THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Treading Water

Can the ProJo stay afloat in the Ocean State?

by Ricardo Gomez & Peder Schaefer

Illustration by Alana Baer

published September 27, 2019


 

Before ad revenue dried up, and before the financial crisis, and Facebook, and the smartphone, and Craigslist, the Providence Journal was a giant of Rhode Island. Its news empire extended far beyond the three floors of offices they owned in Downtown Providence: The paper laid claim to twelve news bureaus scattered across Rhode Island and Southern Massachusetts, with another bureau in Washington, DC. The Journal of the 1990s was committed to covering anything that moved, from the Bristol Fourth of July parade to corrupt mayors. It provided a key civic service to Rhode Islanders, informing them of national and local news of import with original reporting.

But as the twentieth century turned to the twenty-first, the bureaus began to shutter. Now, the Journal has no office in Washington DC. The newspaper occupies less than a full floor of their old building Downtown. From a high of 140 reporters and editors in the paper's heyday, the Journal now has only about 35 reporters on staff, as reported by the Boston Business Journal. The paper has been bought and sold multiple times and is now in the hands of a media conglomerate controlled by a hedge fund, GateHouse Media. One needs only to compare the heft of a Journal copy of yesteryear, when the paper had far more reporters, with one of today, to realize how the business has been gutted. “It’s sad, because when I got to New England, the Journal was a destination newspaper for journalists, 30 years ago,” Jonathan Saltzman, a Boston Globe reporter who worked at the Journal, told the College Hill Independent. “For a mid-sized market, it was one of the best papers in the country.”

Of course, the Journal is not alone. Newspapers across the country have also struggled to adapt as the media industry has changed: When the internet broke the financial model supporting newspapers, media conglomerates cut staff and increased the pressure to generate profit, and newspapers were caught off guard.

“We probably were late to the party, because we were the titan,” said a newsroom employee at the Journal. “We were the steamrolling ocean liner of Rhode Island for a hundred-plus years. We were the news. And we were going along on a very straight course, and when things started to shift and technology started to come into play, we were not as fast off the mark as some other more innovative newspapers at the time.”

 

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There is no easy answer to why newspapers have struggled to remain financially viable in the past decade. Even journalists themselves are not entirely in agreement about what happened to their industry. While most journalists the Independent talked with said the rise of the internet and the process of digitization have changed the way people receive information, others pointed to the growing desire for partisan news and changing structures of ad revenue as causes of financial strain.

“Over the past 20 years, newspapers have struggled mightily, and in many respects the bottom has fallen out,” said Saltzman. “The internet has, in so many ways, crushed the business model for newspapers. It’s curious, because stories now are read by many more people than when there was no internet, but the source of revenue for newspapers has changed.”

Newspapers used to have some of the largest profit margins in any industry. Much of this was tied to their centrality in advertising—if you wanted your ad to be seen, it had to be in the newspaper. Classified ads and advertising used to make up the majority of newspaper profits, but as classified ads shifted to Craigslist, and advertisers turned to online forums such as Google and Facebook for their targeted ad campaigns, this revenue stream collapsed. From a high of almost 50 billion dollars in advertising revenue in 2005, newspapers are now only projected to earn 14 billion in ad revenue annually, as estimated by the Pew Research Center. More and more newspapers are turning towards subscriber-based revenue streams, instituting paywalls on their content.

This drop in revenue has been used as a justification for ownership to cut newsroom staff, leading to the shrinking of newspapers throughout the country. According to Pew, since 2004, the US has seen a drop in newsroom employment by 47 percent. That trend was certainly felt at the Journal, where a series of layoff shrank staff size.

The financial crisis of 2008 made it difficult for newspapers to take the risks necessary to innovate and adapt, because no one wanted to pay for the news. This triggered a vicious cycle, limiting papers’ ability to digitally transition, which then made their news less engaging to read, which only cut revenues more.

Elaborating on the roots of the crisis in the journalism industry, Dan McGowan, a longtime Rhode Island journalist currently working for the Boston Globe, said, “Newspaper companies didn’t adjust to the internet very well. Craigslist and things like that took away classified ads which was a huge revenue source, and you didn’t charge right away on the internet… You had this situation where this new thing, the internet, really crushed you on a bunch of different fronts.”

McGowan claimed that the Journal could have been more entrepreneurial in introducing new multimedia content sooner.“I hate to say they got complacent, but they kind of did,” he said, adding that the Journal’s reliance on print revenue made it more difficult for the paper to transition to the digital age. To some extent, the paper’s seemingly unchallengeable success in Rhode Island gave them a false sense of security, impeding their ability to adapt.

 

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As the newspaper industry’s business model began to struggle, papers across the country found themselves vulnerable to changes in ownership. Papers, which have traditionally been privately owned and not subject to shareholder concerns, are now, in some cases, liable to the pressures of the public market. Papers with private owners are typically owned by families or individuals who are more invested in the paper itself. This stands in contrast to public ownership, where the corporate leadership is responsible for and interested in generating profit for shareholders.

A dearth of antitrust regulation has allowed large media companies to merge and absorb small papers across the country. The Journal is now owned by GateHouse Media, a media conglomerate in the process of merging with Gannett Media, another media chain. If the merger goes through, both companies would operate under the New Media Investment Group, which is publicly traded on Wall Street and responsible to shareholders.

In a press release announcing the planned merger, shareholder benefits and “synergies” were stressed as possible benefits: “The majority of synergies is expected to be realized within 24 months of closing and result from the increased scale of the new organization, sharing of best practices, leveraging existing infrastructure, facility rationalization and other judicious cost reductions.”

All of this corporate jargon is supposed to explain the benefits of merging, but if the historical contractions in newsroom staff are any indication, these “synergies” and “judicious cost reductions” translate into layoffs and reduced news coverage.

Expense reduction is the primary incentive of consolidation. For example, as a means of increasing efficiency, the Journal is now designed in Austin, Texas where many other Gatehouse papers are designed. After the merger, New Media Investment Group would control 263 daily newspapers across the country, with a presence in 612 media markets across 47 states and Guam, according to a press release.

“We’re owned by a hedge fund, and consequently their stakeholders, people who own stock in Gatehouse, demand profit,” said a Journal newsroom employee. “And with profit has come cuts in newsrooms, at the Journal and other places around the country.” Given the choice between profit and more community news coverage, the corporate, publicly traded, mindset chooses profit. While newspapers have always been businesses, the change in ownership from private to public has placed new demands on some newspapers to perform for Wall Street; papers have become incentivized not by what will most help their communities, but instead by what will make the most money.

“At the end of the day, you have to make the numbers,” Alan Rosenberg, executive editor of the Journal, told the Independent. “When you’re a publicly owned company, you’ve provided Wall Street with an estimate of what the numbers will look like, and it’s incumbent upon you to reach that.”

When asked about layoffs at the Journal, Rosenberg again mentioned the necessity of meeting profit targets, saying that while he’s tried to protect jobs by advocating for cuts in newspaper length, among other strategies, the financial realities mean that that’s not always possible.

On the other hand, Rosenberg stressed that Gatehouse has tried to stay innovative while working with the Journal, and said that there had never been any directives issued from Gatehouse to affect editorial coverage. He mentioned a new watchdog investigative team the Journal had recently launched, as well as a set of new newsletters, and gave the Independent a quick tour of the Journal's in-house podcasting studio, a marker of their attempt to stay relevant.

A number of papers across the country have spoken out against ownership structures they deem to be harming their journalism. For example, last year the editorial board of the Denver Post publicly called out the hedge fund owners of their newspaper, saying that if Alden Global Capital didn’t want to support good journalism in Colorado, they should sell the paper to someone who would. The editorial board rebellion at the Post came after ownership instituted a series of layoffs, reducing staff from a peak of over 300 to less than 100, a similar situation to what’s happened at the Journal.

An examination of newspaper ownership can provide insight into the varied trajectories of different papers. Papers that are not owned by media conglomerates have not seen the same level of staff cuts as papers that are. For example, papers like the Boston Globe—owned by John Henry, also the owner of the Boston Red Sox—have been able to take risks such as the recent opening of an office in Rhode Island. The Washington Post was struggling before billionaire Jeff Bezos bought the paper. While these philanthropic owners are good for the short-term production of resource-intensive investigative journalism, their statuses as owners raise questions about conflicts of interest between owners and the news their reporters are supposed to cover. Papers owned privately by billionaires have been able to innovate and are reaching economic stability because they are not as intensely pressured to produce profit as papers owned by a conglomerate, but this is not a healthy or viable model for the entire journalism industry.

 

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Traditional newspapers are not the only way journalism exists, nor will exist, in Rhode Island. Steve Ahlquist is an independent journalist who publishes through his website, Uprise RI, a progressive news source. In discussion with the Independent, Ahlquist maintained that the Journal editorial pages are influenced by the need to satisfy advertisers, and frequently take a conservative stance. Ahlquist looked to the debate over the Burrillville power plant as an example of the Journal holding back criticism to placate an ad-buyer, the energy company Invenergy.

“I don't think the ProJo serves the needs of the people of Rhode Island,” Ahlquist said. “They want to claim that they are delivering the news, and they have this theory that the news is this neutral thing to be delivered without slant and without politics," he told the Independent. "They have long been uninterested in covering the actions of small neighborhood and community advocacy groups.” Ahlquist labeled the Journal with the term “false neutrality,” claiming that they would be doing better financially were they to take stronger stances on issues and cut past the notion that the news is always neutral.

Ahlquist’s brand of independent, progressive journalism engages with the new environment of media consumption that demands that news serves the tailored needs of readers. Independent publications like Uprise RI serve the community by reporting in underserved areas that financially-strained traditional papers fail to cover. While the Journal may be restricted financially, it still has a responsibility to cover issues and stories that matter.

With the shrinking number of Journal bureaus, there exists a growing threat that local town councils and communities will go without quality news coverage. Ahlquist is part of a group of independent journalists and smaller local papers that are helping to fill this gap. Rosenberg mentioned some of these papers, such as the Warwick Beacon, the Valley Breeze, and the Cranston Herald, that are doing the kind of local reporting that is key for the civic health of communities.

The Boston Globe has also perceived the growing need for quality media in Rhode Island. Late this summer, the Globe opened an office in Providence with three reporters, some former employees of the Journal. While the team has only dipped their toe into the state, with a newsletter and limited coverage, their presence is perhaps the biggest reminder that there is space for more coverage in Rhode Island news than what the Journal and other independent journalists can provide alone.

 

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The Journal has long acted as a check on power. The paper was key in investigating and covering the corruption and assault trials of former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci. If no organization like the Journal existed to tell those stories, how might the course of that mayor's career—and the city's history more broadly—have changed? If there are no journalists at the council meetings, at the courts, and in the schools, our society and communities will suffer.

Most of the desks at the Journal offices are covered with paper: old press releases, taped-up pictures of favorite stories, and dozens and dozens of newspapers, from fresh copies of the Journal to yellowing, fading newsprint buried, like geologic sediment, under pages of a newer age.

Rosenberg at the Journal has no sentimentality about print. He knows that the future of the industry is digital, far from the giant presses that once resided in the basement of the Journal building.

Now, the Journal is guided by a monitor hanging over a lonely conference table in a corner of their offices. The monitor looks like a window into the future, offering up-to-date stats on page views, social media attention, and website readership. Armed with these tools, the Journal may yet find a place in the future to tell the stories that matter.

 

RICARDO GOMEZ B’22 and PEDER SCHAEFER B’22 are trying to recruit Marty Granoff to buy the ProJo.

 

Correction: In a previous version of this article, Jonathan Saltzman was misidentified. His first name is Jonathan, not John. Additionally, the ownership of the Providence Journal was inaccurately depicted. The Journal is owned by GateHouse Media, not Gannett Media. GateHouse Media is in the process of acquiring Gannett Media. The merger is not yet complete. The original story also stated that the Journal has 15 reporters on only half a floor. It is more accurate to say that the Journal now has 35 reporters and editors, on just less than a full floor.