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Local Story Shows 'Plain Dealer' Prowess, But Future's Murky


The Cleveland story. The escape of three women who were kidnapped and held captive for 10 years has attracted notice around the world. Of course, it's also an all-consuming local story. And the Cleveland Plain Dealer provided continuous coverage along with in-depth profiles of the three women, the neighborhood where they were held captive, and the man who allegedly kidnapped them.

It's been considered one of the newspaper's finest hours, but the future of the Cleveland Plain Dealer is cloudy. Last month, the publisher announced it would cut back home delivery to three days a week, and possibly lay off about 50 reporters and editors. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz worked at the Cleveland Plain Dealer for 18 years, until 2011. She joins us now from our member station there, WCPN in Cleveland.

Connie, thanks very much for being with us.

CONNIE SCHULTZ: Thanks for inviting me, Scott.

SIMON: In your estimation - because you've been away from the paper for a couple of years - how did the PD handle this huge and horrifying story?

SCHULTZ: I got almost all my news from the Plain Dealer. It was around the clock. They had video, and they had tremendous photography. They also had a level of sophistication and professionalism that was unrivaled.

SIMON: What do you think the Plain Dealer did that reminded you of the strengths of what a great local newspaper can do?

SCHULTZ: They had all these sources on the ground already. And they had the resources, and they had the experts; the real experts, not the - you know, former FBI agents who get on national television, and start pontificating and speculating wildly. They had people who've been involved for years. And it really reminded me of the Boston Globe covering the tragedy in Boston, at the marathon. Nobody is going to be able to beat them at covering their own neighborhood.

SIMON: So when the publisher, Advanced Publications, says that they might have to cut back home delivery in - three days a week, is that just a fact of life in the newspaper business now and arguably, even - maybe - necessary to save the paper from going out of business altogether?

SCHULTZ: Well, I'm a little more optimistic this week than I was even two weeks ago. As you know, Advance owns the Times-Picayune as well, and there were dramatic cuts there but they apparently are going to go back to seven days a week of printing a paper.

SIMON: Let me ask you to think a bit like a publisher, in a way that I think a columnist can. You know during an intense news period like this, there's something to write about. There's an overwhelming story. But what do you do when - God willing - normal life returns, at least a little bit more normally? I mean, how do you sell what you do then?

SCHULTZ: I can tell you that there are always stories here - in any city. We have to give reporters the chance to tell them. I run a public discussion on Facebook, and I started posting Plain Dealer links. And somebody immediately criticized the Plain Dealer in the comments and said, well, so and so had it first; and, so and so had this first. I said yes, but the Plain Dealer waited until they got a confirmation from police.

I am willing to wait that extra 15 minutes, and know that the readers can trust what they just read in the Plain Dealer. And newspapers around the country, this is what we're best at. We tell the bigger story. We don't just break the news; we then explain why it happened. We tell you about the players involved because every story is really about the human beings involved in it.

SIMON: Do you have any idea how much money and-or circulation the Plain Dealer's lost, in recent years?

SCHULTZ: While the print circulation has steadily decreased, the Plain Dealer's never had more readers because of the online presence. And the Plain Dealer's problem is the same problem newspapers have had all around the country. We went up early online, for free. It's very hard to start charging people for something you used to give away for free. What I don't want is for communities to give up on newspapers and only after they're gone, realize what we've lost.

All we have to do is look at the story unfolding this week, with the Department of Justice secretly obtaining all of those AP journalists' phone records, to understand how crucial it is to have a thriving free press covering democracy.

SIMON: How are people feeling at the PD these days?

SCHULTZ: If you had asked me that question two weeks ago, I would tell you, pretty scared. On the other hand, there's been quite a high in the newsroom, in the last week or so, because they all know they nailed this. They all know how hard they worked. It was fun to talk to them and hear the pride in their voices. How do we sustain that?

SIMON: Well, it's a great city. It deserves a great paper.

SCHULTZ: Yeah, it does.

SIMON: Connie Schultz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist formerly - but in some ways, always - of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, joining us now from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Thanks so much.

SCHULTZ: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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