The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the city’s 178-year-old print publication, made its latest cuts in a series of layoffs last week. Two decades ago, the paper employed around 340 union journalists. There are now only four union journalists and two non-union journalists working at The Plain Dealer.
Advance Publications owns The Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com, a non-union digital publication. The paper will continue to print regularly with contributions from Cleveland.com, which employs approximately 60 non-union journalists.
On April 3, 22 journalists were laid off from The Plain Dealer, including 18 union journalists and four non-union managers, leaving the paper with 14 union journalists. According to the Northeast Ohio Newspaper Guild — Local 1, Plain Dealer Editor Tim Warsinskey then told 10 of the remaining union journalists that they could not cover Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, or statewide issues. Instead, Warsinskey reassigned these 10 journalists to Geauga, Lake, Medina, Portage, and Lorain counties. No layoffs have been made to the Cleveland.com newsroom.
In a Cleveland.com article published on April 7, Warsinskey announced his plans to shift the paper’s geographic coverage to cover “underserved” counties.
“This broadening of our coverage area is especially important in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when all of our readers, regardless of where they live, deserve to know how the virus is affecting their local communities and how their local communities are responding,” Warsinskey wrote.
In a statement on April 7, The News Guild wrote that The Plain Dealer’s reassignments were intended to penalize union reporters.
“It’s clear that the company doesn’t value the expertise of its veteran reporters and it doesn’t think the community does either,” the statement read. “A move like this is incomprehensible and can only be interpreted as a way to punish people for belonging to a union. The company is choosing to switch reporters who have covered the city and county for decades to new beats and move their well-sourced beats to non-union reporters at Cleveland.com.”
Following Warsinskey’s announcement of reassignments, 9 of the 10 union journalists who were reassigned to outlying counties requested voluntary layoffs, in addition to one union columnist who had not been reassigned.
Warsinskey stated in his April 10 Cleveland.com article that The Plain Dealer would not reduce their regular coverage but did not address his original intention to expand coverage to outlying counties like Lorain. The Review reached out to Warsinskey for comment on how he plans to extend coverage to Lorain during the pandemic.
“Since 10 reporters asked to be laid off last week, we need to reevaluate our plans,” Warsinskey wrote in an email to the Review.
Journalists who reported on the pandemic and no longer work at The Plain Dealer include award-winning investigative reporter Rachel Dissell; health reporters Ginger Christ and Brie Zeltner; and Julie Washington, who covered patient stories and medical technology.
The staff reductions at The Plain Dealer are part of a national decline in local news over the last decade, a trend which has only worsened due to the pandemic. The Brookings Institute stated in a 2019 study that 65 million Americans now live in areas covered by one or no local papers, and newspaper ad revenue dropped by 68 percent from 2008 to 2018. According to Harvard Nieman’s journalism lab predictions, daily newspapers will lose between 30-50 percent of their ad revenue in April because advertisers have closed their businesses due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Managing Editor of The Chronicle-Telegram Julie Wallace commented on the expertise of the journalists who have been laid off from The Plain Dealer and how these layoffs will impact Northeastern Ohio.
“These are reporters who have years invested in covering their topics, their beats,” Wallace said. “There was this central wealth of knowledge and you can’t replace that quickly and easily. It doesn’t just hurt journalists, it hurts readers. … Those are stories that we’re just not going to see.”
For readers in Lorain County, Wallace explained that The Plain Dealer serves a significant role as the “umbrella paper” for the region.
“I think we do some great work at our place, but it’s a different type of work than what they’re doing there,” Wallace said. “Our paper is smaller, we’re churning stuff out at a much higher rate. They were kind of the umbrella paper for Northeast Ohio.”
Wallace believes The Plain Dealer layoffs ultimately mean less high-quality reporting for both Northeastern Ohio and Lorain County.
“Anytime we lose journalists who have their eyes on areas in Northeast Ohio, anytime you lose those journalists and those numbers diminish and you lose the caliber of people that we’re losing from The Plain Dealer, we all suffer, the whole region suffers,” Wallace said.