Twenty-Five Stories

21 Welcome to The Plain Dealer

Harlan Spector

I started working at The Plain Dealer on Nov. 2, 1990. The windowless, second-story newsroom was hot, noisy and jammed with people. My early conversations with new colleagues established there were two tribes of people: Guild and management.

Local 1 of The Newspaper Guild represented more than 300 news staffers at the PD, including reporters, photographers, editors, librarians, graphic artists and clerks.

Over decades, Local 1 had negotiated one of the best pay scales in the industry relative to cost of living. When they hired me as an assistant metro editor, the PD was flush with cash. They sent reporters across the country and overseas routinely, with no apparent limit on the travel budget. As population shifted to counties surrounding Cuyahoga, the newspaper spent big money chasing readers and advertisers. They opened three new bureaus in the outer counties in 1989-90. That’s how I got hired. The paper aimed to out-local the local papers, and they needed dozens of new journalists to do it.

Each local bureau had nine or 10 people and a bureau chief, plus the PD needed additional editing staff downtown to move copy and crank out zoned metro sections.

New hires at the newspaper competed with veterans and management favorites to get noticed. Most bureau reporters wanted to be transferred downtown where the action was. Some complained they were ignored. My boss used to say, “There are worse things around here than being ignored.” He was right about that. You could have a target on your back and not even know it.

If you wanted face time with a boss, sometimes the best bet was to pull up a barstool at the Mardi Gras, a PD hangout on E. 21st Street. A lot of business got done there, which troubled some staffers who felt it was a boys’ club.

A co-worker described the newsroom as the Island of Misfit Toys. Journalism attracts characters, and the newsroom was democratic in the sense that there was tolerance for weirdness, crankiness and dissent, even the occasional tantrum. Editors yelled across the newsroom. Reporters argued with editors over assignments and rewrites. Clashes spilled into the managing editor’s office all the time. To management’s credit, you could disagree, and they didn’t hold a grudge.

So many oversized egos populated the newsroom it was hard to count. Old school reporter Lou Mio, who pecked away on the last remaining newsroom typewriter, had a cartoon taped to his desk: “If assholes could fly this place would be an airport.”

Then there were people like Ed Kissell. He quietly did his job for years as a night cops reporter from a press office at police headquarters. He called in his notes from crime scenes and fires but would not take a byline. He told a co-worker he thought it would be taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune. He died shortly after he retired.

“He craved secrecy,” an obituary said. “About the only times he appeared in the newspaper’s newsroom were on paydays, when he would quickly grab his check and be out of the office before anyone realized he was there. Some of his bosses did not even know him.”

Among stories PD veterans liked to tell was one about Don Bean, a police reporter who sent out a newbie on the beat to interview the mother of the unknown soldier laying flowers at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Public Square. The reporter apparently walked around the square until she realized she’d been pranked. The story was good for a chuckle. But an account published in a book about Cleveland journalism reminded me that was not such a great time for women at the PD. Many women who came on board in those years had their own stories to share about blatant sexism.

Before voicemail and email, editorial clerks stationed at the front desk of the newsroom answered calls, stuffed phone messages into mail slots and made announcements on a loudspeaker. Almost daily, they announced that a recipe prepared in the test kitchen, located off the newsroom, was ready for consumption. Staffers scurried to the front of the newsroom for samples.

My first week, I met Roma, our metro desk clerk. She sat in the middle of an oval ringed by city desk editors. She had an Elvis shrine on her desk. Roma was biting and irreverent and took no bull. She especially liked to needle newsroom bloviators.

Roma stopped me and asked if I was Guild or management.

“Guild,” I said.

“Good,” she said. “Then they can’t fuck with you.”

(Actually, they could. But there were limits).

At that moment, I wondered what I got myself into.

 

Goodbye Plain Dealer

 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013, 5:45 p.m. The newsroom email said, “Important Message” from sender “admin.”

We all knew what it meant in an instant.

The PD had announced the previous December it would lay off 50-plus members of the Guild, the second major layoff in five years. We waited months for the bomb to drop. Here it was. But nobody could click open the attachment. Admin had to send out a corrected one.

The attached letter told us we should wait by our phones the next morning between 8 and 10, for notice whether we are being “separated” from employment.

The letter ended by saying, “We sincerely regret having to go through this process and we thank all who are impacted for their years of service and wish them all the best for their future.”

There was no immediate sign of upset in the newsroom. Several people chuckled over the tortured “all who are impacted” line.

It sunk in this was my last day in the newsroom.

A few weeks earlier, I had volunteered to be put on the layoff list. Ever since they announced the job cuts, a steady stream of Guild members walked into the glass offices and volunteered to leave so they could take advantage of the severance package being offered.

PD owner, Advance Publications, was making big changes at its newspapers, in favor of a cheaper, digital business model designed to maximize clicks online. The fact that so many staffers volunteered to leave was telling.

My reasons for walking away were complicated. It’s hard to think about sometimes. I loved the business. We all did – at least the journalists I know. People lucky enough to have worked during better days of newspapers reminisce like some people reminisce about high school. The best experience you’ll never have again.

I had moved to reporting after nine years on the metro desk. My editor, Bob McAuley, encouraged his reporters to be dogged. He was a hard-ass newsman and one of the nicest guys around. Bob, and a few other editors I worked for, believed the best journalism came from enterprise work, not from editors cooking up ideas in meeting rooms. I looked forward to coming to work in those days.

But the rewarding part of the job became increasingly marred by economic turmoil. It stops being fun when you see workers pay dearly for owners’ bad decisions. Newspapers for years had no real competition, and they were arrogant. When the internet became a thing, they failed to grasp what was happening. I remember a top editor standing in the newsroom and declaring the internet would never replace newspapers.

It was obvious soon enough the newspaper business was in big trouble. I had been a union officer since the 1990s and was elected Guild chairman at the PD starting in 2008. The first round of newsroom layoffs happened that year. They fired 50 Guild people a few weeks before Christmas but didn’t touch any managers. We would do more with less, they said. Renowned Channel 3 reporter Tom Beres, who did a phenomenal job covering the PD’s slow-motion collapse, often called out the company on the air. “You don’t do more with less, you do less with less,” he said.

A year after those layoffs, the company came to the unions for a 12 percent wage concession. Either we accepted, or they would lay off 60-plus more people from the Guild, Teamsters and printers union.

You learn a lot about people in that situation. The Guild urged the membership to take the wage cut to save jobs. Some members had come out against it. Nerves were frayed. We called a meeting for the vote and weren’t sure what to expect. We were nervous.

But the membership voted overwhelmingly to take the pay hit in exchange for job security. Afterward, people came up and shook our hands. Some had tears in their eyes. I was never so proud of our union.

I naively thought at times that after owners got their pound of flesh that maybe they would leave us alone for a while. Employees ask year after year how much more can they cut? But then I got it. It doesn’t end.

The loss of staff through attrition alone was remarkable. The PD shed about two-thirds of its Guild-represented news staff from the time I started until I left. Important beats went uncovered. They shuttered the suburban bureaus and the Sunday Magazine. They idled the fleet of PD delivery trucks that used to line up at the loading docks on E. 18th Street. As revenue declined year after year, the company increasingly did not deal with the Guild in good faith. They lied to the union and violated our contract left and right, tying us up in an endless cycle of paperwork, grievances and legal procedures.

PD staffers were anguished about the decline of journalism as we knew it – a decline not just in staffing, but also in standards.

It became clear to me by 2013 that experienced journalists had fallen out of favor under the owners’ new click-driven, cost-cutting “model.” Management needed just enough seasoned journalists to claim respectability, but they didn’t need many. They were enamored with people who were younger, cheaper and nimble in digital space, regardless of whether they had journalistic chops. Being a savvy newsperson or a graceful writer was not valued so much, and contrary points of view were no longer welcome at all.

Advance was moving people and resources over to the non-union Cleveland.com. The changes became big news in town, and in other cities where the company owns newspapers. Clevelanders were shocked to learn the PD was going to cut home delivery days. The outcry in New Orleans over the company’s plans to cut jobs and reduce print days at the Times-Picayune thrust Advance into the national spotlight, prompting a report on “60 Minutes.” In Cleveland, a group of Guild members launched a “Save The Plain Dealer” campaign. It generated widespread news coverage and a public backlash that may have influenced ownership to back off on plans to reduce print days like they did in New Orleans.

The company would not reveal when Plain Dealer layoffs would happen. Many co-workers were sick with stress during the first half of 2013. I wish they would just get it over with. I heard that every day.

We fought year after year to preserve journalism at the PD. But it never was about the journalism to people on the other side of the bargaining table. Sometimes I had a hard time convincing colleagues of that. Owners have a number in mind, Local 1 Executive Secretary Rollie Dreussi would point out. How much they want to make, how much they want to cut.

You can’t reason with a number. You can’t talk owners into doing what’s right for journalism. You certainly can’t shame them into it.

The Guild and other unions didn’t have power to stop layoffs. But we got the best terms we could in a six-year contract that expires in 2019: A decent severance for laid off employees, more money for health care and pension, and job protection for those who remained.

One of my co-workers quipped afterward, “It’s a shit sandwich, but at least it has lettuce and tomato.”

The email of July 30, 2013 arrived as many staffers were getting ready to leave for the day. People started gathering, huddling and talking quietly. Even when you know it’s coming, it stuns. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself.

I walked around the newsroom in a daze for a while. I said goodbye and shook hands. I hugged people I had never hugged before.

It was a good way of life while it lasted.

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