April 30, 2020

Even in a year when newspaper industry layoffs number in the hundreds and are increasing weekly, the meat cleaver Advance Local took to its print edition staff at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland is noteworthy.

In successive weeks in April, more than 30 reporters, editors and photographers were let go, reducing Local 1 of the NewsGuild (the first-ever chapter of the national union for journalists and media professionals) to a shell.

Roughly 60 to 65 journalists are left at cleveland.com, a sister non-union company.

I thought the two-wave layoffs, while widely reported regionally in Ohio, merited a second look. They exemplify the speeded pace of news staff reductions, already in progress, during the coronavirus and economic crash. But they also cast light on the problematic high-traffic digital strategy Advance Local has been pursuing for more than a decade.

I spoke several weeks ago with Ginger Christ, a departing young reporter who chaired the small Cleveland NewsGuild chapter, the day before she signed a non-disclosure agreement.

To understand what happened, Christ told me, begin by recognizing that content from the cleveland.com staff regularly appears in the print paper and vice versa. What’s the distinction then? Cleveland.com is a separate company, not just a separate site. It remains non-unionized.

From 1,000 miles away here at Poynter, the April culling of what remained of the Plain Dealer staff looks to be a classic exercise in union-busting. The two-company structure Advance pioneered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 2009, set a template that can easily be used to marginalize union power. (The main point of Advance’s strategy was to shift focus to digital, typically eliminating home delivery or print editions some days of the week.)

No, this wasn’t union-busting, Caroline Harrison, who succeeded longtime CEO Randy Siegel earlier this year, wrote me in an email: “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.”

The first 22 Cleveland layoffs were announced in an April 3 article by recently installed editor Tim Warsinskey. It included the customary expression of regret that colleagues needed to be let go. He closed with an assurance that “The Plain Dealer will continue to work hard to produce a newspaper that keeps our community informed and connected.”

The bizarre part came a week later. The 14 Plain Dealer journalists remaining (with three exceptions) were offered the option of leaving or remaining — but exiled to cover five outlying counties. They could no longer write about Cleveland or state issues.

Christ and nine colleagues, including some of the paper’s most experienced journalists, opted to walk away. They could receive favorable separation benefits, she explained, including health insurance. The NewsGuild chapter’s contract expires early next year, and union members figured that they would be left with little leverage to negotiate a new one.

For the same reason, she and the others concluded that there was no point in pursuing an unfair labor practices claim. “So we could be reinstated?”

For that round of layoffs, editor Warsinskey offered a lengthier spin in a bylined piece under the headline “The Plain Dealer accepts requests from 10 journalists to be laid off voluntarily.” Over 14 paragraphs, Warsinskey made no mention of the reassignment ultimatum.

(Advance has also imposed pay cuts and layoffs like most other chains.)

Christ told me that when she signed on to work at her hometown newspaper four years ago (“I think I was the last hired full-time”), she knew she was taking a risk. But she was reassured in interviews with then-editor George Rodrigue, an accountability and investigative specialist. Christ figured that she could count on three years of security and take on challenging assignments.

Christ is getting on with freelance work and job hunting, but options may be more limited for others. The NewsGuild pulled together short professional biographies of the 10 who left. A number had 30 to 40 years with the paper, which puts them, at the youngest, in their 50s and 60s.

The moves generated a wave of stories, none of them positive, throughout Northeast Ohio. On a public radio interview on WKSU, I was asked the salient question: Does this latest misadventure show that Advance Local’s strategy has failed?

Of course just last year, Advance suffered the embarrassment of selling The Times-Picayune and its NOLA.com site to an upstart New Orleans competitor, The Advocate. The Advocate parlayed strong journalism, seven-day-a-week print and a wealthy local owner to gain an edge in the market.

Advance Local, with 30 daily newspapers and their websites, has consistently claimed that its journalism has remained strong and that the sites punch above their weight in traffic. General counsel Eric Adler sent me documentation on both points when I requested company comment.  In her email, CEO Harrison also cited journalism success and audience engagement.

On the other hand, the company will not discuss advertising revenue, beyond saying that digital ad revenue now exceeds print. And that is where the strategy turned out to be flawed.

Plans for the new publishing pattern were hatched in 2007 and 2008, well before Facebook emerged as a potent competitor for local advertising. High hopes for generating big ad revenues from high-traffic sites have fallen short this decade, and not just at Advance Local, as Facebook and Google gobbled up a large share of the digital advertising pie and nearly all the growth.

I have also grown skeptical that the sites ever emerged as significant brands. I don’t live there, but are cleveland.com, NOLA.com, MLive.com (a group of Michigan papers) or Al.com (three large Alabama papers) readily recognized in their markets? Typing the name of the associated legacy papers into a browser gets you there.

Also, having long given visitors news content for free, the sites are belated and halting in pivoting to paid digital. Syracuse.com (a pilot for the effort since 2018), cleveland.com and others ask readers to subscribe, but don’t have a paywall I can detect.

The sites, originally in blog format, still have a high news story count, strong homepage layout and much more video than is typical. Al.com has established a hit spinoff, a light lifestyle vertical called “It’s a Southern Thing.”

Advance Local also has the advantage of being owned by the fabulously wealthy Newhouse family, stalwarts of the Forbes 400 list. (Harrison is a fourth-generation Newhouse; her father, Richard Diamond, was publisher of the family’s flagship Staten Island Advance from 1979 until his death in 2004).

Advance Publications, the parent company of Advance Local, is best known for its newspapers and Condé Nast magazines. But the company is well-diversified with lucrative advertising subsidiaries and the highly profitable American City Business Journals group, acquired back in the 1990s.

All that is beside the point of Advance Local’s current business challenges, Harrison wrote me. “Advance’s other operating companies have nothing to do with Advance Local’s responsibility to sustain its journalistic mission with a business model that keeps pace with the marketplace.”

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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