This morning I visited the PD editorial meeting with field trip organizer Jill Miller Zimon. We had company in a fresh-faced Columbia School of Journalism student from Akron who was following recruiting and training editor Margie Frazer for the day. Having previously been through college-paper versions of the morning meeting, I knew what to expect, but I have to say that I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that the PD is not actually a secret GOP front after all. (At least not in editorial).

And admittedly, I have a biased view of print media these days, one I come by as:

a. a news omnivore whose primary source of nourishment is the internet.

b. a former newspaper staffer (art critic, to be exact).

c. someone who, despite what Dick Feagler might think of bloggers, is an extremely critical critical reader (call that the “C2 factor”) — I don’t think a lot of what makes it into print is necessarily interesting or newsworthy.

With that out on the table, I have to say I found myself almost feeling sorry for the PD afterwards. I know mocking old-media dinosaurs is the snarky-hip thing to do, but from my brief impressions during the meeting, and also the conversations afterward, I got the sense that they are definitely trying to meet the needs of their huge and varied readership…even if they don’t quite know how (yet).

You’ve got people like me and Jill, who have likely read about any (inter-) / national story in great detail by the time it shows up in the morning dead-tree edition. You’ve also got readers who solely rely on the newspaper for their news. How do you meet the needs of both? It’s easy to say: “Expand all online content! Let paper-based old people wait 24 hours to read stuff! We want our news now, now, now and step on it!”, but in reality it’s been difficult to monetize the PD’s online offerings effectively.

Oh God, I just used “monetize” in a sentence. 1999 called, Shannon, it wants its jargon back!

I mentioned Salon.com as a somewhat successful example of pay-for-content, even though I don’t actually subscribe. Instead, I submit to the mini-ads every time I want a day pass (which I suspect probably nets them more money than my puny subscription fee would anyway). But the Plain Dealer / Cleveland.com deal doesn’t work that way, so I can’t see the current model sustaining itself if they want to attract readers like me.

This is only one of the problems hanging over these editors’ heads like the sword of Damocles. How do you keep the Gen X-Y-Z people happy and expand your online content, but manage to make money doing it? We also learned that, relative to cost of living and other factors, Plain Dealer reporters are some of the highest-paid in the nation. I’m sure that’s not helping matters either, but as we all know, it’s tough to take away a nice fat paycheck from those who have grown to expect it and who belong to guilds and unions hellbent on protecting their members.

Other things to feel sorry about: the paper suffers plenty more whiners and complainers than ever see print in Letters to the Editor. Dealing with them is Ted Diadiun‘s job. Today, complaints focused on priest jokes in Sam Fulwood’s column and the recent story about a dog store, when readers apparently wanted additional “Iraq! All! The! Time!” coverage instead.

(Sidenote to the Catholic reader who complained about the priest joke: Honey, when your parishes stop putting up annoying preachy stuff at election time, such as the abortion cemetery at St. Pat’s, then you can complain about stupid jokes in the PD. ‘Til then, shhh!)

As for determining actual content in each section, well, that’s the simple part. Much of it is determined by ad placement, and the respective section editors use a breezy shorthand with each other that belies the amount of effort put into prepping each story. Jill asked about the longer series. How are they are fitted into the regular story rotation? (Lots of advance planning). How do they affect the reporters writing them? (Some can juggle daily stories+, and some devote themselves to the single long-term story). I found it interesting that certain reporters are allowed to just hunker down and work on only one story for a week or two: I was under the impression they were constantly juggling and multitasking more than one story at a time.

We stayed after to talk to Ted Diadiun, and one of the topics broached was the reliability of sources in the blogosphere. I briefly outlined how I determine a source’s credibility, and the steps I take to check something out before writing about or linking to it. He chalked it up to my “journalism background” — something I don’t have, actually. (I was a German / poli sci / history triple major). I think all readers and writers have the ability to consider what they read critically. I think it’s a skill learned very early on in school, and if it isn’t, it should be. (Heck, I was raised by hippies — how better to learn the whole “question authority” rigamarole? But I do remember being taught to evaluate source material very carefully in high school, if not before).

All in all an interesting field trip and a fruitful, albeit brief, glimpse into the editorial workings of the PD.

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