds that the cleveland.com staff is composed chiefly of bargain-basement recent college grads without the skills and experience of their union counterparts. This is true only to a degree. The reporters are indeed paid less, and are far younger on average, than those on the PD side. But they also have among them some fantastic and promising talents.

Cleveland is contaminated soil, though, for budding journalists to grow. The current fatal maneuvers at the PD exacerbate three interlocking problems on that score.

First, the good journalism on cleveland.com (including the work of PD reporters) is largely drowned out by torrents of brain-numbing clickbait and sponsored content, and further cheapened by a truly abominable social media presence. It's those elements which lead people to roll their eyes or sneer in disgust at cleveland.com. Even crackerjack reporting cannot defeat these impressions. 

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Second, the young reporters on the digital side are already overburdened with, if not overmatched by, multiple assignments. Courtney Astolfi, for example, is one of cleveland.com's sharpest and most prolific talents. Alongside crime reporter Adam Ferrise, she was breaking huge stories every day during the county jail scandal in late 2018. She is now responsible for covering the whole of Cuyahoga County government, a massive body (4,500+ employees) that ought to be examined with constant rigorous skepticism after the earth-shattering corruption scandals of 2009, the coverage of which Chris Quinn oversaw at the PD. If that weren't enough, Astolfi is also responsible for covering transportation, another significant beat which includes the deliciously drama-ridden regional transit authority and one of the most vibrant grassroots organizing groups in town. Like many of the juiciest beats, transportation was transferred from the editorial jurisdiction of the PD to cleveland.com in recent years, a process that, if you're a PD reporter, sure feels like armed robbery.

Prior to Astolfi, the county government beat belonged to poor Karen Farkas, who was simultaneously tasked with covering Casinos, the Ohio Lottery Commission, and, oh yeah, higher education, an enormous and criminally undercovered beat in Northeast Ohio. This is an example of a "radical downgrade" in coverage that I alluded to above, where major beats get only a fraction of a single reporter's juggled time and attention.

Given these constraints, even the prize yearlings in the cleveland.com stables are rarely able to pursue more resource-intensive longform reporting or stretch themselves with local analysis and commentary, (This Week in the CLE notwithstanding!). 

Third, the animosity between the two newsrooms, happily cultivated by Advance, has precluded what should be the mentorship of young staffers by veteran journalists and cooperation between the newspaper's multiple departments.

Taking a quick step back, when former PD editor Debra Adams-Simmons announced with former Publisher Terry Egger in late 2012 that big changes were afoot, that the PD would "embrace dynamic shifts in the way information is consumed," it wasn't at all clear what she meant, beyond the reduction of home-delivery of the print edition.

The Newhouses were doing versions of the same thing at their publications across the country, dramatically cutting staffs and gambling on the future profit margins of digital journalism. But in Cleveland, the strategy was orchestrated to slay the Guild, the last surviving union newsroom within the Advance newspaper chain.

What followed was a massive round of layoffs and the creation of a separate, non-union news entity. It was called the Northeast Ohio Media Group, later "Advance Ohio," and it operates cleveland.com. This was the entity designed to one day become the new Plain Dealer, free at last of its union coil. 

Since 2013, reporters on the Guild side have witnessed their own numbers dwindle and the digital side leech their preciously guarded beats as the Advance process has inched toward total eclipse. Why on Earth would veteran PD reporters, in this scenario, have any desire to play nice with the cleveland.com folks, whom they regard as agents of their demise? And on the flip side, why would new cleveland.com hires, arriving bushy-tailed from college or smaller-town papers and sensing hostility from the Guild even before understanding the dynamics at play, have any desire to cede big stories to the Guild reporters? Why would they bother promoting a PD story on the cleveland.com social media channels?

The reality, in other words, is that while technically operating under the same corporate umbrella in the same news market with work appearing in the same venues, the PD and cleveland.com have functioned as rival newsrooms since 2013, not willing collaborators.

It may not be widely understood how truly tense and fucked-up the Cleveland journalism landscape has become thanks to this arrangement. Infighting at the largest and most important media outlet in the region has had ripple effects. It goes without saying that a member of cleveland.com would never celebrate the work of a PD colleague (God forbid!), but even reporters outside these newsrooms can unwittingly inflame tension when they promote stories from one or the other newsroom. In a travesty of the journalistic tradition, beers are seldom shared.

I myself didn't fully internalize the damage Advance had wrought until after the tragic shooting at the Annapolis Capital Gazette in the summer of 2018. A week later, the News Guild hosted a vigil at the PD production plant, (where their newsroom would be relocated a few months later, another indignity), to honor the dead and to stand in solidarity with journalists across the country. Not a single editor or reporter from cleveland.com showed up. 

That's all a preface to underscore the violence with which I erupted in gagging fits when I read Tim Warsinskey's paean to Advance Tuesday night.

"There are two separate, but related, newsrooms in Cleveland, and two outstanding news products—The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com," Warsinskey wrote. "Together, they serve the market well, with The Plain Dealer stories appearing online at cleveland.com and cleveland.com stories appearing in print in The Plain Dealer. By design, this approach helps provide thoughtful, impactful coverage in the most efficient way possible and ensures that Greater Cleveland has more access to local journalism via digital platforms as demand for those platforms continues to grow."

El. Oh. Fucking. El.

There's no time to map the mountain range of thoughtless, low-impact journalism that the newsroom schism has actually produced since 2013, so I'll highlight instead, once again, a perfect Orwellian specimen from Warsinskey. This arrangement is not only not "the most efficient way possible" to convey news to Cleveland. It's among the least efficient ways.

(A very low-stakes example that nevertheless is emblematic to me was the coverage of movies. Over the years, advance movie screenings for local media were often attended by a critic from the PD and a reporter or content creator from cleveland.com. Why? Because based on the division of beats, the cleveland.com side could write about new movies, but only the PD side could review them. Talk about efficiency!) 

Advance's actions, then, require some examination, maybe even some "thoughtful, impactful coverage." As a rule, companies don't pursue inefficiency, so what's happening here?

Why, for example, would Advance spend $38 million on a new state-of-the-art office building in downtown Cleveland for its newspaper staff and then, after the schism of 2013, pay additional rent for another office to house the "separate, but related" newsroom? Why is Advance now forcing many of its strongest reporters to give up the beats they've been covering for years in order to report on outlying counties which are all more meaningfully served by daily papers of their own?   

These actions do not make sense from any rational perspective, certainly not from the perspective of an honest editor or news consumer who cares about holding power to account in Cleveland. They only make sense, as the Guild claimed Tuesday, in the context of Advance's desire to kill the union.

Unmentioned in Warsinskey's column, of course, was the real news: not the corporate spin about "expanding" coverage, but the crushing news that the few remaining reporters at the PD were having their beats snatched from them and handed to cleveland.com. This was not some exciting development. There were no rounds of applause on social media for the paper's commitment to serving its readership. Reporters were literally sobbing Monday night as they recognized their fates. Locally and nationally, it registered that the Guild might have been on to something all along: It sure looked like a union was being busted. 

I hate to sound pedantic, but just so it's clear: Being forcibly removed from a prime beat and sent to a sparsely populated rural area constitutes a demotion in journalism. It's like an NBA reporter being reassigned to high school sports. It's like Donald Rosenberg, who, in 2008, after 28 years covering the Cleveland Orchestra, was reassigned as a general "arts and entertainment" reporter. These are universally understood as punishments. And in the current case, as I wrote Tuesday, the punishment is so extreme, so "brazenly contemptuous of the reporters and their local readers," that many (if not all) of the 10 being offered this "opportunity" may walk.

Make no mistake: That is the goal. The goal is not the coverage of outlying counties. The goal is the final dismantling of the Guild. 

Without venturing into Advance's business model, this "shifting focus" will have cascading negative effects on Cleveland news coverage. I trust it's superfluous to mention that when a number of the PD staffers decline, cleveland.com will make no effort whatsoever to cover the region's outlying counties, a clear indication that Warsinskey's column is horseshit from top to bottom. Literally no one is asking for this rural coverage from the Cleveland newspaper, especially given its depleted resources.

What it means, though, is that the essential beats currently covered by the PD reporters facing exile will be scooped up by cleveland.com. It's unlikely that the digital newsroom will suddenly sense the necessity of investigative journalism, but Quinn can be counted upon to promptly heat-seek the clicks lurking on the real estate beat (Michelle Jarboe's), the hospital beat (Ginger Christ's) and the education beat (Patrick O'Donnell's), among others.

There are surely young reporters capable of stepping into these assignments. But the digital newsroom is itself already woefully understaffed as a major metro news operation, and it's difficult to see how these beats will receive anything but fractional attention. That will become more problematic as cleveland.com (or whatever the Chris Quinn shop will call itself after the union has been fully obliterated) assumes the mantle of the region's only newspaper. 

Tim Warsinskey will remain a sad footnote on the whole ordeal. The overwhelming likelihood is that he sacrificed a lot (personal ethics, for example) to make big bucks as the PD's executioner. His preemptive refusals to speak with the media about every development since his appointment suggest that he's known the score all along. His only marginal escape valve at this point might be admitting that he is merely the dumbest journalist in Cleveland's recent history and not the most craven too.

But his column will haunt him in the days and weeks ahead regardless. Perhaps the most illogical argument he advanced was that, due to COVID-19, the paper owed it to subscribers to provide bespoke coverage of the pandemic in the areas where they lived.

If it's not crystal clear why that's illogical, consider the media literacy exercise explored at the top of this piece. Pretend that the New York Times, responding to a wave of new subscriptions in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, decided to eliminate coverage of the White House and shift its focus to cities like Cleveland, Columbus and Colorado Springs. That'd be fucking insane. (And The Washington Post would be forever in their debt.)

Warsinskey said himself that new subscribers were flocking to The Plain Dealer because of its coverage of COVID-19. They are not subscribing because they want more coverage of their backyard, no more than I subscribed to the New York Times because I wanted coverage of Cleveland City Council. These new PD subscribers obviously recognize the value of reporters like Ginger Christ, Rachel Dissell, Brie Zeltner and Julie Washington, who spearheaded the COVID-19 coverage on the print side.

And these new subscribers may well be alarmed to learn that two of those reporters were laid off Friday. The other two, including Dissell, Cleveland's most recognizable journalist and surely on any list of the best reporters in the state, are now forbidden from writing exactly the kinds of stories that made them want to subscribe in the first place.   

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