Plain Dealer editor, publisher: Business requires ‘significant reset’

Cleveland.com
Plain Dealer Editor Debra Adams Simmons and publisher Terry Egger published an open letter to readers on Sunday’s front page responding to concerns about the paper’s future plans. Plain Dealer journalists launched a pre-emptive campaign last week against the possibility the paper would reduce staff and print frequency, like other Advance-owned newspapers.

Students of previous Advance transitions may hear notes in Simmons’ and Egger’s letter reminiscent of those the company sounded in New Orleans, Harrisburg, Pa., and at Advance’s Alabama papers: Change is coming, we will embrace the digital future and the changes involved will not be small.

“We do not have a specific plan, timeline or structure for Cleveland. But we will — very soon,” Simmons and Egger write.

We also have a chance to be even more useful and responsive to an audience that in recent years has migrated to digital platforms — looking online, on mobile devices and tablets for news and information we previously provided only in print.

The discussion of the paper’s future “is not about cost-cutting,” they write. In September, Times-Picayune publisher Ricky Mathews told The Wall Street Journal the paper’s declining print ad revenue drove the decision: “With a 10% revenue decline this year, it could be not profitable real quick, unless you drastically cut costs,” Mathews told Keach Hagey. This followed an interview with Advance.net Chairman Steven Newhouse who said, “The Times-Picayune is profitable.”

Simmons and Egger write they “must build a sustainable growth company” — work that presumably wouldn’t be necessary if they considered the Plain Dealer’s costs to be in line with its revenue trends. Whatever is coming will require a “significant reset of our business,” Simmons and Egger write. “If we maintain the status quo, we risk doing what everyone — our employees, advertisers, and the community — wants to avoid: disappearing.”

“The good news is that in writing the letter, they acknowledge they are hearing your voices,” says a post on the Save The Plain Dealer campaign’s Facebook page, which also notes the paper’s Guild agreed to pay cuts in 2009 in exchange for a pledge by management not to lay anyone off. That agreement expires in January, the same month Egger is scheduled to retire from the paper.

He announced that move with a letter to staffers that sounds much like Sunday’s open letter: “This planning process will not be about simply cutting costs,” he wrote. “It is a play to win — a bold bet to ensure our leadership in the market, uphold our journalistic standards, and continue our mission to serve the Northeastern Ohio community for years to come.”

Plain Dealer ombudsman Ted Diadiun writes he wishes the Guild campaign “had not tried to enlist the paper’s news sources to help the cause. Trying to line up the support of prominent Clevelanders is understandable, but asking news sources for favors always presents an ethical — a potential quid-pro-quo — problem,” he writes. Nevertheless, he considers it a “principled campaign.”

Screenwriter and former Plain Dealer reporter Joe Eszterhas has written an open letter of his own, saying he is “deeply saddened” by the possibility the Plain Dealer may follow other Advance papers’ strategy. “[I]t’s up to you to raise some benevolent, dignified hell,” he writes, urging readers to email Advance.net honcho Steven Newhouse. “I think we need to address the economic and media realities that are facing us,” Newhouse told Plain Dealer reporter Robert Smith.

Sunday’s Plain Dealer front page (image courtesy the Newseum)

Related: Newhouse talks with Poynter about the company’s strategy | Patriot-News, Post-Standard will reduce print frequency to three days a week | Times-Picayune to publish three days a week, cut staff | Advance cuts daily publication of its three Alabama papers

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