But if there were a competition for the American newsroom enduring the most hellish month, the Plain Dealer in Cleveland certainly would be among the finalists.
Consider: Tim Warsinskey started his new job as the paper’s top editor on March 1. Eight days later, he announced deep staff reductions at the news organization where the former reporter and union vice chairman has worked for the past 30 years.
The paper, he said, would cut 22 newsroom employees, which by some accounts meant that its reporting ranks might drop to as few as 14.
Even at a time when local newspapers are in free fall, this is shocking. After all, the Plain Dealer as recently as the late 1990s boasted a robust, prizewinning staff of more than 300 reporters, editors, photographers, designers and other newsroom personnel.
The staff news was profoundly upsetting, especially because some see it as a union-busting maneuver by the ownership, Advance Publications, which also owns a more abundantly staffed sister publication: the nonunion Cleveland.com. The Plain Dealer prints a newspaper daily but since 2013 has delivered to homes only four days a week; the print paper often contains reporting from Cleveland.com, the sister news site whose reporters have also been covering the virus story aggressively and well.
But few had time to think deeply about the staff cuts, said Warsinskey, who declined to give specifics on staff numbers or corporate strategy, though he did blame the changes on the undeniable demise of the paper’s business model.
“We’re doing what journalists always do in a crisis — putting blinders on to everything else and just doing the work,” Warsinskey said. And he said he was immensely proud of what his small staff has been able to produce: a steady stream of stories keeping readers informed about each new development and how the virus is affecting the community.
Reporters are working, in some cases, “from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.” and getting up to do it again, he said. (The most thorough and expert local coverage I saw was written by Plain Dealer health reporter Ginger Christ — who also happens to be the union’s current chairwoman.)
As of Friday, Ohio had 13 confirmed cases of covid-19, the illness caused by the virus — several in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland.
The world-famous Cleveland Clinic was making national news by putting itself in the forefront of testing, with plans to test 1,000 people a day. And one Ohio health official estimated that there could be as many as 100,000 in the state already infected with the disease.
Local stories don’t get much bigger or more significant than that.
There was an unending rush of political news, too. The Cleveland rallies by candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were canceled last week. And the Democratic presidential primary is scheduled for Tuesday — all this in a swing state that purged hundreds of thousands of voters from its rolls in 2019, prompting charges of voter suppression.
In other words, there’s more than enough work for even a large regional newspaper to do. But, as in so many American cities, that no longer exists in Cleveland — though the staffs of the two news organizations do plenty of admirable work.
Josh Crutchmer, who was an assistant managing editor at the Plain Dealer from 2014 to 2017, called it gut-wrenching.
“It’s so depressing to think about the Plain Dealer right now,” said Crutchmer, now the New York Times’s print planning editor.
“I know it’s tough everywhere, but what they’re doing to that newsroom is bad even by 2020 standards.”
That’s especially true, he said, because in better days, the paper had put special emphasis on its enterprising health coverage. But such specialties are hard to maintain when the ranks become so thin.
It’s no consolation to know that this journalistic carnage is happening in many American cities.
The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio — just 60 miles from Cleveland — abruptly went out of business last summer. And across the country, more than 2,000 local papers, mostly weeklies, have folded since 2004.
And while, thankfully, some of the slack is being taken up by newer nonprofit newsrooms, by public radio and by local television stations, it’s simply not enough.
We didn’t need a pandemic to tell us that, but it makes the reality that much more clear.
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