The Evolution of the Providence Journal
A new editor is shaking things up at the ProJo. Can the paper be saved?
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In 1980, the Providence Journal Company published a 494-page hardcover titled The Providence Journal: 150 Years. In some ways, the book was a straightforward institutional autobiography. One chapter described how the paper reported on the fall of the Alamo, the rise of Abraham Lincoln and the 1861 attacks on Fort Sumter that sparked the Civil War. Another recalled how Stephen O. Metcalf, president of the company from 1904 to 1941, preferred to pay his employees in cash.
But 150 Years was also a monument to the paper’s extraordinary success. This was a paper that, as the book noted, published through Biblical weather events (the Hurricane of 1938, the Blizzard of 1978); a paper that had established a network of satellite offices from Westerly to Woonsocket so reporters were “never more than twenty minutes away from any news event”; a paper that had won three Pulitzer Prizes — most recently (at that time) in 1974, for Jack White’s reporting on President Richard Nixon’s underpayment of income taxes. The back of the book featured a six-page list of the Journal’s citations and awards. The foreword boasted, “It is probable that no newspaper in this country can point to 150 years of dominance in a community such as the Providence Journal has attained within the city-state of Providence and Rhode Island.”
Three-and-a-half decades later, in July of 2014, the country’s “oldest continuously publishing daily newspaper” observed another birthday, its 185th, under much different circumstances. The paper was no longer family-owned; it had been sold with other assets in 1997 for $1.5 billion to the Dallas-based A.H. Belo Corporation, which also owned the Dallas Morning News. Fifteen-plus years of absentee ownership, plus the advent of the Internet, had been difficult. The paper’s bureaus had all closed. A 2013 Columbia Journalism Review article noted how the Journal’s revenue and circulation had fallen faster than the (already bleak) national newspaper average. The once-enormous news staff had dwindled after repeated rounds of buyouts and layoffs. In one 2013 interview, John Hill, the head of the union that represents Journal staff, said, “There’s not a lot left to cut. Morale is terrible.”
And so, instead of a glitzy birthday bash, the paper shared an image of the paper’s first edition from July 21, 1829, via social media, and published a short accompanying article headlined, “Happy Birthday to Us! Providence Journal Turns 185.” Then the next day, in a striking bit of timing, the paper announced that it had been sold for $46 million.
The buyer was a publicly traded New York-based newspaper conglomerate called GateHouse Media, which described its strategy online as “to acquire and operate traditional local media businesses and transform them from print-centric operations to dynamic multimedia operations” and “leverage our existing platform to operate these businesses more efficiently.” In its report on the sale, the Journal noted GateHouse owned “451 community publications [and] 367 related websites.”
The transaction brought a flurry of change to Fountain Street. GateHouse went forward with layoffs of twenty-two more employees, including veteran columnist Bob Kerr. (“After forty-three years-plus, I was out of there in about ten minutes,” he told Rhode Island Public Radio.) The company named an interim publisher to replace the retiring Howard Sutton and then, six months later, hired a permanent replacement, Janet Hasson. Meanwhile, the Journal informed readers that some of its copy-editing and page-design positions would “be transferred to a center GateHouse currently operates in Austin, Texas, for many of its newspapers.” A picket-line protest of the move by Journal employees outside 75 Fountain Street did not reverse the decision.
And then there was the question of the executive editor. For decades, Journal editors had risen through the ranks to the paper’s top news position. This had been the case with the Journal’s first female executive editor, Karen Bordeleau, who took the role in 2013, and it had been true of her predecessors stretching back to the 1980s. But when Bordeleau retired less than a year into the GateHouse era, the company announced it was hiring an outsider: a sixty-five-year-old veteran newspaperman named Dave Butler. His first day on the job was November 9, 2015.
Butler’s hire not only completed GateHouse’s overhaul of the paper’s executive team, it marked a milestone for Rhode Island’s paper of record. The Journal, the most fiercely local of our local institutions, a business older than the Rhode Island State Police and the University of Rhode Island, was now entirely owned and run at the executive level by non-Rhode Islanders. The CEO of GateHouse, Kirk Davis, lives and works in Massachusetts. The new publisher, Hasson, is a transplant from White Plains, New York. Before that, she worked in Michigan and Washington state.
Dave Butler had spent eight years editing the San Jose Mercury News in San Jose, California. Before that, in a career spanning five decades, he zigzagged the country, working in Illinois, Florida, Kentucky, Florida (again), Colorado, Connecticut, California and Michigan. “There are really two paths in the newspaper business,” he says. “You either go someplace and stay there essentially forever. Or you move around and you move up in the business.” He’s the embodiment of Option Two. When people ask him where he’s from, he says, “I’m from where I am right now.”
And, right now, he’s the editor of Rhode Island’s oldest, largest and most important news organization. And, while it may be uncomfortable, it is not entirely unreasonable to ask: Is it possible he could be the last?
Butler works out of a modest corner office on the second floor of the Journal’s iconic red brick, arched-window headquarters on Fountain Street. The windows in the office face west, toward the downtown building where he rents an apartment. The walls are mostly bare except for a framed, yellowed edition of the Evening Bulletin — the Journal’s bygone sister paper, which merged with the Journal in 1995 — that belonged to his predecessor. Outside of the office is the Journal’s hushed, open-floor newsroom where reporters tap away on keyboards. A big-screen monitor hangs over a conference table, streaming real-time data about the performance of Journal stories on the web.
Butler started his career in 1972 as a reporter at the Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale, Illinois, after graduating from Southern Illinois University. And, in many ways, his career reflects the arc of the newspaper industry. The ’70s were a good time to go into the business. Papers were often owned by families who operated them like public trusts; there was no Internet to steal away classifieds and car ads. Reporters had just completed the biggest journalistic coup in American history — the Washington Post’s takedown of President Richard Nixon — which Hollywood immortalized with the 1976 film, All the President’s Men, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
Within a few years, Butler rose to the position of metropolitan editor in Carbondale. And he would climb further in rank as he trekked around the country, from assistant city editor at the Sun-Sentinel and Fort Lauderdale News, in South Florida, to assistant managing editor of the Rocky Mountain News, in Denver, to editor of the New Haven Register, in Connecticut, to editor and executive vice president for news at the L.A. Daily News, to editor and publisher of the Detroit News.
Talk to people from his career and a couple of themes emerge. One, Butler is a guy who lives for newspapers. Mike Hill, a reporter in Louisiana who worked under Butler at the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, in western Kentucky, in the 1980s still raves about his leadership. “Even back then people noticed that he was pushing the best in journalism…he set the tone there,” Hill says. Under Butler’s leadership, the paper was named one of the top under 50,000-circulation papers in the country by the Associated Press. “He raised the bar to the point where, if you wanted to please him, you’re going to have to work damn hard.”
But if Butler is a newspaper purist, he’s also a realist. “We live in a moment when large institutions control a lot of commerce,” Butler says. Home Depot has taken the place of the local hardware shop, Macy’s has replaced the local department store; newspapers are a part of this reality. We can regret that all we want, but it’s the fact of life, he says. “Newspapers have a special protection under the First Amendment, but they’re a business and they have to survive.”
GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis says, “I think Dave’s always struck a nice balance of representing his newspaper and his staff well, and also trying to give the best counsel he could to corporate leadership.”
This awareness of the two imperatives of the business — serving the public, while also making money — helps explain how, by 2013, Butler rose to a high-profile dual role as the executive editor of the San Jose Mercury-News, who also oversaw seventy-five newspapers and a $112 million budget for the newspaper’s hedge fund-owned parent company, Digital First Media. By then, Butler’s old paper, The Rocky Mountain News, no longer existed. And across the country, the vital signs of newspapers — revenue, circulation, staffing — were in freefall.
An existential panic pervaded the industry, and a 2015 memo Butler sent to Digital First Media staffers (and leaked to the popular journalism blog, jimromenesko.com, where it was published) reflected the times. “There is no clear and easy path for our industry,” he wrote. “But we know that journalistic values must be maintained. We also know that the web operates differently from print and we have to cope with a changing world and find the appropriate balance. Print will continue to shrink and digital will continue to grow. The bottom line may well be this: Change and change faster.”
And change he did. In the summer of 2015, Butler announced his retirement from the Mercury News, even if he knew he couldn’t stay retired. (“I don’t have any hobbies to speak of. Journalism is my hobby,” he says.) Around that time, during a phone call with the newly-hired-in-Providence Hasson, with whom he had worked in Detroit in 2005 and 2006, the Journal began to sound like an intriguing opportunity. (A sensible one, too. Butler’s wife, Kate, works for the Associated Press, out of New York City, and her family is based in southern Massachusetts.) When he looked at the Journal and its website, he says, “I thought that there was more potential there than I was seeing reflected.” The paper announced his hiring on October 14.
What that Journal article introducing its new editor didn’t mention, but what is perhaps Butler’s defining trait, is his no-nonsense temperament. By most accounts, he is the embodiment of the old-school newspaper editor stereotype: gruff, gravelly voiced and not particularly touchy-feely. “He can be abrasive. He can be tough. He can piss you off mightily. But he’s not going away,” says retired Mercury News reporter Pete Carey. “If you want to keep working you just move past the arguments.” That attitude seems to apply to staff and sources, alike. During one editorial board meeting at the Mercury News, Butler’s intense questioning brought a female law enforcement official to tears.
(This style has left some colleagues more enamored than others. One reporter who used to work with Butler, and asked not to be named, says he had “terrible people skills” and recalls a startling rudeness in emails and certain newsroom interactions. Aspects of this description were corroborated across numerous interviews with reporters who have worked with him.)
GateHouse CEO Davis, who worked with Butler at the New Haven Register in the 1980s says, with a chuckle, “He’s nothing if not brutally honest…. If Dave thinks we’re doing something wrong, he’s not shy about telling me that.”
Butler says people often use the word “intense” to describe him.
“I’m a pretty persistent guy who wants to see answers to questions,” he says. “I’m not a big yeller and screamer. Although I sort of went berserk this morning about something.”
In January, after two-and-a-half months on the job, Butler published a letter to Journal readers to share “improvements planned for 2016 to build on the Journal’s nationally recognized tradition of excellence.” Most of the eleven changes he laid out were underwhelming “Combine the Sunday Homes and Consumer sections into one section.” “Move Mark Patinkin’s column to the Rhode Island page, usually A4, to make it easier to find.” “Resume publishing a regular feature focusing on old photos from the Journal’s archives, each Sunday.” “The popular comic Pickles was added to the Sunday Comics section on Jan. 17.”
The subtext arguably revealed more than the letter, itself: In an era of corporate conglomerate ownership, the most significant choices seem to be beyond an executive editor’s control. A couple of the bullet points did address the paper’s core journalistic mission: “Add more local news to the Sunday newspaper” and “Reinvigorate the Journal’s longtime practice of investigative reporting and being a strong watchdog for the public.” But without any promises to add more reporters — the remedy a newspaper needs, more than any other, to improve its product — it was unclear how these goals would actually be met.
In fact, the most significant change wasn’t mentioned in the note at all: the way Butler injected a new energy, and an increased tabloid sensibility, into the paper’s front page. Previously Journal readers saw giant, bold-faced headlines reserved for events like presidential election results and declarations of war. But, under Butler’s steering, big, bold, red-alert headers have announced “Sexting” (for a December 2015 piece on explicit sexual text messages sent by teens); “MONSTROUS” (for an August story on wildfires in California); and “PRIVATE HELL” (for the release of a report on sexual abuse at the prestigious Middletown boarding school St. George’s). In May, when Providence City Council Majority Leader Kevin Jackson was arrested for allegedly pocketing public funds intended for the youth track team he coached, the Journal ran a large courtroom photo of a sheepish, handcuffed Jackson under the headline, “STEALING FROM KIDS?”
The paper has taken design risks, too. In July, when the State Police announced it would file no charges and release no documents after its years long investigation into the 38 Studios debacle, the Journal ran a large empty box on page one to illustrate the anticlimax. In September, for an article on a 1,275-foot painting being restored and displayed at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the paper ran an image of the mural, flipped vertically, that extended almost the entire height of the front page. Butler has a simple rationale behind this approach: a paper with attitude is a better reflection of a state with attitude. “I mean, this is a quirky place in a lot of ways,” he says.
In fact, it was the paper’s front page that sparked the most dramatic moment of Butler’s time in Providence. In May, after a lightly attended State House hearing intended to probe the controversial legislative grant program, the Journal ran a venomous front-page Sunday editorial calling it “a dog-and-pony exhibition, an insult to the intelligence of most Rhode Islanders, a fraud, a farce.” The piece ended by listing the office phone numbers for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed and asking, “How many more legislators have to go to jail, and how many more job creators have to be scared away, before state leaders accept the need for change?”
In response, a seething Mattiello took to the rostrum for a rare, impassioned speech noting this was the first Journal front-page editorial since the September 11, 2001, attacks, calling it “unfair,” and saying he was “embarrassed” for the paper. Before receiving a standing ovation from lawmakers, the speaker added, “And I would hope that, as we proceed, the Journal will go back to putting forth a product that the citizens can be proud of.”
This speech, too, made the next day’s front page, and State House reporter Kathy Gregg’s article on the fracas revealed Butler uncharacteristically — for a Journal editor, at least — joining the fray. “I was glad to see the speaker admit that, and I quote, ‘the grants are a political mess,’ ” Butler said in the article. “What confuses me is how he’s going to determine what to do, because at the hearings virtually no questions were asked and several committee members didn’t show up. What kind of hearing or audit is that?”
He continued, “I might remind the Assembly that the recent episode began when the house finance committee chairman resigned his seat following reports of a widening investigation. This was not something the media made up. Nor is the fact that some thirty lawmakers have had to resubmit their ethics forms because of mistakes they made.” GateHouse’s corporate office was quick to highlight the episode in a PR-department story called “Newspapers still matter — Providence Journal’s fiery front-page editorial is proof.”