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Cleveland Plain Dealer reporters launch pre-emptive strike

A billboard on Cleveland's East Side asks for public support for 7-day publication. 

Back in September, the daily New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper scaled back to just three days a week. Cleveland’s Plain Dealer still comes out every day, but it shares a parent company with the Picayune, and reporters there say they’ve been told changes are coming. Now, the Cleveland reporters are trying to get the public on their side before the ax comes down. 

There are billboards appealing to "Save the Plain Dealer", a petition drive, and endorsements from local heroes: 

“To go to three days a week, for our paper, for our Cleveland Plain Dealer, that’s a recipe for disaster,” says celebrity chef Michael Symon in a taped message of support. 

Someone even wrote a theme song for the protest movement with lyrics like, “I need the Plain Dealer every day.” 

For the journalists at the Plain Dealer, this is their preemptive strike. Instead of waiting for bad news from their parent company, Advance Publications, they’re trying to build a community outcry on the front end. 

They know what change looks like in the company’s other cities like New Orleans. Big job cuts, and a focus on the web in place of daily print publication.  

“If you have half the reporters, they’re asking half the questions, they’re writing half the stories,” says Rachel Dissell, a Plain Dealer reporter involved in the effort. 

This is personal. Reporters like Dissell are trying to save their own jobs, but they also think this is bad business. 

“How do you not put out a shoddier product? And, if you put out a shoddier product, how do you get people to stick with it?” she says. 

Advance Publications didn’t respond to several interview requests. The Plain Dealer, like most newspapers, has been losing readers for years. 

Bill Grueskin of Columbia Journalism School says some days of the week are more popular and more profitable for a paper’s owner. That’s a big reason Advance cut the Times Picayune to just Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday. 

“If you’re a big metro newspaper right now, and you’re looking to cut costs in order to stay afloat, going this route makes a certain amount of sense,” Grueskin says. 

But some think this is a bad idea long term. 

“They will probably kill off their products slowly,” says industry analyst Ken Doctor, author of Newsonomics.

When Advance has cut back on print days elsewhere, it has also let go many experienced journalists. 

As for the Cleveland reporters’ campaign to save the daily print edition, Doctor says he thinks it’s a noble effort that’s not likely to work. 

Even the journalists are somewhat resigned. 

When asked if he thinks the campaign will make a difference, Harlan Spector, another Plain Dealer reporter, pauses and says: “We hope.”

An announcement on the paper’s future is expected soon. 

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