The Paper Goeth into the Night

Within the past week, corporate ownership basically delivered the deathblow to traditional journalism in Cleveland. The skeleton staff of alternative weekly Scene has covered these events quite well, but in brief, owners pushed out most reporters still employed at the metro’s last remaining print daily newspaper.

I comment, here, mostly to connect the obvious dots that both broad industry trends and the specific policies of said owners have been pointing toward this outcome for years, so the stunned reaction is rather frustrating.

I grant that the past week’s actions by Plain Dealer owners, Advance Publications, pushed the familiar pace a bit. The past week’s brazen dishonesty and dickishness from Advance, and their minion Chris Quinn, also justify some measure of surprise.

But the approach of this substantive outcome has been perfectly visible for years, as has a means which was fundamentally dishonest and dickish.

I was writing almost nine years ago about larger socioeconomic forces’ turn against the modern tradition of a print newspaper furnishing a well-resourced journalism organization in every substantial city. Nothing I wrote then was really new or original. The following year I wrote specifically about the players in The Plain Dealer‘s local staging of this drama, and the dim prospects for a “Save The Plain Dealer” campaign.

Several months later, national comment from Slate gave notice of the paper’s impending exsanguination in a better informed fashion. The only detail absent from that 2012 article was the union-busting strategy of Advance, which had years earlier created a separate non-union “cleveland.com” shop, to dilute the Plain Dealer union journalists’ ability to slow the paper’s liquidation.

Scene journalists have been pointing that out for years, however, and events have unfolded exactly as all of these analyses would lead one to expect. The recent reaction on social media?

“Oh my god, they killed Kenny The Plain Dealer!” “You bastards!!”

I make reference to the old recurring gag from South Park, a series which the world could have done without long ago, because the other characters’ dismay and umbrage at Kenny’s death in spite of the fact that Kenny died over and over and over feels a bit like the local dismay and umbrage at Advance’s dismemberment of The Plain Dealer. Of course they dismembered the PD, that’s exactly what you had every reason to expect they were going to do, because it’s what they have been doing, for years.

Meanwhile, no one concerned about this really seems to have confronted the situation in an active way. The Very Online telling one another to “subscribe to your local newspaper” has been around for years, and has not worked, nor did the brief “Save the Plain Dealer” local campaign. When I try bringing up the want of an effective response, I’m mostly ignored, and the few exceptions tend to be variations on “the union is the answer!”

People, I’m about as supportive of labor organizing as anyone. But 1) Advance checked the Plain Dealer union long ago, and this week was check and mate; 2) I don’t know the details but “unionize the cleveland.com reporters too” is so absolutely obvious that, given their continued non-union status, it’s very hard to believe this idea offers some substantial promise still untried.

I confess to not having the solution, but I think any solution would have to begin with honestly confronting the problem and its implications—and if others have been doing this, the past week’s gnashing of teeth on social media suggests to me that they must have been about as unheeded as I have been.

I care, don’t get me wrong. I can only tilt at so many of the world’s windmills, but I’m concerned about more than just those. My concern with this issue is probably increasing, in fact, following recent observations about the political power of media narratives. If someone out there is ready, at last, to start work delivering local journalism’s new now that the long-dying old is finally not just dead but decomposing, I would be quite willing to help if there’s some useful way in which I can.

That said, forgive me if I’m a little frustrated at the seeming inability of people to recognize a pattern in a straight line of equally sized, equally spaced dots, some times even when they have filled in many of the dots. (This seems to be a larger pattern in this hell to which I wake each day, and it’s a little frustrating.)

Also, forgive me if I struggle just a little to share with others, in April 2020, grief at the community’s deprivation of essential investigative journalism, when I can’t readily recall most of those others giving a fig when my own community’s deprivation of essential investigative journalism years ago facilitated my community’s deprivation of our publicly owned charity hospital and largest employer. By all means, if you think the indirect consequences of decimated investigative journalism will be bad, you’re right; they have already been bad, including the shameful avoidance, by such professional investigative journalism as still existed five years ago, of an astonishing abuse of public trust.

Which returns us to my main point: this is not a new problem.

What are you prepared to do?

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