By:
May 12, 2020

Did Advance Local, owners of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com, set out to bust the union?

If so, the plan worked. In a statement released on Twitter on Tuesday, the Plain Dealer News Guild wrote, “After more than 80 years of union membership, Plain Dealer journalists will no longer be represented by Local 1. The unit will be dissolved effective May 17. The PD newsroom will no longer exist.”

The union said that The Plain Dealer will lay off the four remaining reporters on May 15 and then offer them jobs at Cleveland.com.

Thus comes the sad, but not unexpected end of an era as Advance shifts all of its coverage from the unionized Plain Dealer to the non-union Cleveland.com.

In early April, amid layoffs, I wrote how all but a handful of 14 remaining Plain Dealer staffers were told to not cover stories in Cleveland, Cuyahoga and Summit counties, and could no longer report on stories considered a “statewide” issue. The remaining Plain Dealer reporters were assigned to counties away from Cleveland. Covering Cleveland and the state was reserved for Cleveland.com, The Plain Dealer’s non-union sister newsroom.

Then Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds wrote just two weeks ago that more than 30 Plain Dealer reporters, editors and photographers were let go during successive weeks in April, leaving 60 to 65 journalists at the non-union Cleveland.com. That only reaffirmed suspicions that Advance was trying to break the union.

However, Advance CEO Caroline Harrison told Edmonds at the time, “Advance Local’s commitment has always been to deliver quality local news and information in the communities we serve, and to help local businesses grow. Whether or not our newsroom employees are represented by unions, we have used a similar approach to fulfill this commitment.”

In Tuesday’s statement, the Guild wrote, “The company started down this road in 2013 with this clear end goal — to get rid of the union. The Guild hoped the company would see the value of the work our members provided and the deep connections and trust we built in the community as a way to strengthen journalism in Greater Cleveland. Instead, it chose to systematically squeeze the Guild out of existence. It was excruciating for those laid off over the past year and our members who remained to be kept in limbo.”

The union also said, “To those Guild members who came before us: We are sorry. To the city and people of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio: We will miss you. We did our best.”

In a note to readers, Plain Dealer editor Tim Warsinskey wrote that he was switching jobs to become senior editor of special projects for Advance Local.

He wrote, “The Plain Dealer remains a stanchion of Ohio journalism, and still is the best source for print journalism and advertising. Before anyone starts pounding nails in coffins, as some of my more sensationalist brethren and harsh critics are wont to do, take a breath. This is not the end of The Plain Dealer. Far from it.”

He added that the paper will still be printed seven days a week and delivered four days a week. So, yes, the physical Plain Dealer exists, but the Plain Dealer journalists represented by the union will not.

Here’s the full union statement:

After more than 80 years of union membership, Plain Dealer journalists will no longer be represented by the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild Local 1.

The unit will be dissolved effective May 17. The Plain Dealer newsroom will no longer exist.

On May 15, The Plain Dealer will lay off the four remaining reporters, and they have been offered jobs at clevelanddotcom. The members will be entitled to their earned benefits, including severance pay, whether they accept those jobs or not.

The company started down this road in 2013 with this clear end goal — to get rid of the union. The Guild hoped the company would see the value of the work our members provided and the deep connections and trust we built in the community as a way to strengthen journalism in Greater Cleveland.

Instead, it chose to systematically squeeze the Guild out of existence. It was excruciating for those laid off over the past year and our members who remained to be kept in limbo.

The job of the Guild, or of any union, is to work for the best interest of its members, even in times when those decisions chafe at the ideals we hold dear — that workers deserve a seat at the table.

The Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild will continue to represent about 130 members at the Akron Beacon Journal, the Canton Repository and the Massillon Independent.

As part of an agreement, the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild agreed not to participate in organizing efforts to organize cleveland.com for one year, though other local unions and TheNewsGuild, which represents journalists across the country, still can exercise those rights.

The Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild encourages them to do so, as 44 other publications with 2,500 employees have in the past two-and-a-half years, including at Advance-owned outlets like Wired, Pitchfork and The New Yorker.

Twenty years ago, The Plain Dealer had more than 340 journalists. In its heyday, it had even more. Today, it has four. Advance and The Plain Dealer have slashed the newsroom while creating a separate nonunion newsroom, cleveland.com.

The end of the unit, as unionization is picking up at other media companies across the country, is a sad moment in Cleveland history. Its imprint on the newsroom, and city, has been invaluable in the last century.

Those who came before us bargained, picketed and went on strike over the decades for fair wages and benefits, worker safety and racial and gender equality. They also fought for free speech and objective coverage, protecting not just themselves but their readers.

The Plain Dealer News Guild’s ranked have included Pulitzer Prize winners; Jane Scott, the groundbreaking rock’n’ roll reporter who was also a tireless union supporter and inspiration for female journalists everywhere; Dennis Kucinich, who became mayor and congressman; famed Hollywood screenwriter Joe Eszterhas; and thousands of others whose names might not have made headlines but who doggedly and tirelessly worked to cover the city of Cleveland and its people and places for more than 80 years.

To those Guild members who came before us: We are sorry. To the city and people of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio: We will miss you. We did our best.

Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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