John Mangels was sitting in a New York pizza joint last May reading the New York Times when he came across David Carr's story that Newhouse's Advance Publications was cutting back on the publication schedule of its hitherto daily newspapers in New Orleans and Alabama. He quickly lost his appetite.
"I was stunned," says Mangels, the science writer at Cleveland's Plain Dealer, another daily owned by Advance.
Newhouse had adopted a digital-first approach and cut back print publication to two days a week at its Ann Arbor, Michigan, property in 2009. But until the news about New Orleans and Alabama surfaced, Mangels and his colleagues didn't fear that think they faced the same fate. "We didn't think it was a nationwide strategy," he says.
Suddenly Mangels knew better and realized it was time to fight back.
When he returned to Cleveland, he spoke to a number of people, including his good friend and coworker Harlan Spector. "We talked about could we get out in front of the decision? Could we give Clevelanders the chance to shape the outcome? Harlan said, 'Let's do it'," Mangels recalls.
Spector, who is the chairman of the Plain Dealer's Newspaper Guild unit, says when Mangels approached him, he quickly realized a proactive approach was a good idea. And thus began the "Save The Plain Dealer" campaign.
The campaign was conceived to maintain the Plain Dealer's daily publication schedule and protect journalism jobs. But just weeks after it launched on November 11 came a sobering blast of bad news: The Plain Dealer plans to reduce the number of Guild jobs in the newsroom by more than a third, from 168 to 110.
Despite that serious setback, the campaign will go forward in an effort to save the paper's status as a daily. "We will continue to fight on for that," Mangels says.
"We are dismayed that the newspaper intends to cut one-third of its newsroom workers," Spector adds. "The Guild believes these cuts undermine the newspaper's journalistic responsibilities and hurt the community."
Steve Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net, the digital division of Advance Publications, declined to comment for this story.
In an open letter to readers last month, Plain Dealer Publisher Terry Egger and Editor Debra Adams Simmons wrote, "We do not have a specific plan, timeline or structure for Cleveland. But we will – very soon." They added, "We also have a chance to be even more useful and responsive to an audience that in recent years has migrated to digital platform – looking online, on mobile devices and tablets for news and information we previously provided only in print."
The campaign is run by a 10-member committee made up of Plain Dealer journalists. The reporters and editors all "bring a particular skill set. They all bring enthusiasm, creativity and work ethic," Mangels says. And they all do the juggling act that is balancing their journalistic work and their committee duties.
The campaign has pages on Facebook and Twitter, as well as a petition on Change.org, where people sign and leave comments. The committee also sends out e-mail blasts to community leaders, Spector says.
"It's been overwhelming," he says. "We're getting media calls daily. There's a lot of interest in it. It's a big story in Cleveland right now."
In addition to cutting back in New Orleans and Alabama, Newhouse has embraced a digital-first, three-day-a-week-in-print strategy at its papers in Syracuse, New York; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and several cities in Michigan. These changes began speculation that it will adopt a similar model in Cleveland and at the Oregonian in Portland.
The cutback at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans inspired a spirited fight by residents of the city to preserve the paper's seven-day status, but Newhouse pushed forward with its strategy nonetheless. And while the company remains mum on the subject of the Plain Dealer's future frequency, the steep newsroom cuts mirror what happened in New Orleans when the digital-first approach was adopted.
Mangels says slashing the newsroom workforce at the Plain Dealer will be devastating for the Cleveland community. "That's decades of experience leaving," he says. "That's an uncountable number of stories that won't be told. It's inevitable that quality will decline."
Mangels says the only slight positive is an agreement between the Guild and Plain Dealer management to limit future layoffs. The Guild approved the agreement Tuesday.
Spector, a general assignment reporter at the Plain Dealer, says the campaign's overarching goal is to preserve responsible journalism in Cleveland. "It feels like Advance is running in the opposite direction," he says, noting that after cutbacks were announced in New Orleans, an investor group offered to buy the paper but was rebuffed.
In addition to using social media, the campaign has also rented bus and billboard ads reading, "Save The Plain Dealer. Don't let Cleveland's daily paper fade away." It has designed T-shirts, started a YouTube channel, is recording a 30-second commercial and has recruited celebrities with ties to Cleveland to make promotional videos. On December, 6, the Market Garden Brewery and Distillery hosted a "Save The Plain Dealer Party" to raise awareness for the cause.
Sam McNulty, owner of the Market Garden Brewery, has a personal tie to the Plain Dealer, as he was a newspaper carrier for 10 years. He says the party was "a celebration of the Plain Dealer and journalism in general, and how important it is to support it."
"We want to see Cleveland flourish," he says, emphasizing that a daily newspaper plays a large role in the life of a city. "We have to have the real unbiased journalism. What will happen is we'll have a lot of bloggers, not professionals, who just throw whatever they want out there. We would start to devolve."
The save-the-paper campaign is funded by the Guild, which has contributed $150,000s, Spector says. "The fact that we belong to the Newspaper Guild gives us a democratic voice," he says. "I'm sure they feel just as strongly in other markets, but without union protection, you can't speak out." Many Advance newsrooms are not unionized.
Many residents have rallied behind the effort. Mangels says Clevelanders have said they are willing to dig a little deeper to keep receiving the quality of journalism they are accustomed to. They have said they will pay higher subscription prices and will pay for online news.
"We've been really gratified and humbled by the reaction we've gotten," he says. "When people feel down about our chances, I tell them to go to the petition page and read the comments."
Mangels, who was born and raised in Florida, has been at the Plain Dealer since 1992. During his time at the paper he has worked as a reporter and editor, most recently as the science writer since 1999.
Before joining the Plain Dealer he worked at Advance's Birmingham News, one of the papers whose print publication schedule has been reduced to three days a week. "I had friends who worked in Birmingham and New Orleans," he says. "The reports we're getting now is the quality and quantity is diminished."
Mangels worries that with a digital-first strategy, many Clevelanders will be cut off from their news lifeline. "Cleveland, like many older cities, has a problem with access to the Internet," he says. "Around 40 percent of people don't have Internet access. If we go to three or zero days a week [in print], those folks lose their access."
The campaign is not asking for money, but is asking residents to put pressure on Advance.net Chairman Newhouse. "We really just want them to let him know this is a bad thing," Mangels says. "Particularly community leaders, anyone affected by our coverage. Find a way to organize and figure out ways you might be able to preserve it."
While Spector and Mangels believe they are doing the right thing, the decision to mount the campaign did not come without doubts. "It crosses everyone's mind: 'Am I going to be punished for it? Am I going to be put on the layoff list?' " Spector says.
But, he adds, "We've gone through a lot in the last few years. People have kind of hit their limits. It's time to stand up for the right thing."