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The Plain Dealer’s Content Problem

The Plain Dealer’s Content Problem

By Daniel J. McGraw 

A few days ago, the Cleveland Plain Dealer had a short story on a fairly new urban program where bicycles are shared. It involves docking stations throughout the city, where anyone could rent a bike for a half hour or more with a credit card and return it to other stations in the city. The PD story was coverage of a meeting involving bicycle advocates and City of Cleveland planners who are exploring the implementation of such a program. In cities that have already done this, the cost is shared between local government agencies and users and corporate sponsors.

Bike-share programs have popped up all over the country: in New York, Chicago, Columbus and other cities. Advocates have touted them as a good way to get cars off the street, an extension of mass transit, and a way to get people to ride a bike at lunch for exercise and tourists to get around the city. But the programs have not proven cost effective so far (some are a few years into it), and many conservatives are getting hot about more bikes sharing the road and not paying for licenses like car owners do. If there is one issue that blows up among the trolls on Cleveland.com, it is anything to do with bicycles sharing the roads with cars.

This was not the first meeting where the proposed Cleveland bike-share program was raised and not the first the PD has covered. On the day after this most recent meeting (but the day before the PD story ran), the Canadian company that makes most of the bikes and the docking stations had filed for bankruptcy. Many cities that have the bike-share programs were wondering whether the bankruptcy was a sign that the program was an unsustainable concept. The Chicago Tribune covered the bankruptcy on the same day the PD story appeared, and the Toronto Star covered the company’s financial problems last April. Atlantic Cities has weighed in frequently as well.

So what did the PD have in its story? Some quotes by advocates saying bike-sharing is a good idea, a cursory explanation of how it works, how you might be able to rent a bike to ride from downtown to University Circle, and the brief mention that New York and Chicago and Columbus had them.

In the newspaper business–which some might think is in the business of delivering interesting content to its customers–there is little concern about editorial content.

Almost identical to the story they did in October. No bankruptcy mention.

So I searched to see if maybe the PD had covered this with any depth previously. Not really. A few meetings were covered, but they never looked at how the bike-share programs were doing in other cities, how they were being used and whether the programs were actually worth the cost. And I thought how I found out so much information in just an hour or so, and I wondered why the PD couldn’t send a reporter for a day or two to Chicago or Columbus or New York and get some details on whether such a program might be good for Cleveland.

But as a former daily newspaper reporter, I remembered why they don’t do such things. Because, in the newspaper business–which some might think is in the business of delivering interesting content to its customers–there is little concern about editorial content. Reporters are thought of as stenographers mostly, and if you show up at a meeting that discusses millions of dollars in public funds being used for a controversial plan like bike-sharing, then you get your quotes and get out. Nothing more is expected.

Reporters learn early on that the management doesn’t really much care what is between the ads in print, what appears online next to the ads, or whether a reporter goes the distance to get something that is little more than recording a meeting. A lot of reporters don’t try to do more because they know that what they do matters little in the big scheme of things. You learn what the expectations are and adjust.

The Columbia Journalism Review had an interesting article this month about the doldrums experienced among reporters at the PD. The focus of the story is that “the newsroom culture is gone,” meaning that the PD has now split its editorial staff into three different places: two separate downtown offices, and another group at its printing plant in suburban Brooklyn.

Of course, the reporters quoted (mostly unnamed of course) think the arrangement is bad, given that the whole function of a newsroom is to sometimes bat around ideas and get advice from the wise old ones about what is important and what is not.

I see backpack journalism as putting a camera phone on the bill of my baseball cap and see what I might find on the multi-media trail, getting content that is as important and interesting as the postings of pictures of babies and weddings and dogs on Facebook.

What the CJR article emphasizes is that the PD is moving toward its reporters being “backpack journalists.” That means that the reporters move about with equipment to record video and audio and send text, and for the most part do so instantly and without time to think whether it is important or not. File what you have, with little editing, and then move on to the next opportunity to record. High-tech stenography, if you will, with little time in the office.

I’ll play the cynic here. I see backpack journalism as putting a camera phone on the bill of my baseball cap and see what I might find on the multi-media trail; getting content that is as important and interesting as the postings of pictures of babies and weddings and dogs on Facebook. Maybe an edited version of Google maps.

But the paragraph below really stood out for me in the CJR piece. The PD has split their reporting staff into the Northeast Ohio Media Group (non-union, younger, online mostly, more backpacky) and the Plain Dealer Publishing Co. (union, older, more print, less backpacky). They are housed in different offices. This is how the split is playing out according to CJR reporter Anna Clark:

A third Plain Dealer reporter I spoke with described the current situation as ‘divisive.’ [Brandon] Blackwell, the NEOMG reporter, said he had “little or no interaction” with newspaper staff, “unless we are passing a long a tip or checking to make sure we aren’t covering the same story.” But the first Plain Dealer reporter said the despite the barriers, some collaboration is happening; he shares material with NEOMG reporters, and they return the favor. “An NEOMG guy gave me a cell number for someone I needed to reach last week,” he said.

There have been many studies about how open offices encourage collaboration and innovation and a better product. People who interact with others may not like it all the time, but it does help to promote innovation and change. But I found it quite odd that a reporter had “little or no interaction” with other staff members, and that an important part of creating content for the Northeast Ohio local news audience involved getting a phone number from a co-worker.

The business model has changed drastically and content does matter these days.

I hate to sound old here, but I remember asking experienced reporters in the newsrooms where I worked for advice on who I might want to contact on a story, not how to reach someone I already had on my list.

But this is all about newspaper editorial content, and a divisive environment for the creators of said content is not important. The owners and corporate hierarchy of the Plain Dealer and other papers haven’t cared about content in their entire careers. It is not in their DNA. But it should be now, because the business model has changed drastically and content does matter these days.

*****

When I started working as a newspaper reporter in the late 1980s, people would politely ask me what I did in my job. I would answer that my job was to fill the space in between the ads with stories that most people didn’t read. My friends and family would laugh at what they thought was a joke. But it wasn’t.

I also should have added that my job was to very cheaply produce stories that no one read. So the editorial news emphasis at most papers was and is usually police crime and city council meeting stenography, not stories about why certain crimes seemed to be rising or why the council meeting was a precursor of sweeping changes in the city. Because all of this is part of the simple business truth of journalism: stories about what is happening are far less expensive to report than why something is happening.

But I never had a problem with that back then, because the business model for cheap and unread simple stories made sense. People bought newspapers for the ads. If you wanted to buy a car, you bought the paper. Same thing with selling a house. You found out what was on sale at the supermarkets on Wednesday; coupons clipped on Sunday.

What was important was what movies were playing where. The school lunch menu. The TV listings. Comics and crossword puzzles. If you were looking for a job or looking to hire someone, the newspaper was the place to go. You found out how much it was going to cost you for a new living room set. Or some newfangled gadget like a microwave oven. Because the newspaper was the only place where you found those things out–what is out there and how much it costs, who’s hiring and how much they are paying. And those things are what most people are interested in when you get down to it.

The stories that ran in between those ads didn’t matter much to the average reader, so they did not matter much to the publisher either. We all knew it, but reporters never admitted it then (or do now). My colleagues tended to emphasize they were part of that Fourth Estate and protectors of free constitutional free speech–and we were/are to a certain extent. But the publishers would tend to smile and pat their editors on the head when the free speech subject came up, and then they would get back to making sure the money was flowing with ad sales. And not flowing too much to produce news stories.

That business model is now dead for obvious reasons, and has been for about 15 years or so. You don’t look in a newspaper for a job or to buy a house or car or to find out what kind of deal is available for a flat screen TV. And the market is split into niches where the people who only got the paper for sports scores or horoscopes or TV schedules have split off and moved on. The ones who bought it for the classified ads also don’t read it any more. Foodies have more blogs and TV shows than they know what to do with. There are other ways to kill time than going through the daily newspaper.

So who’s left? The ones that value local content. But since the newspaper editorial and business staffs haven’t had any experience in putting a value on content through their entire career, they are doing a poor job of adapting.

I am not proposing that these papers have long and snooty in-depth articles where a reporter gazes down from 30,000 feet and delivers an apocalyptic message of doom. I just want to read about people I might want to know.

I am a news junkie, but I plow though the PD in about five minutes (whether in print or online). I do the same with other papers as well. None of them really get it. There is an educated audience with a higher than average disposable income who values local content presented to them in a smart way, and the daily newspapers in this country have a hard time figuring out how to serve that market.

I am not proposing that these papers have long and snooty in-depth articles where a reporter gazes down from 30,000 feet and delivers an apocalyptic message of doom. I just want to read about people I might want to know. Maybe about why blacks and whites still seem to dislike each other so these days. How a city like Cleveland is really dealing with shrinking. Why immigrants are going to other cities but not here. People who make a difference in poor areas. People who make a difference in rich areas. What the youngs are up to. Simple stuff, really, but subjects that take a little bit of time and thinking to get right.

Maybe mix in a little more whys and with the whats.

It is not difficult to do. But it does take a mindset that the content does matter. And that is what is missing these days among what we might refer to as the mainstream local media. They are still thinking that ads matter and content doesn’t.

The problem remains that for more than 50 years, the hierarchy at newspapers hasn’t thought much about content as it relates to the business model.

What’s really happened is that the importance of the two is flipping around.

That doesn’t mean the Plain Dealer and other papers don’t occasionally do some good and interesting things. The PD has done some fairly good investigative work (most recently on the issue of rape kits being unused by law enforcement), has expanded its op-ed pages to more days, has some of the best artistic designers and photographers in the country, and knows how to put a local spin on National Pie Day.

But the problem remains that for more than 50 years, the hierarchy at newspapers hasn’t thought much about content as it relates to the business model. The business side still thinks people come to the newspaper for ads, and the content produced by the editorial side is nothing more than a cost on the ledger. The editorial side has always distanced itself from any debate on what content draws readers and what doesn’t, because that isn’t what “pure” free speech protectors bother with.

A few years ago, I was having a few drinks with a fairly high-ranking sales exec at the paper I was working at in Texas. I was complaining to her about how the ad sales people were making twice as much as I was making and how unfair it was. She started laughing. “At least they generate money,” she said.

I countered with that my work helped generate eyeballs that helped them sell ads. Her response was quite telling. “We would have just as many readers if we had no paid writers and just used hobbyists,” she said. “No one cares what you guys write about. Most get the paper because of the ads.”

And in many ways, that is where the newspaper business is right now. Have a bunch of backpack journalists – hobbyists if you will – with cameras on their heads wandering around town like multi-media stenographers that aren’t paid too much to do their steno work. And doing their recording for a management that doesn’t care much because they still think people are picking up their paper for the ads.

What they cannot see is that people aren’t picking it up for either reason. The ads are no longer important, and most of the content never really was.

Daniel J. McGraw is a Lakewood freelance journalist and author. He has worked as a staff writer for the Lake County News-Herald and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and served as a senior editor for U.S. News & World Report. His work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, the Cleveland Edition, People Magazine, The Village Voice, Reason Magazine, Salon, the Fort Worth Weekly and many others. His memoir, “First and Last Seasons: A Father, A Son and Sunday Afternoon Football,” was published by Doubleday in 2000.

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14 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    January 23, 2014

    I worked for the Lorain Morning Journal for a year right out of college, and this couldn’t be more descriptive of the experience — get in, get video, get pictures, get quotes, and get the hell out. Little to no value was placed on any sort of depth except in exceedingly rare circumstances. The highest-priority beat I ever worked was when I was sent to cover the County Fair for 5 days straight.

    Sadly the editor at the time fashioned himself as a real capital-J Journalist who cut his teeth at the old Cleveland Press, but he really couldn’t have been more removed from most of the editorial process that took place outside his office — I can’t exactly say why, and I know it wasn’t out of disinterest, but he most often seemed occupied by getting together the entire editorial page himself and hiring new reporters because the turnover was so high. The rest of the time he was bowing to corporate–not that you can necessarily blame him for that, and it didn’t save him anyway, since they merged the newsrooms of the MJ and the News-Herald sometime last year and forced him to retire.

    Good example of the misguided nature of the decision-making coming down from corporate: we were tasked with meeting some arbitrary video quota each month. This meant poorly-angled, garbage-sounding 30-second clips from city council meetings that further clogged a website that ESPN once transparently refused to link to, citing the atrocious pop-up ads. No one in the newsroom had the time to properly edit video on the single Mac in the newsroom, so it was garbage clip after garbage clip in pursuit of the quota.

    Reply

  2. Avatar
    January 23, 2014

    In the end there is a problem of resources. When I started out as a journalist for a New England daily with 30,000 circ. in the late 80s we had something like 30-40 full time reporters, with each one covering a specific beat; meaning that they quickly became experts on the city council, the planning board, etc. When you have that sort of coverage, reporters develop good contacts and know when something out of the norm is happening. I hope the new journalism will pick up the slack, but I wonder where the resources are coming from. Nobody will work for free, or at least they won’t do good work. How will journalists be paid to cover a massive place like Cleveland/Cuyahoga County? Where will profits come from? In the old days, newspapers (and eventually reporters) profited well from AP arrangements. Today, where is the profit for content originators when their stuff gets splashed throughout the web (even when it is not stolen)? I would love to see a pack of investigative reporters find a way to fund their activities and profit from their work but not quite sure I’ve seen it yet.

    Reply

  3. Avatar
    January 23, 2014

    “Most get the paper because of the ads.”

    Astounding. Never once in 40 years of news/sports/comics reading have I ever thought of looking at ads. In a newspaper I didn’t have a choice, with Adblock I do. I am amazed these people, if what you say is true, have jobs. Oh right, that’s the problem isn’t it.

    With that complete lack of understanding of your users/customer no wonder they (newspapers and their online twins) are completely irrelevant to me.

    Reply

  4. Avatar
    January 24, 2014

    Hi Daniel,

    I’m also a freelancer in Lakewood. I found this piece quite thought-provoking, and I am grateful that there is at least one local writer who isn’t afraid to shine a light on what’s currently ailing our local journalism. So much is going through my mind right now, from a whole diatribe I could launch into about what “publishers” are doing to our newspapers and magazines, to the flippant attitudes of sales reps, to the value of having a reporter so dedicated to a specific story or issue like the cycling example you give (someone following that beat full-time would have seen the bankruptcy angle coming months in advance), to the puzzling “NEOMG” (which keeps putting ads on Craigslist but won’t answer my application, and maybe now I know why), to the idiotic proposition of the “multimedia journalist” … but I think it all boils down to one sad fact, which is that 50 years from now, we will not know very much about our community at all, because the coverage of it was so weak. Maybe people are too busy to read newspapers these days, or maybe they think they’re entitled to freebie online content, or maybe they are so self-involved, they don’t care about what’s going on around them … but someday, we’ll look back at how journalists failed to tell important stories and wonder where our society went wrong.

    At any rate, thanks very much for a well-written, thought-provoking piece.

    Your fellow jaded journalist,
    Amy

    Reply

    • Avatar
      January 24, 2014

      Thanks, Amy. What is funny about all this is I just got done reading a piece about how apps are going to save newspapers because it will solve their distribution problem. No one addresses that “what” they are distributing might be the bigger problem. Anyway, Amy, don’t be jaded. Maybe you and I can strap cameras on our heads and wander around Lakewood and end up at some bar on Madison Ave. and compare the “important stories” we have uncovered.

      Reply

      • Avatar
        January 28, 2014

        I’m in!

        Reply

      • Avatar
        January 28, 2014

        By the way, I have always said that it doesn’t matter WHAT medium is used to present the news … the content itself is what matters. Like you said, it’s not a distribution problem. It’s what’s being distributed.

        Reply

  5. Avatar
    January 27, 2014

    The CJR link is broken. Here’s what I think it was meant to link to: http://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/newsroom_culture_is_gone_at_cleveland_plain_dealer.php

    Reply

  6. Avatar
    January 29, 2014

    First, Cleveland.com is what matters. Second, their Ohio and Cuyahoga politics coverage is still pretty good. Henry Gomez, new hire Tobias from Dayton, etc.

    Don’t give up…Cleveland.com might still be better than any other local news source in Ohio…yes better than the Dispatch

    Reply

    • Avatar
      February 14, 2014

      I agree that Henry is a fantastic political reporter. However, I’m willing to bet that he is now stretched so thin that countless corruptions are not being addressed. Tobias, so far, has been good. But cleveland.com better at Ohio coverage than the Dispatch? Um, no. Can’t hold a candle.

      Reply

  7. Avatar
    February 05, 2014

    The PD definitely has a content problem, but I am happy to see them at least acknowledge the bike share program. I really don’t think these large media corporations see the long-term benefit of actual engaging and meaningful content. It seems their logic is simply to merge into larger and larger corporations, take what profits they can in the current system before it starts losing money, instead of reevaluating a new content driven model that could make money.. . This is why I could not get behind the “save the Plain Dealer” non-sense. This city needs meaningful content, and cutting corporate media that never had content to begin will be a catalyst towards more alternative, content driven media.

    Regarding Bike Sharing:
    “On the day after this most recent meeting (but the day before the PD story ran), the Canadian company that makes most of the bikes and the docking stations had filed for bankruptcy. Many cities that have the bike-share programs were wondering whether the bankruptcy was a sign that the program was an unsustainable concept.”
    I think that the bankruptcy of Bixi could actual help bike sharing programs…

    The Canadian company referenced, Public Bicycle System Company (PBSC, a.k.a. Bixi) was sued for breach of contract by 8D (another company that formerly worked with PBSC to provide software). Apparently, PBSC was trying to develop their own software and cut 8D out of the picture. A new partnership was announced this week between 8D and Alta Bike Share that “would essentially cut out the middle-man and begin dealing directly with 8D.” This seems to make sense because the PBSC platform (developed by 8D) is used by some of the Bike Shares that Alta operates (in Boston and Washington D.C.).
    See the article below for more information:

    http://bikeportland.org/2014/02/03/alta-bicycle-share-teams-up-with-former-bixi-tech-provider-8d-technologies-100820

    Reply

  8. Avatar
    March 18, 2014

    I am not sure where you are getting your info, but good topic.
    I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more.
    Thanks for excellent information I was looking for this info for
    my mission.

    Reply

  9. Avatar
    August 19, 2014

    It’s in fact very complex in this active life to listen news on Television, thus I just use world wide
    web for that reason, and take the most recent news.

    Reply

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