Market Garden Brewery’s 7-Day Lager, brewed in honor of the Save the Plain Dealer campaign, is crisp and blond, light for a craft beer.
“Only four percent alcohol, so you can drink seven in one day,” joked PD theater critic Andrea Simakis.
The beer menu just says “best when enjoyed daily.” But it’s understandable if some of the paper’s journalists wanted to drink more.
Three hours before their party last night at Market Garden’s basement bar, they’d learned the details of their union’s new agreement with Plain Dealer management. It sets the terms of the newsroom’s downsizing next year from 168 journalists to 110. And it made the party an uneasy brew of sad resignation, festive camaraderie, and sarcastic anger.
“We’ve got a special guest,” Plain Dealer science reporter John Mangels announced at the mike. “I’m sure he’s here somewhere. Steve Newhouse, are you here?”
Scattered boos greeted the name of the digital division chairman of Advance, which owns the PD and has converted several daily papers to three-day-a-week publications. Last month, Newhouse dismissed the union’s Save the Plain Dealer campaign by saying the chain’s decisions would be based on industry trends, not sentiment.
Mangels, who’s heading the campaign, pulled a Clint Eastwood, talking to a green chair as if it were Newhouse. He mocked Advance’s digital-first strategy and the quality of Cleveland.com, the PD’s online platform.
“Steve’s blazing trails in the digital world,” Mangels said, but Cleveland.com "takes a little while to load.” Advance has rebranded online reporters and editors as “content providers” and “curators,” Mangels said. "We are going to rebrand Steve,” he announced. “The first person who can do that without using the F-word gets a seven-day supply of 7-Day Lager.”
The proposed labor agreement signals that Advance does not plan to merge the Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com into a single “media group,” as it has done in other cities. Instead, the company will run parallel news operations in Cleveland: a shrinking unionized newsroom and a new, nonunion digital news staff.
Under the new agreement, nonunion Cleveland.com journalists will be able to write for the Plain Dealer, while Plain Dealer reporters’ work will still go online. It’s a major concession by the Newspaper Guild, and it’ll weaken the union over time, since new hires will likely be on the online side.
In exchange, the company will extend the Guild’s contract from 2014 to 2019, restore the 8 percent wage cut the journalists took to avoid layoffs in 2009, and add money to the Guild’s underfunded pension and health care funds. The paper also put a floor on its layoff plans. After the cut from 168 to 110 staffers sometime after May 1, it’ll only carry out one more downsizing, to 105 in 2014, in the next six years.
“After the massacre of 2013, we wanted a guarantee for people,” explained Harlan Spector, president of the Guild local.
The union votes on the agreement Tuesday. If it says no, Spector says management has vowed to cut 80 to 85 newsroom jobs in 2013 instead of 58 and reopen the existing contract’s economic provisions to take the health care and pension fund money out of the journalists’ wages.
“It’s not much of a choice: a bad option and a worse option,” said John Horton, who writes the PD’s Road Rant column for commuters. Horton said he’d grudgingly vote for the agreement. “You see what we have – it’s being dismantled. You’re losing something. You won’t realize it until it’s gone.”
Spector said the agreement hasn’t weakened the Guild’s resolve to press on with the campaign, which has attracted 6,700 supporters on an online petition. “We’re going to stand up for the community and what they want, a seven-day newspaper and a news staff that has some teeth,” he said.
The party, in the brightly wood-paneled basement of one of Cleveland’s most buzzed-about bars, was packed with current and former PD journalists and supporters of the Save the Plain Dealer campaign. The crowd included a few civic leaders, but not nearly enough to stage the citywide revolt the Guild has been hoping for.
Dave Abbott, executive director of the George Gund Foundation, drank a 7-Day Lager at the bar. “It’s a lighter beer than I normally like, but I’m drinking it out of a sense of loyalty,” said Abbott, who came to Cleveland to work at the Plain Dealer from 1975 to 1979.
Abbott said he thinks Cleveland.com is a poor substitute for the print edition. “Their online platform is unappetizing, confusing, and inaccessible.” He feared a cut in the PD’s print schedule would hurt the community. “A daily newspaper is a primary source of civic journalism, analysis of issues,” he said.
Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald weaved through the crowd as reporters thanked him for his support. He said losing a daily would hurt the community’s growth and its political culture.
“Cleveland is on an upswing in a lot of ways,” FitzGerald said. “This is exactly the wrong time to become the largest metro area that’s not going to have a daily newspaper. We’ve got a good story to tell, a lot of vibrancy right now. I think we need a seven-day paper and all the reporting ability that goes along with it to build on that.”
Full-time reporting on politics is a “necessary ingredient of democracy,” FitzGerald argued. Without it, politics “really gets dumbed down.”
How are other civic leaders responding to the campaign? “I don’t think they’re as motivated as they should be,” FitzGerald said. The PD’s reporting has made enemies in town. “A lot of it, in my conversations with them, is based on the fact that they might have a personal grievance against the coverage of the Plain Dealer. It’s understandable, but I think it’s short-sighted.”
At the mike, singer-songwriter Alex Bevan performed “Ink on Paper,” a lively blues he wrote for the campaign:
The times are changing
You know that’s a fact
When a good thing is done
You just can’t get it back
I want my paper to stay
Sam McNulty, Market Garden’s owner, expressed solidarity with the journalists while anticipating next year’s layoffs.
“I’ve got two thoughts,” McNulty said. “One is, we’re going to win this. The second thought is, in case we don’t, Plan B is, when you walk out, bring everything you have, your Rolodex, all your contacts. There’ll be a small office somewhere where we can start all over again.”
Update, 7 pm: Videos from the event are online here.