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Nov. 26, 2012

Journalists combat demise of newspaper


By Eric Bonzar

In print journalism’s infancy, one would not find it uncommon to hear the cries of “Stop the presses!” reverberating throughout newsrooms across the country.

Corrections would be made, breaking stories would develop, and the undoubted devotion of a local newspaper’s commitment to accurately inform its community in a timely matter would go unshattered.

Fast forward to present day, to when many believe print media is on its cusp.

The concept of stopping the presses for one local newspaper has become more than just a cliché used in newsrooms, but also a stark reality. And those who have devoted their time and efforts to informing the community are now reaching out to those they serve with a cry for help:

“Save The Plain Dealer.”

Harlan Spector, chairman of the Newspaper Guild’s Plain Dealer chapter, is at the forefront of this movement.

Along with Plain Dealer writer John Mangels, who serves as the chairman of the committee for the Save The Plain Dealer campaign, Spector is taking a stand against the Newhouse family, owners of the local daily newspaper since 1967.

The Newhouse family and Advance Publication’s restructuring of local newspapers is nothing new to Spector.

In May of this year, Advance announced New Orleans’ Times-Picayune daily newspaper would downsize its newsroom staff nearly 50 percent and reduce its printing from seven to three days a week. Other Advance-owned and operated dailies in Alabama, Harrisburg, Pa., and Syracuse, N.Y. soon followed suit.

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas said in a recent study newspaper executives surveyed believe that newspapers still would be printed and delivered, only less frequently and perhaps even only on Sundays, and that newspapers also would continue to be “diluted” as newsrooms continue to shrink.

Spector believes it is only a matter of time before The Plain Dealer will fall victim to this new restructuring. Changes could come as soon as the first of the year when the no-layoffs pledge in the journalists’ union contract expires.

“They (the Newhouse family) haven’t said for sure, but they’ve left the door open in Cleveland in terms of exactly what they’re going to do,” Spector said. “We’ve been told big changes are coming, and get ready.”

Paraphrasing a Plain Dealer editor, Spector said employees were told, “If you have a plan B, now’s a good time to start looking.”

Spector, along with WTAM news anchor Tom Moore and Jean Dubail, senior regional editor at Patch.com, spoke to a group of journalists, professors and citizens at an open forum discussion at Trinity Cathedral on Oct. 15.

The event, hosted by the Cleveland chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, was held to answer questions and concerns in regards to not just the future of The Plain Dealer, but the transition of print media into the digital realm.

Spector said the issue is not about the transition itself, but the process and business model Advance has implemented at other newspapers across the country and plans to implement at The Plain Dealer.

“What they’ve done in these other markets, and what they’re likely to do in Cleveland, really undermines the ability of the press to function as it should in a free society,” Spector said.

“Beyond the job cuts, the digital model that they have adopted in these markets really does not serve the public interest in my opinion and in the opinion of many of my colleagues.”

Spector said the newspapers that have shown promise and profit in digital media like Minneapolis’ Star Tribune are putting up paywalls for digital subscriptions and subsidizing their news operations by doing so.

These paywalls charge consumers an upfront fee for online content, rather than solely generating revenue through selling to advertisers.

Spector said major newspapers in other markets are now implementing paywalls to generate revenue rather than relying on advertisement. He said The Plain Dealer uses a “click” model of online journalism, which sells advertising for rates that are based on the number of “clicks” or online traffic.

“There are plenty examples out there of forward-thinking newspaper companies that are investing in their newsrooms,” Spector said. “They are coming up with models that do not compromise the newsgathering abilities.”

Spector said the “paywall” versus “clicks” business decision is one that will ultimately determine the future of The Plain Dealer.

“Our company has decided to go with a model that relies on clicks to generate ad revenue,” Spector said.

Dubail said Patch, which follows the click model for generating revenue and focuses on “one community”-based news gathering, has had a rocky path to making a profit since its start in 2009. He feels the brand and business model will soon turn the corner to profitability.

“At this point, I’m not telling any tales out of school to say that the Patch is not making money, but we do have ad reps on the ground who are trying to sell enough ads to make the sites viable, and I’d say we’re making pretty good progress with that,” Dubail said.

“The goal is for Patch as a whole to be profitable in the fourth quarter of next year.”

Dubail said the company keeps close track of its online traffic, and the Ohio sites are collectively receiving hundreds of thousands of unique visitors each month, up from essentially zero a few years ago.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellency in Journalism showed that no matter what the model is, as online audiences continue to grow, print circulation and ad revenue continues to decline at a rapid pace.

According to Pew, in 2011, losses in print advertising dollars outpaced gains in digital revenue by a factor of roughly 10 to 1. When circulation and advertising revenue are combined, the newspaper industry has shrunk 43 percent since 2000.

In its study, “The Search for a New Business Model,” released in March, it was reported that while print ad sales declined by 9 percent last year, digital ad revenue increased by 19 percent, or for every $1 gained in digital advertising, $7 are lost in print revenue.

Although these figures demonstrate a dramatic shift in the future direction of news media, executives warn that the search for a new revenue model to revive the newspaper industry is making only tentative progress.

“We have all these [new] products we are working on that we believe are going to deliver results that are part of our sustainability,” said one executive. “But we need to eat today.”