Paper Chase

The Plain Dealer is cutting home delivery to four days and shrinking its staff. But an industry analyst says it can still excel if it learns from newsroom reinventions elsewhere.

David Boardman has been through the wars of newsroom attrition. When big-city newspapers started cutting staff in the last decade, they had no idea how much they'd continue to cut. Boardman, editor of The Seattle Times, now heads a smaller news staff in a smaller office, but he's the first to tell you the newsroom is much smarter about serving its audiences than ever before.

The Seattle Times newsroom saw itself compress from 375 journalists to 195. Many departed reporters and editors had decades of experience. Yet, today, the locally owned Times is picking its journalistic priorities well and excelling in areas it had previously left to others.

"We're focused on providing unique, valuable content our readers can't get anywhere else, and giving it to them when, where and how they want it," says Boardman, the Times' editor since 2006, who becomes dean of Temple University's School of Media and Communication on Sept. 1. "It's been a painful process of letting go of a lot of things we used to do. But the result is a tighter, more focused and more engaging product that keeps people coming back to us all through the day."

That's the challenge that The Plain Dealer's editor Debra Adams Simmons now faces. Simmons as well as Plain Dealer president and publisher Terry Egger have learned anew what other editors and publishers in their Advance Publications chain have also found: Resistance to corporate is futile.

They are players in the drama of radical newspapering changes, working for the one American newspaper chain that is exiting the print business as soon as possible.

On Aug. 5, the daily, home-delivered Plain Dealer will become history. Readers will only get home delivery four days a week: Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Saturday paper will be skinnier than it is now, and probably sports-heavy and auto-heavy, to satisfy the advertising car dealers.

On the other three days, a slim newsstand edition will be available at convenience stores and elsewhere. A daily e-edition for subscribers, readable on a computer and tablet, will offer the familiar look and feel of the print Plain Dealer. Like the paper itself, it'll be yesterday's news.

Advance is making Cleveland — like New Orleans, Grand Rapids, Syracuse and other cities — a test subject in an unproven experiment.

We know why: The floor of the printed news business has dropped out. Newspapers took in $27 billion less in 2012 than in 2005, a more than 50 percent decline, according to the Pew Research Center. Most of their lost advertising money has flowed to the nation's Big Five digital ad companies: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and Facebook.

Because of that loss, the center says, there are 18,000 fewer daily newspaper journalists in the U.S. than 12 years ago, a drop of one-third. Among all the dailies in our nation of 300 million, there now number only 38,000 daily journalists.

All newspapers confront those realities. But Advance is unusual in its decision to whack home delivery to try to maintain a profit and force-feed the digital future.

Most chains are embracing "paywalls" on their websites. They charge readers more, limit free access to their once-free online sites and provide print, Web and mobile access at a single price.

Advance is the contrarian. It believes paywalls won't work. Ironically, it's betting its future on advertising, despite all the carnage in the print ad business. It has turned a deaf ear to its own publishers' pleas and to readers who've protested the changes. Advance is a very private company, and it never took such efforts as the "Save The Plain Dealer" campaign seriously.

So, while it milks the print business — pushing seven days of advertisers into four — it's trying to force print readers to switch to digital even faster than they are already. It's shock treatment.

When you pick up The Plain Dealer on Aug. 5, or log on, expect to see some familiar faces and bylines disappear, literally overnight. Advance plans to cut a third of The Plain Dealer's newsroom staff, leaving it with about 135 journalists, including 110 unionized employees and two dozen nonunion editors. It's starting a new digital news operation that will also produce content for and The Plain Dealer.

Expect a loss in the completeness of coverage because of the digital-first approach and layoffs of veteran, knowledgeable and high-salaried reporters. (At the Advance-owned The Oregonian in Portland, which is moving to limited print this fall, the environmental beat — made up of two experienced reporters — was a victim of the changes. Both reporters were laid off.)

Fresh, eager, more digitally savvy journalists will begin to replace them. Readers may see more vitality, yet more holes in stories.

Expect more typos than you used to see. Copy editors are among the casualties in this revolution.

Expect a fresh emphasis on serving you news through your smartphone or tablet. A third of papers' visits now come via mobile devices. Advance knows it has to tailor new products for these platforms.

Cleveland readers can only hope that the new Plain Dealer doesn't adopt the "hamster wheel" approach to digital journalism. Some news sites compel their writers to churn out a constant flow of little-bitty content all day long. They place the greatest value on the number of "page views" they can attract and sell advertising on.

Hamster-wheel journalism — or "churnalism" — is a failing philosophy. The return on more page views becomes less and less over time, given that advertisers have almost infinite digital choice. But Advance has applied the hamster-wheel strategy, unevenly, at its papers in other cities.

Fortunately, Adams Simmons can find better ideas in newsroom reinventions throughout the country.

David Boardman's 3 C's approach at The Seattle Times — content, curation and community — is a top new industry model.

In most big-city newsrooms a dozen years ago, many journalists wrote nothing and never interacted with the public. Newspapers had so many copy editors, designers and midlevel managers and editors that each piece of reporter-written copy was often "touched" a half-dozen times.

Now, at The Seattle Times, there are fewer touches. More of the reduced staff is focused on creating stories, blogs and video segments. Then the curators take over, giving the content its best possible immediate usage on smartphones, tablets, the website and tomorrow's print.

The third C — community — is the Times' greatest innovation. Its News Partner Network includes more than 60 local sites that cover communities throughout the Seattle area. Former daily or TV journalists often run those sites. Many display deep knowledge.

Before the Times downsized, it never thought it had the resources to cover smaller communities deeply. Now, it has been forced to collaborate.

The new approach "creates a sense in the community of us as a town square," Boardman says, "instead of us as a fortress."

The Plain Dealer can also borrow from some other high-performing change artists. The Minneapolis Star Tribune won two Pulitzers last year. It emerged from its own downsizing with a plan to boost education, environment, family and health coverage, and continue its focus on public affairs. The Strib picked its spots and looked at where it could make its impact.

The Chicago Tribune's new community engagement effort hosts 100 events a year, ranging from a forum on Chicagoland philanthropy to a seminar on saving for a college education to an annual book fair. It offers classes on topics large and small.

The paper also turns its best reporting into e-books, now at the rate of three a month. The main purpose is to give them to readers as part of their subscriptions. Compilations such as recipe books and those of columnist Mary Schmich also sell well.

The new Plain Dealer is literally a blank slate. The corporate-forced reality check means it can start anew. It can be pro-Cleveland, without the rah-rah of a cheerleader, a local business coming to grips, like its readers, with the reality of new times. It can reach out to better cover neighborhoods with partners. It can re-energize itself as a convener of urgent civic debate. Unshackled from past habits and stick-in-the-mud newsroom culture, it can choose the most vital topics and beats to cover now.

Despite the sense of loss readers may feel, it's worth remembering that a daily newspaper is something like a public utility. Act like it is your paper and help steer it in the right direction. If you are asked for feedback, give it. If you're not, give it anyway. Make the most of being a lab rat.

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