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The Digital Revolution and the Role of Newspapers in Civic Life

November 27, 2012

Credit: Jon S (CC)

DAN BOBKOFF: Newspapers have long straddled an awkward line . . .

KEN DOCTOR: between public service and profit. They made a lot of money, but their values and the newsroom values were public service.

DAN BOBKOFF: But now those values are in conflict. The Internet has upended the industry, and profits are way down. Some papers are now charging for access to their websites. But one company is going its own way. Its daily papers have been reduced to just three days a week. Online is where it’s at now. But is the web a good substitute?

RACHEL DISSELL: You have half the reporters. They’re asking half the questions. They’re writing half the stories.

DAN BOBKOFF: I’m Dan Bobkoff. On this edition of Just Business, the story of one paper trying to fight change before it comes. But what happens when a city loses daily journalism? When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, The Times-Picayune newspaper was a lifeline. Its reporters were displaced, working by generator to get information out. Its coverage won the Pulitzer Prize. But great journalism, the kind that’s in the public interest, that changes policies and affects lives, isn’t always good business.

Earlier this year, Advance Publications, the paper’s owner, cut the paper back to just three days a week.

NEWS CLIP 1: I think they’ve torn apart an institution.

DAN BOBKOFF: Hundreds were laid off as the focus shifted to the web.

NEWS CLIP 2: The process of laying off approximately 200 employees, including about half of the newsroom, was described by one staffer as death by 1,000 cuts at the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

DAN BOBKOFF: The company made similar moves at its papers in Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Fast-declining ad revenues and circulation are to blame.

But maybe because of Katrina and all New Orleans has been through, that city rallied.

NEWS CLIP 3: From a tailgate rally earlier tonight to a State Senate resolution and now the formation of a Times-Picayune citizens’ group

NEWS CLIP 4: The tailgate rally to save the daily paper was the latest attempt to persuade the owners of The Times-Picayune to do one of two things.

NEWS CLIP 5: We’re encouraging the corporation to either sell the paper or print it every day.

DAN BOBKOFF: But it was too late. Advance wouldn’t sell. At the end of September, after 175 years, The Times-Picayune was a daily no more.

HARLAN SPECTOR: That’s really when the idea started.

DAN BOBKOFF: Harlan Spector is a reporter at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, which is also owned by Advance. He and his colleagues have been watching their parent company cut publication days of their sister papers around the country, and they knew changes were coming their way. So instead of waiting for their fate, they decided to launch a preemptive strike.

MICHAEL SYMON: To go to three days a week for our paper, for our Cleveland Plain Dealer, that’s a recipe for disaster.

DAN BOBKOFF: That’s Michael Symon, a celebrity chef and local hero in Cleveland.

This is one part of an effort to build opposition to cuts before they’re announced. The journalists’ union has put up dozens of billboards, organized a letter-writing campaign, and formed a petition, all under the banner “Save The Plain Dealer.” They hope their owners will listen and decide a daily paper is worth keeping in Cleveland.

I sat down with Harlan Spector and his Plain Dealer colleague Rachel Dissell to talk about the campaign and why a daily paper still matters in civic life.

RACHEL DISSELL: We’re all Clevelanders. We don’t like it when people take things away from us. It’s very personal to us. This city and this area deserve to have really good community journalism. Sure, this affects all of us tremendously in our personal lives, but what really rose to the top in our conversations was that we felt people deserved community journalism and the work that we do. We looked at all the stories that we have done that have impacted changes in government, changes in laws, changes in hearts and minds, and we thought, we have to tell people about this before it happens.

DAN BOBKOFF: Make your case to me. What does The Plain Dealer do today that it couldn’t do if it were reduced to, say, three days a week or became more of an online publication?

RACHEL DISSELL: I think it’s basic math, Dan. If you have half the reporters, they’re asking half the questions, they’re writing half the stories. They’re doing it more quickly. They’re not doing it as in-depth.

One of the really big, important things that we do is we get public records; we get thousands of public records that the average citizen can’t go down to city hall or can’t go down to the county government and get. We go through those and we analyze them and we distill them, and we write stories for them. They would otherwise not get that information. I think that’s still our core mission. It’s our core mission in print because a lot of the folks in this area in particular, they don't have the Internet. A lot of them don't have mobile phones. They get really important information about the taxes that they pay, about the services that they receive in the newspaper every day.

DAN BOBKOFF: And your staff is already half of what it used to be. If it were cut again, we’re talking maybe a quarter of what it was a decade ago?

RACHEL DISSELL: Sure. One of our retirees said to me Cleveland used to have three or more papers and then it had two papers and then it had one paper. If this happens, it would basically have maybe half of a paper.

HARLAN SPECTOR: And another point to make here is that in New Orleans the cutback to three days a week was greeted with outrage in the community. People really want their seven-day-a-week paper down there. In fact, the demand was such that the Baton Rouge Advocate, which is, I think, two hours away, decided to start a daily edition in New Orleans.

We know from our campaignwe know this from our Facebook page, our petition page, and we know this from talking to peoplethat there’s great demand in Cleveland for a seven-day-a-week paper, that it means a lot to people, and that it’s an important part of civic life here.

DAN BOBKOFF: We should also point out thatI work in radioI think one of the dirty little secrets of broadcasting is that we rely, probably more than we should, on the print media for a lot of ideas, to do the kinds of record searching that we usually don’t have the resources to do. I’ve worked in TV newsrooms, and I know they steal half their stuff from The New York Times.

Talk about the larger implications for the news business in a community if any daily paper goes away.

HARLAN SPECTOR: There’s just no question that news coverage suffers under this model, partly because of the staff cuts, of course, but also because the paper loses, I think, its standing as an institution in the community. It is a conduit for discussion on civic matters and so on.

I think that also you’re going to see a lot of people who depend on the daily newspaper who are going to be cut off from news.

RACHEL DISSELL: What we see online is a very, I would say, cliques-driven mentality, where a story that has “sex” in the headline is just as important as a really serious story about something happening in the community. That’s not what we want to turn into.

So as strange as it sounds at the end of this political season, which was very antagonistic, we really wanted to put on a positive campaign. We wanted to tell people that the paper is important, that we want to keep it around, that we want to keep the reporters around. We’re encouraging people to subscribe to the paper and to tell people at the paper that they want to keep it around. We want to save what we have. We don't want to create something new if we don't have to. We want The Plain Dealer to continue for 167 more years, if possible.

DAN BOBKOFF: It’s easy enough for someone to sign a petition, like something on Facebook, even record a video testimonial. But when it comes down to it, a year from now or two years from now, you need people to buy a subscription to the print paper. If there were a paywall someday, they would have to actually choose to pay for that, which has been hard in some cities.

How do you turn this kind of grassroots movement, which might be easy when there’s no money on the table, into something that actually sustains your paper as a seven-day enterprise?

RACHEL DISSELL: We have actually had people online, on the Facebook page and other places, saying, “I will pay more for my paper. I would pay more to keep the news the way that I have it now.”

I don't know that that has been something that has been explored or not. Clearly we don't think that there’s some magic wand that’s going to fix the news business. We don't have a decision from our company right now, but we’ve seen what has happened in all of these other cities. If you don't have a daily newspaper, you may have a Cleveland City Council meeting that there is no reporter at.

In a different vein, several years ago we did a storyit was a series. It was a long series about a young lady that was shot in the face after having been raped by her ex-boyfriend. We dedicated nine front pages to her story. That story changed laws in the state of Ohio. It changed policies in Cuyahoga County. It also changed the lives of, I would argue, thousands and thousands of young people who read it, who engaged, who learned. They all now get education in their classrooms on dating violence that they did not get before.

DAN BOBKOFF: Is it awkward being reporters who are also fighting to save your product, save your jobs? You’re launching a campaign to do this. You’re also writing about the campaign in the paper. Is that kind of a delicate balancing act?

RACHEL DISSELL: It’s absolutely so uncomfortable and so difficult for us. We’ve had so many conversations about it. All the people that are involved with this effort are trying to be so ethical and retain their boundaries. No one is reaching out to anybody that they might have to cover. When people reach out to us, we might say, “You’re a city councilman. I might have to cover you. So I really can’t talk to you about this. How about I refer you to this person?”

So we’re really trying to do that. And, yes, we’re not used to promoting ourselves at all. We’re used to being the names that are on the stories. But it’s just so important to us. If we don't do this, who else will? We have to start this conversation. That’s what our job is. We start conversations. We can only hope that other people in the community that really care about this will pick up the conversation and take it to a different level, one that will actually make a difference.

HARLAN SPECTOR: There’s so much at stake here. I think that journalists generally are reluctant to get out front on something like this, but I think people realize that there is so much at stake. Really, the future of the community, in a way, is at stake, because if there is no real presence there of The Plain Dealer, it’s going to change things.

So I think people feel really strongly that there’s a real principle here that people are willing to stand behind. Our membership in the newspaper guild at The Plain Dealer has been great. I think the newsroom is pretty galvanized on this issue.

DAN BOBKOFF: Do you think it will work?

HARLAN SPECTOR: We hope.

RACHEL DISSELL: In true Cleveland style, we’re going to have fun with this. We had a guy that wrote a song to save The Plain Dealer. It’s called “Ink on Paper.” That’s the kind of support that you get here. We’re going to bring him somewhere and have him play it live and let people drink a beer and discuss the future of journalism in Cleveland in true Cleveland style.

DAN BOBKOFF: Harlan Spector and Rachel Dissell are reporters of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

One interesting note: Bill Grueskin at Columbia looked at a few cities where papers cut back on daily delivery. He found that the web wasn’t really a substitute for the print paper. There was no spike in online traffic on the days the paper didn’t come out.

Nevertheless, the Internet is clearly the future. Many papers are trying so-called paywalls, charging for access after you read a certain number of articles. Advance is going its own way.

KEN DOCTOR: They’re basically on what I call a forced march to digital.

DAN BOBKOFF: Ken Doctor is a newspaper industry analyst and the author of Newsonomics. He says Advance is unusual, putting all its eggs in online advertising, which generally only brings in a fraction of the revenue of the print papers.

I asked him about what Advance is doing in New Orleans and other cities, and why this matters.

KEN DOCTOR: I think the way they’re going about it means that they will probably kill off their product slowly. They have been cutting their newsrooms. They have been letting go the more experienced reporters and hiring younger, more inexperienced reporters, even as the overall newsroom numbers go down. And I don't think it gives them a business model to grow. I think that they are really milking the product at this point and trying to improve products. My own figures on that show that they probably picked up about 10 points of profit when they made the changes in New Orleans, for instance. But it doesn’t seem like a strategy that has legs.

DAN BOBKOFF: And do you think the Cleveland staff is right to fear that the same kinds of cuts that happened in Michigan and New Orleans are coming to Cleveland?

KEN DOCTOR: Certainly. This has now spread. It started in Michigan, and spread to the Deep South. Then it spread a couple of months ago to Harrisburg and Syracuse in terms of announcement. We’re really looking at the big remaining Advance papers in Cleveland, in Portland, Oregon, and in Newark to see what happens now. But the signs are that Advance thinks this strategy works and is inclined to do it at other newspapers as well.

DAN BOBKOFF: So what do you think about the Cleveland journalists launching this preemptive strike, with billboards and a campaign to save the paper before there’s even any announcement from Advance?

KEN DOCTOR: I think that it’s a noble effort. It’s not likely to work. In New Orleans, we saw the strange thing that we hadn’t seen in America for our lifetime, which was people in the street saying they wanted The Times-Picayune to continue publishingliterally, people with placards in the street demonstrating for the newspaper. That warmed the hearts of the people at The Times-Picayune. In fact, there were civic groups that said, “Well, Advance, if you don't want to print seven days a week, sell it to a local group who will print seven days a week.”

The Newhouse family [Advance's owners] said, “Thank you very much. We appreciate your interest. But this is a private business, and it’s not for sale.” I think that’s the likely outcome in Cleveland as well.

What we see in this is that the tension that existed for many years in newspapersnewspapers have been very, very profitable until the last five or six yearsthey walked an interesting line between public service and profit. They made a lot of money, but their values and the newsroom values were public service. Now, as the economy of newspapers has cratered, the public service aspect has fallen away. This is exactly the crux of the issue in Cleveland, that it is profit first and public service second, instead of the two coexisting, as they did so well for so many decades.

DAN BOBKOFF: Is it a romantic notion to talk about newspapers having a mission? Are those days over? What does that mean for midsize cities that might have only half a paper?

KEN DOCTOR: All cities are in that struggle. We have newspaper owners who have understood that both public service and profit are part of their legacy and part of their mandate. There are many good companies that are trying to balance those out. Advance itself is trying to balance it out with this digital-mainly strategy. I just think it’s the wrong strategy.

We know less about what’s going on in our communities than we knew five and ten years ago. But that’s almost impossible to measure.

This sense of community connectedness is based on community knowledge, on community information. Really, the best newspapers, and even the mediocre newspapers, have always held up a mirror to their communities. You figure out what’s going on, not just with government, but with local business, with local nonprofits, with schools. You figure out what’s going on. We are poorer in every city because of these cuts over the last five to ten years. But it has been just drip by drip by drip, and you can’t count what you don't see. We simply don't know what we don't know.

DAN BOBKOFF: Ken Doctor is an industry analyst and the author of Newsonomics.

Let us know what you think of what’s happening in the news business and what it means for your life. Leave us a comment at carnegiecouncil.org/justbusiness. There you’ll also find videos and podcasts and transcripts from the Carnegie Council’s more than 60 public events it hosts each year. You’ll find many fascinating talks by well-known experts discussing ethics in international affairs.

Consider supporting our fall fund drive with a donation.

That’s all on the website, carnegiecouncil.org.

That’s all for this edition of Just business. We have production help from Madeleine Lynn, Terence Hurley. Thanks to Jeff Carlton at WCPN ideastream in Cleveland and thanks to Tony Higgins for our music.

You can find more episodes on iTunes and the Stitcher Smart Radio app.

I’m Dan Bobkoff. Download us again next time.

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