Late Friday afternoon, Advance Publications, the corporation that owns the Cleveland Plain Dealer, along with the separate newsroom at the cleveland.com website, finished purging the experienced beat reporters at the Plain Dealer. Patrick O’Donnell, the newspaper’s longtime education reporter, was one victim of the mass action. His loss will leave education policy, central to O’Donnell’s beat, to be covered by cleveland.com‘s statehouse reporters if education policy, primarily a children’s issue, rises to a level that will attract their attention.
Here is what has happened to the Plain Dealer in the past week.
The reporters at the Plain Dealer have long been unionized; the reporters at cleveland.com are non-unionized and less experienced. Everyone agrees that Advance Media used the pandemic-driven decline in advertising revenue as an excuse to break the union.
Covering this week’s staff reductions at the Plain Dealer as part of an article about the implications of the pandemic-driven collapse in advertising revenue across America’s newspapers, the NY Times‘ Mark Tracy makes a careful distinction for Cleveland. He points out: “The near-collapse of this venerable Cleveland daily, owned by Advance Publications, coincided with the economic downturn.” (Emphasis mine.)
The Cleveland Scene‘s Vince Grzegorek describes the two week purge at the Plain Dealer: “Fourteen Plain Dealer journalists were left after last Friday’s massive layoffs that saw 22 staffers depart. Those who remained were subjected, on the very next business day, to the cruelest and perhaps final installment of local union-busting by Advance Publications and the Newhouse family. They were told… that they could keep their jobs but not their beats, or even their geographic coverage areas. They would be dispatched to cover the hinterlands of Cleveland, not Cleveland itself. Should they remain they would serve as a bureau covering Cuyahoga’s surrounding counties, but not Cuyahoga itself, and not so much of those counties that the news could be considered statewide in importance.”
After 10 reporters resigned on Friday, an editor brought in two weeks ago to accomplish the staff reductions, Tim Warsinskey spun the story: “Today, 10 of our reporters and photographers made the decision to voluntarily ask to be laid off. This comes a week after we regretfully parted ways with some (22) talented journalists… Over the years in any newsroom, there are waves of personnel changes. Folks who cover beats for decades move on. New and sometimes younger journalists step in and usually wind up surprising us all. ”
In a statement late Friday afternoon, the Plain Dealer News Guild contradicted the new editor’s spin: “Tim Warsinskey… said the 10 journalists leaving today made voluntary decisions to be laid off. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It was the Plain Dealer who decided to lay off these union workers. The Plain Dealer and its out-of-state owners put dedicated and seasoned journalists in an impossible situation earlier this week in a blatant attempt to embarrass them by banning most of them from reporting on Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and the state. For many, that meant being kept from covering the topics they know best and in many cases are regarded locally and nationally as experts.”
Here’s why the loss of education reporter, Patrick O’Donnell, will matter to Northeast Ohio.
In 2016, Cleveland’s alternative paper, the Cleveland Scene named Patrick O’Donnell as that year’s best Cleveland news reporter: “O’Donnell has guided Clevelanders through the data-rigging by state superintendent Richard Ross of low-performing online charter schools. He’s also kept CMSD (Cleveland Municipal School District) CEO Eric Gordon on his toes, reporting on the botched collection of E-rate rebates. He’s a crisp, prolific writer and a dogged reporter. And, much like the PD’s Brie Zeltner and Rachel Dissell, who reported on lead poisoning, and Michelle Jarboe, who reports on real estate, O’Donnell represents the value of hard-hitting, in-depth beat reporting…” (All of these reporters have now been purged from the Plain Dealer newsroom.)
O’Donnell has kept readers in Northeast Ohio well-informed about the fraught policy environment for the state’s public schools over recent decades when Ohio’s Republican-majority legislatures have expanded charter schools, instituted five different statewide voucher programs, and pursued standards-based, test-and-punish school accountability.
O’Donnell doggedly tracked the 18 year, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow scandal in which William Lager scammed the state by more than $1 billion by extravagantly inflating the enrollment numbers at his online school. O’Donnell drove a hundred miles to Toledo in January of 2018 to the meeting where ECOT’s sponsor, The Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West formally shut down the school. O’Donnell broke the story before any other reporter tracked down the news.
And in the months after the notorious ECOT was shut down, O’Donnell covered the legal efforts by the state to recover some of the money. He described, for example, an Ohio Supreme Court hearing in which the state charged that masses of so-called ECOT students were never logging in to the school’s website. ECOT’s attorney Marion Little “claimed that it should be paid by its enrollment, not by how long students spend in their online classes… Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor had pressed Little, after he argued that state law requires the school to be paid regardless of how little time students spend online. ‘How is that not absurd?’ O’Connor asked.”
In 2014, economist Margaret (Macke) Raymond, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and wife of prominent, far-right economist Eric Hanushek, stunned the audience at the Cleveland City Club by confessing that marketplace choice doesn’t really work in education, O’Donnell was there to cover it: “Her reasons for why states need to exert more control raised a few eyebrows. A self-described supporter of free markets, Raymond said a totally free market is not appropriate for schools. ‘It’s the only industry/sector where the market doesn’t work…Parent’s can’t be agents of qualify assurance.'”
In June of 2015, O’Donnell punctured Ohio’s claim that the state was cracking down on some of its charter school sponsoring agencies, which had been known for years for their lax oversight: “It turns out that Ohio’s grand plan to stop the national ridicule of its charter school system is giving overseers of many of the lowest-performing schools a pass from taking heat for some of their worst problems.”
Later that summer, he extensively covered the Legislature’s surreptitious takeover of the Youngstown City Schools, a move made without hearings in the middle of the night. O’Donnell has also exposed the Plain Dealer‘s readers to research demonstrating that the theory of school district failure—on which the state takeovers are based—is itself flawed: “State test scores continue to rise right along with a school district’s affluence, and fall as poverty rates increase.”
And in the past two months, as the Ohio Legislature has refused to address the secretive expansion in last summer’s budget bill of EdChoice, a private school tuition voucher program, O’Donnell has reported on the confusing implications as school districts are being forced to pass school levies just to pay for private school vouchers. EdChoice vouchers are funded not by the state but instead out of local school district budgets. As the pandemic shut down the state and legislators determined merely to freeze the program, as it is currently operating, for another year, O’Donnell explained: “For public school teachers, school boards and school officials, keeping the status quo on vouchers continues a drain on school district budgets… School districts… which saw a large increase in voucher use this school year, will have no relief….Their costs could even increase….”
It is devastating when a newspaper rids itself of a reporter like Patrick O’Donnell, whose background includes in-depth knowledge about complex public policy. And it isn’t just the purging of a more expensive unionized reporter. The Plain Dealer, it appears, is entirely eliminating education as a specialized beat. The change will leave Northeast Ohio less informed. Education policy is nuanced and politically fraught. Expert and experienced education reporters matter.