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May 28 2013

Elegy for the Plain Dealer?

The Plain Dealer, my local newspaper, has been steadily cutting down its size and laying off reporters, with just the sports section seemingly untouched. On most days, of the six sections (main, metro, business, lifestyle, sports, classified), the sports section is easily the largest. The other sections often have just four or six pages, with a couple of those in the Metro section containing just obituaries. What this says about the priorities of the paper and our community is not complimentary.

Recently the paper announced that beginning this summer, it would continue to publish daily but would have home delivery just three days a week, one of which would be a Sunday. There was much outrage expressed in the letters to the editor. What struck me as odd were the number of people who said that they felt betrayed, that after ‘supporting’ the paper for so many years, they were now being abandoned. They were like jilted lovers who had thought they were in a permanent relationship, as if they were doing the paper a favor by subscribing rather than simply buying a commercial product.

I was puzzled by the new PD strategy for different reasons. I currently get home delivery seven days a week and assumed that the cost of delivery was factored into my monthly bill. What would be the point of making me buy the newspaper from a vending machine on four days, assuming I could be bothered to do so? There are no such machines near my home or office or on my commute to work. Why not simply increase the charge for home delivery if that was the problem?

Another odd thing was that the publisher said that the newspaper would publish an online version seven days a week that would be available for reading on tablets. It would have exactly the same format as the daily paper. I did not see the point of that. They promise an online version that has the same format as the print version, with sections and pages just like it is now but I don’t see the point of that. The web enables you to have a much livelier and dynamic format than with static print so not taking advantage of that seems counter-productive.

But this article says that in other cities where Advance Publications, the parent company of the PD, has adopted this practice, papers on non-delivery days are even more skeletal versions, with little local news reporting but mostly wire service fillers. This enables the owners to cut costs by firing reporters, and make a quick short-term profit before finally shutting up shop.

The article also went on to praise the coverage by the PD of the recent story of the decade-long kidnapping of three women. It is true that local papers with reporters who know the community tend to have more detailed coverage of such events. But I personally felt that the PD went overboard. During that week the newspapers were fatter than they have been in a long time, devoting page after page to the story, with daily banner headlines and photographs and plenty of human interest vignettes. It all seemed a bit much to me but I am clearly not the audience the paper is targeting. For people who could not get enough of the kidnapping story, the PD was the place to find it.

But maybe the PD should be targeting me because I am their ideal subscriber. I grew up in a home in Sri Lanka where our family subscribed to four daily newspapers, two morning and two evening, so I have a strong commitment to getting a daily newspaper and have done so all my life, even when my children chided me for the waste of paper and environmental harm that a printed daily newspaper represents. Once that habit is broken, it may not return. I am not sure that I will continue to subscribe to the PD at all when the reduced schedule is implemented.

As nostalgic as I am for the days of a good daily newspaper, to be quite honest I have felt this transition to be inevitable. The shift of classified and other ads to the online world, coupled with the drive to squeeze maximum profits by cutting reporters, has been devastating for the economics of publishing. More and more people get their news online.

The important niche that local papers could play is in covering local news (and yes, sports) in depth. But this requires investing money in beat and investigative reporters who can cover local news. This would only happen with local owners who really care about what happens here. The media conglomerates that now own papers in multiple markets don’t really care. They are interested in short term profits and it is cheaper for them to produce one generic story that can be used in all their markets, or depend upon wire service reports for national and international news, even though those are easily available online.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Guess Who?

    You bring up an interesting angle about the subscribers who felt betrayed because they had supported the newspaper for years. I recently and mindfully didn’t renew the subscription to my local, twice-weekly newspaper. I had been getting it for a decade even though for the past 5 or 6 years the tone has been Fox-News-esque and mostly I was reading it for the occasionally-interesting recipes. I also felt as if I was making a commitment to support the local news.

    The reason why I finally cancelled? They stopped using local “paper boys” and the paper was instead delivered by some guy in a pickup truck. Even though my property is half-an-acre and offered plenty of room in the driveway, on the sidewalk, or even in the (neatly-mowed) grass, the paper was usually flung somewhere in the street–unless it was raining, in which case the paper was delivered directly to the gutter, where it would become a disintegrating, mess that I’d have to scoop directly into the recycle bin because it was unreadable. Also, the paper dude only delivered when he felt like it, so often that meant after 10 am (for the Wednesday paper) or not at all (on Saturdays). Calling in a missed paper meant spending a half-hour on hold to talk to someone with questionable English skills somewhere out in the Phillippines.

    I could also buy the paper from a vending machine…but why? As I explained when the saleswoman (from another state!) called to ask why I didn’t renew, if I want Fox News, I can turn on the tv or go visit any doctor’s office or car repair shop and get my fill of right-wing propaganda.

  2. 2
    chezjake

    An interesting sidelight on local news coverage is that Google News seems to be programmed to avoid linking to the nearest local papers for it’s news summary pages. On the kidnapping story, I never saw a single link to the PD. Likewise, there were no links to Oklahoma City or even Tulsa papers after the recent tornado. There have been numerous other similar linkage failures in the last several months.

  3. 3
    Kevin

    I grew up in Cleveland. We subscribed to the Press because it was the afternoon paper and that’s when my dad had the time to read it. That’s long gone now.

    For a while, I worked in Columbus for the Dispatch. Unlike in most cities, it was the dominant paper despite being the afternoon paper. It eventually killed off the morning paper and subsumed all of its operations.

    Dead tree media is dying a slow death — which is a shame because the reporting that true-and-real daily newspaper reporters provide is pretty vital. When I was a work-a-day reporter, I used to watch with amusement as our first run was put into the boxes out front of our offices — sitting and waiting for the papers to be loaded were all three TV news operations. And lo and behold, at least 3 times a week, something that I had written was read to the TV audiences as if the TV reporter had gone out and done all that legwork themselves.

    Most times, they didn’t even bother to edit. They read it word-for-word.

    To say that I’m less-than-impressed by TV “journalists” is a pretty huge understatement. TV journalists ask questions like “I guess you have to thank the Lord, right?” Never in a bazillion years would I ask someone a question like that.

  4. 4
    Rain

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