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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The ProJo’s new newsroom on the second floor of the Fountain Street building.


But was it actually proof that the Journal has entered a genuinely feistier watchdog era? Or was it a sign of an enfeebled, self-conscious paper looking for new — and low-cost — ways to stay relevant? Perhaps a bit of both. At the very least, it left Journal readers with the impression that there is a new kind of editor in town. And it wasn’t just the front page; the paper under Butler has shown renewed interest in the kind of in-depth local news that the bureaus once provided, with recent deep dives on the North Providence police department and the downfall of embattled Bristol State Representative Raymond Gallison.

Unfortunately, the days of expansion for expansion’s sake on Fountain Street seem to be over. If you look a bit more closely at the paper, you see that the uptick in cities-and-towns coverage happened while other parts of the paper underwent less-heralded nips and tucks. Over the summer, a features reporter and features editor were laid off, along with veteran editorial board member, M.J. Andersen, a move that brought the board’s ranks down to three. (It had five members as recently as 2014.)

And while Butler’s January letter announced that the paper would launch “a third page of Commentary to the Sunday newspaper — to offer a broader range of opinions,” it didn’t mention that, on some weekdays, all opinion material (op-eds, editorials, letters to the editor and political cartoons) would be limited to a single page, instead of the usual two. In June, businessman and former gubernatorial candidate Ken Block tweeted, “I’ve got to say I seriously dislike the new @projo half-size opinion page today.”

It’s worth noting that Journal employees were not permitted to speak to Rhode Island Monthly for this article. More than a dozen staffers were contacted, and all of them offered a version of the same response: We’re not allowed to speak on-record. At least one noted the irony that, though they ask people to speak to the press for a living, they’re obliged to stay mum when a reporter knocks on their door.

This leaves a major gap in a story about the state of the Journal; you simply can’t fully understand a newspaper if you don’t hear from the rank-and-file reporters, photographers and editors. Dave Butler may be conducting the orchestra, but he’s not making the music.

Many questions remain unanswered.  How does Kathy Gregg feel about her reassignment away from the State House beat she’s worked for decades — a move that was met with dismay from many readers? How has Butler’s brusque leadership style played out in Providence? How does the news staff feel about the fact that opinion-page editor Ed Achorn now sits in on morning news meetings? Do staffers think things would be different if the group of local investors, including developer Buff Chace (who wound up co-purchasing the Journal building from A.H. Belo after the GateHouse sale) and Warwick Beacon publisher John Howell, who vied for ownership of the paper in 2014, had prevailed instead of GateHouse?

For her part, publisher Janet Hasson says the Journal’s news brand is “stronger than ever.” And, on the business side, “GateHouse would not have purchased it and would not continue to own it and continue to invest in it if it was not healthy.” But communications from the Providence Newspaper Guild paint a less rosy picture. In May, the Guild sent an email highlighting a spike in inaccuracies after the move of certain layout functions to the Texas design center.

And, overall, the email did not make the newsroom sound like a happy, healthy place. “While GateHouse boasts it’s sitting on $360 million in cash to buy more newspapers, and reserves the right to replace us with part-timers and temps, the hardworking ProJo staff has not been given a raise in eight years and hasn’t had a contract in one-and-a-half years,” it read. “We are down to thirty-seven reporters and columnists, including our sports writers. That’s one journalist for every 28,548 Rhode Islanders. How can we give necessary watchdog journalism with these numbers?”

One staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says that, after all the paper has been through in recent years, the newsroom is a “sad, sad place,” adding, “It doesn’t feel like the Journal anymore.”

For decades, the Journal has taken justified pride in covering the biggest stories affecting Rhode Island. It flexed these muscles in January with wall-to-wall coverage of the death of Buddy Cianci. And in recent years, it has cranked out series on the struggles facing the middle class, mental health in Rhode Island, the opioid addiction and overdose epidemic, the financial costs of urban gun violence, and the way technology is affecting our lives, among other topics. These stories have shown the paper at its best: smart, comprehensive, enterprising, engaging, vivid, meticulously reported. In August, the paper’s “Race in RI” series received a Salute to Excellence award from the National Association of Black Journalists.

And yet there is one major story about the Ocean State in recent decades that the Journal has missed: that of its own decline. True, you’ll find pieces in the archives of the Journal: announcements of retirements and corporate transactions, the occasional short article about layoffs or an employee protest. But you have to go elsewhere to get the scope and texture of what’s happening.

You’ve got to add up all of the rounds of layoffs, buyouts and departures that have taken place in 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2009, 2008 and previous years. Rhode Island Public Radio reporter Ian Donnis, who has written many of those stories for RIPR and the Providence Phoenix, says, “You could certainly staff a fantastic newspaper or news organization with the people who have left the ProJo over the years.” One of his Phoenix articles from 2001 reported that fifty-seven news workers had left in the previous two years, alone — so many that some close observers of the paper had dubbed it an “exodus.”

Posts on social media add color to the raw numbers. In 2013, columnist Ed Fitzpatrick tweeted a photo of a farewell-party cake that, in a message scrawled in icing, added up the combined Journal institutional memory of four employees leaving that day: 143 years. On the day Bob Kerr was summarily laid off in 2014, staffer Sheila Lennon tweeted a photo of his abandoned desk, still piled high with books and mementos, with the message, “Bob Kerr’s empty #projo desk this pm after GateHouse layoff.”

And it isn’t just people; it’s also pieces of the Journal’s empire that have been chipped away during the last two decades. The Evening Bulletin. The Sunday magazine. The local bureaus, including two across the border in Attleboro and Fall River. The Washington, D.C., bureau. The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative unit. The reporter-intern program. The daily business section. The locally written film reviews. Most recently, after A.H. Belo (which maintained ownership of the 75 Fountain Street building after the GateHouse sale) sold the building to developers, the first-floor newsroom, which reliably glowed with fluorescent light at all hours of the day, went dark. Now, when you drive by, you see an emptied-out construction zone. One reporter compares the new newsroom upstairs to an insurance office.

The magnitude of the loss is disconcerting — and the fact that newspapers are suffering similarly across the country doesn’t make it any less painful. You can hear sadness in the voices of former staffers who discuss the paper. “It was a newspaper of record of Rhode Island,” says former editor Carol Young, who started at the Warren bureau in the early 1960s and left as deputy executive editor in 2010. “Every birth, every high school graduation, every college graduate got their name in the paper automatically. Every house sale, every liquor license issued. There was a period where it was all part of our record.” Bob Kerr adds, simply, “We covered everything. We were everywhere. And we’re not anymore.”

And yet, at the same time, the paper is not dead. Far from it.

This is a newspaper that still wields the largest newsroom in the state, staffed with capable, hardworking veteran reporters and numerous promising recent hires; a newspaper that still wins Rhode Island Press Association awards by the dozen (forty-nine in 2016); a newspaper with full-time staffers stationed at the State House to comb through every bill and budget; a newspaper that recently fought with the City of Pawtucket over the police department’s dubiously grounded non-release of records relating to a murder-suicide; a newspaper that still provides an endless stream of (often uncredited) daily fodder for talk radio hosts, evening news broadcasts, local bloggers and social media users. Look at, say, Kate Bramson’s detailed breakdown of the cumulative taxpayer costs of 38 Studios, or Kathy Gregg’s report on the Cranston state rep race between House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Republican challenger Stephen Frias, and you’ll find journalism of a depth and nuance that no other local outlet can provide so regularly. In October, the New England Newspaper and Press Association named the Journal its New England Newspaper of the Year. (Ed Achorn won an additional, separate award for the front-page legislative grant editorial from May.)

These two truths are almost irreconcilable: the seemingly ubiquitous and invincible Providence Journal that once dominated the state doesn’t really exist anymore; but there still exists a smaller, scrappier paper that produces lots of vital, high-quality work every day. Any honest observer must acknowledge both.

And Dave Butler is perched right in the middle. As the executive editor of the Providence Journal in 2016, he occupies an uncomfortable position between the paper’s glorious past and its uncertain future; between out-of-state executives demanding increased efficiency for shareholders and overworked, underpaid reporters demanding answers for taxpayers. He has to watch as a paper that TIME once called “the journalistic conscience of New England” publishes another farewell column from a seasoned writer. (Recent months brought two such columns from political columnist Ed Fitzpatrick and sports columnist Jim Donaldson, respectively. Longtime arts writer Channing Gray also left the paper, but will contribute in a part-time capacity, Butler says.) He has to go on WPRI’s “Newsmakers” in December 2015 and assure its hosts, Tim White (the son of the late Journal reporter Jack White, who won that Pulitzer in 1974) and Ted Nesi (who has closely covered drops in Journal revenue and circulation), “We absolutely plan to continue publishing seven days a week.”

In June, the Journal hosted a new, 1,600-person awards banquet for all-state high school athletes at the Rhode Island Convention Center — a real-life celebration of the awards that have appeared in the paper for decades. Tickets were $50; the featured guest was celebrity New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Three months later, the paper hosted another first-time event: a Providence Journal’s Critic’s Choice expo at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet featuring food editor Gail Ciampa, more than 450 guests and more than sixty vendors, including Narragansett’s Coast Guard House, Pawtucket’s Foolproof Brewing Company and Cranston’s Twin Oaks. Again, tickets were $50. A month later, the paper hosted an expo for “all things important to seniors and baby boomers” at the Convention Center, with a special appearance by Regis Philbin. This event had free admission, but the vendors — in categories ranging from travel to financial planning to assisted living — paid the paper for the chance to exhibit their wares and services.

The events are an example of the ways the company is diversifying its revenue streams at a time when it can no longer rely solely on advertising, executives say. Talk to Hasson and Davis and they’ll point to the company’s other revenue sources: its Providence-based printing and distribution operation, which cranks out more than thirty papers, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal; a newly launched food, event and lifestyle site RhodeIsland.com “powered by the Providence Journal”; and a digital marketing company called Propel. “These are all things that help fund journalism,” GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis says.

This is the business side of GateHouse’s Providence Journal. And Ian Donnis argues that it makes sense to view the whole paper as a new, separate entity. “If you want to look at the Journal through a broad historical perspective, I think there have been three main eras,” he says. First, there was the lengthy stretch from its inception in 1829 to its sale in 1997, an era that saw the paper transform from “a nativist newspaper hostile to immigrants to a jewel of local journalism, well-considered among its peers nationally, that did phenomenal reporting on organized crime and politics,” Donnis says. Then came the A.H. Belo years, from 1997 to 2014, when the paper was weakened by the Internet, rocked by labor unrest and often overlooked by far-off owners. Now, under GateHouse, we have Providence Journal 3.0.

While this version of the paper may seem watered-down and less personal to some readers, for Dave Butler, the new Journal offers a return to the basic elements of his craft. Unlike his previous job overseeing dozens of papers in San Jose, “I have to do no corporate dancing here,” he says. And he seems genuinely tickled by the opportunity. When we discuss the Mattiello-front-page scuffle, he pops out of his seat, grabs a nearby copy of the paper reporting on the incident, holds it up and says, “It doesn’t get any better than this.... He was pissing on us for standing up for the people of Rhode Island!” Despite all of the challenges newspapers face, they can still make a difference, he says.

So how long will he stay?

Kirk Davis says he counts Butler among an elite few trusted advisers from the many papers GateHouse owns, and Hasson says he can stay as long as he wants. And Butler’s own answer is vintage Butler. “People ask me this all the time,” he says, “and it’s like, get over it. I’m here!”

And if a day comes when he isn’t here, he isn’t particularly worried about a succession plan. “I could drop dead tomorrow and Janet could name a replacement in this newsroom who is in sync with what I’m doing.” There are “more than a couple” people on staff up to the task, he says.

So while the veterans lament a paper that, according to former Journal investigative reporter Bruce DeSilva, is “circling the drain,” the paper keeps churning out stories, day after day, printing and circulating to about 70,000 weekday subscribers and 92,000 Sunday subscribers, according to a 2015 circulation audit. (The web content reaches 1.4 million unique visitors per month, paper executives say.)

Recent months brought an in-depth series about marijuana, plus a bevy of stories around the election. Every day, the paper still publishes a stack of news reports, editorials, event previews, arts reviews, political scoops, wedding announcements, sports write-ups. From the saga of Aquidneck Island’s “Cliff the Coyote” to the campaign-finance struggles of Providence City Council President Luis Aponte, the paper still beats with the pulse of life of Rhode Island.

“Will we be delivering newspapers thirty years from now? Probably not,” Hasson says. But the paper will still be delivering in ten years, she says. “Because the baby boomers still want a print product in their hand. There are still people who enjoy leaning back, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the Sunday paper.”

Butler, one of those boomers, is bullish about paper, too. “The Journal is alive and raising hell and is going to continue to do that.” He concedes that it doesn’t raise nearly as much hell as it once did. “But we still raise a lot,” he says. “And a lot is better than none.”

Rhode Islanders have a choice, he says. They can support the paper — subscribe in print, pay for access online and on mobile devices — and the paper will continue to fight on their behalf. Or “they can not support us and bitch about us and we’ll go away,” he says.

About that that second scenario, he adds, “Life won’t be better here if we’re not around.”

 

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