It’s spitting in downtown Providence—there’s a damp glisten to the pavement as I pull up Fountain Street on my bike. I could hear the protestors from a few blocks away, whooping in response to the crescendos of the What Cheer? Brigade, but when I finally see them they seem tired, almost lackadaisical. About a hundred marchers are filing around and around in an oblong loop outside of the Providence Journal headquarters on this rainy Thursday afternoon. It’s a motley assemblage—a family, some retirees, some younger, rowdier participants. One balding man with a maroon tracksuit jacket bobs along to the music with a distant smile on his face, making turns far wider than everyone else. There’s an obvious corporate villain looming over the day’s proceedings, ripe for incrimination, but the protesters’ picket signs are relatively peaceable: “Keep Jobs in R.I.,” reads one; “Re-hire Bob Kerr,” another. When the police briefly stop by, John Hill, the president of the Rhode Island Newspaper Guild and the mastermind behind the march, shrugs and shrinks: “Are we in trouble? I don’t want to make any trouble.”
It’s a familiar tale of corporate takeover: 22 layoffs, 40 more allegedly to come early next year. The Providence Journal, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in the US, was bought on September 3rd by GateHouse Media, a media conglomerate that owns over 404 publications in 27 different states. Just last year, GateHouse was in the midst of a strategic bankruptcy; now they’re back on their feet and aggressively acquiring publications. Corporate management is nothing new for the ProJo—in 1997 the Metcalf family sold the paper to the Belo Corporation for $1.5 billion. Then too, there were layoffs and budget cuts. In fact, downsizing has been the modus operandi at the ProJo over the past few years—the number of employees has dropped from about 707 in 2010 to just 385 earlier this month.
But Gatehouse Media is bigger and, according to some, badder than the Belo Corp, and a new corporate parent means a whole new status quo. GateHouse Media’s reputation took a hit last year, when management sent out a memo at two Massachusetts papers explaining that, due to the expense, they would no longer be able to supply staff with coffee in the break room. CEO Michael Reed’s $800,000 year-end bonus, meanwhile, went untouched. “There’ve been a couple of owners over the past few years,” Jack Thompson, a retired reporter from the Journal’s heyday told me. “Seems like this is definitely the worst of the bunch.”
A promotional video on the Gatehouse Media website—think hype-voice over stock-image montage—declares that Gatehouse publications are not just local, but “hyper-local.” “Add to that a strong female audience,” the video continues, referencing the “suburban women” who purportedly read their publications, “and you begin to see the real story.” Then comes testimonial from an advertising executive: “I always advertise in local newspapers because of the types of stories that people cut out and put on their refrigerator. From an advertising point of view, that’s incredibly valuable.” This is all to say that you and your refrigerator space, reader of the Providence Journal, are more commoditized now than ever before.
But it’s also worth noting that the Providence Journal is far from a ‘hyper-local,’ or even a ‘local’ publication. The Journal covers regional, national, and world news in addition to local stories, and its website sees, on average, more than 1.1 million unique visitors every month—this in a state with only 1.05 million residents. In fact, the ProJo will be the largest publication under Gatehouse’s jurisdiction; new management will have to balance quality with efficiency on a scale they’ve never before encountered.
The union of GateHouse and the Providence Journal is not, of course, anomalous; the media oligopoly is ever growing. In 1983, 50 companies owned 90% of US media. By 2011, that number had dropped to six companies. News Corp, for one, owns the Wall Street Journal, The Times of London, Fox News Channel, New York Post, and countless other publications around the world. Still, there are models of publicly funded, independent news media sources—NPR, for instance, or Democracy Now!. But a lack of steady sponsorship means that fundraising becomes a constant grind. And as print media in particular becomes less and less profitable, corporate parenthood seems increasingly like the only financially viable way forward for many papers.
Back on Fountain street, an 18-wheeler rolls past, the sides emblazoned with “Local Teamsters” in red, white, and blue font; the driver lays the horn on thick in solidarity. The guys from Coffee King across the street have joined in too, arms full of Poland Spring bottles. “We’re with you guys,” I hear one of them say as he tosses someone a water. “You know, we support ya.” Jesse Strecker, the executive director of RI Jobs with Justice, looks on in a green fleece and baseball cap. He’s helped to turn out folks from other Providence labor unions—he mentions Verizon workers, and I see a pair of wait staff in all black, jiving with the six-person What Cheer? Brigade contingent. Providence locals are here, walking in circles on a grey September day, to keep a corporate monolith from unearthing and commoditizing their city’s “hyper-local” happenings.
Gatehouse Media plans to outsource. The corporation intends to shift much of the work and many of the jobs in the ad makeup department and at the copy desk down to their design center Texas, in the name of centralization and efficiency. One protester’s sign bears a jab at this plan, referring to three local towns: “Pawtucket, Pawtuxet, Pawcatuck. We know the difference.” Letting Texans copy-edit articles about a small city half a country away is asking, the marchers believe, for trouble. The cuts, if financially justifiable, are worrisome.
“[The Providence Journal] used to be one of the top ten papers in the country,” Thompson tells me. Until its 1997 sale, the Journal was owned by the Metcalfs, a family of “well-born, King James Bible-reading Yankee Protestants who cared deeply about their home state,” ProJo reporter Scott McKay remarked on Rhode Island Public Radio. Investigative journalism was a vital part of the paper; in the 50s, there was a groundbreaking series on Jim Crow racism in the American South. In the 70s, reporter Jack White won a Pulitzer for his work revealing Nixon’s tax evasions in the wake of Watergate. In the 90s, the paper received its fourth Pulitzer for a series on corruption in Rhode Island courts. There was a lore around the paper and an all-consuming ethos: “[Jounalists] imbibed and talked newspapering into the wee hours,” says McKay, “their fingers stained from thumbing through the early editions off the press.”
Since its glory days, the ProJo’s decline has been steep. The paper is hemorrhaging readers; from 1990 to now, weekday circulation has dropped from about 200,000 to about 70,000. Those numbers are grim, but Hill fears even more for the paper’s future: “I would argue that over the last 185 years,” he tells me, with a practiced lilt to his voice, “one of the reasons the Journal has enjoyed the reputation it’s had is because the quality of pay and the benefits offered have enabled it to attract and keep quality people. And if you start cutting the pay, and you start changing the benefits, you’re not going to keep those quality people.”
Especially if you’re actively trying to oust them. Bob Kerr, a reporter with 43 years at the ProJo to his name, was one of the first to be let go. “It was over in ten minutes,” Kerr told WPRI of his termination. “I’m still processing.” His forced departure has spawned a rush of support from the community—Jessica Rosner, a local artist, hailed him on Twitter as “Our own RI Woody Guthrie of journalism.” Rhode Island Public Radio invited him to bid his readers farewell on the air—in his brief speech, Kerr harkened back to the advice he got in 1994, when he was first given his column: “[Let us] hear Rhode Island talking.” He’s often been a controversial figure at the paper since then—writing pointedly on Iraq, gun violence, and other tricky issues—but he’s also become an institution. “The past 20 years have been too damn good,” Kerr said on RIPR, “too filled with kindness, and humor, and a spirited kind of madness to be simply left behind with tattered ends as I head off into unemployment.”
Motives for the takeover are clearly financial, but there are faint traces of a political agenda present in Gatehouse Media’s layoff decisions. Kerr, who was dropped in the first wave of lay-offs, was one of the paper’s most decidedly liberal columnists. The lay-offs have left the staff devoid of a single fluent Spanish speaker, in a city where 40 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino. Local community organizations often have to provide their own translators when members are interviewed by Journal reporters. Only one reporter left on staff is non-white. “We’ve asked for explanations and they haven’t given us any,” says Hill. “They haven’t given us any kind of specifics as to who and why.”
It’s difficult to parse the political motives of a corporation like GateHouse Media—GateHouse operates under the umbrella group New Media, which is in turn is owned by Fortress Investment Group. Fortress has a hand in everything from ski resorts to retirement communities to railroad tracks. The web of money behind the ProJo is intricate and expansive, and there may not be an underlying political ideology as explicit as that of the aforementioned News Corp’s hard right empire. After taking on Democrat John Edwards as a consultant in 2005, Fox News actually accused Fortress Investment of funding the political left. Nevertheless, when I ask Thompson if he thinks Bob Kerr’s dismissal was partly a result of his political bent, he nods: “I think it definitely had a part to play.”
Lunch hour is almost up—Hill begins gathering the picket signs, and What Cheer? Brigade wraps up a buoyant rendition of “I Fought the Law.” Thompson sits down on a bench, watching the crowd dissipate. I hear a woman say to a friend as she turns from the crowd: “well, that was fun.” When I ask Thompson if he knows what’s next, he shrugs. “We’ll probably do some more of this,” he says, gesturing to the dispersing marchers. Hill is vague too: “we have to wait and see how they respond.” So far, the response from Gatehouse has been minimal: there was increased security at the doors to 75 Fountain St. this morning, Hill says, but he’s felt virtually no pressure from management to quiet down.
This lack of real conflict is partly why the protest seems slightly futile, if important and well intentioned. Money has made GateHouse Media’s decisions clear. Talking won’t change things: “We had a bargaining meeting with [Gatehouse] a week and a half ago,” Hill tells me. “And we told them this plan [is] just a bad idea. It’s going to diminish the quality of the paper, and it’s going to diminish the Rhode Island economy. And you can tell them forever and they just don’t get it.”
That’s what this rally is supposed to be about. “Sometimes you need to show,” says Hill. “And by having here—we’ve got maybe a hundred people, out here in the rain, in their lunch hour, that says it louder and I think more clearly than just words across a table.”
But by 1:30, the sidewalk outside the Providence Journal headquarters is empty, quiet. The Teamster truck has pulled away, the Coffee King guys are back at work. Not much has been upset. At 1:34, the Providence Journal posts a brief piece online covering their own civil discord; nothing much is said about the future of these employees, or the future of this paper. It’s not that the guild members and community activists don’t care, but there is a certain sense of inevitability in the damp September air. ProJo reporter Mark Patinkin wrote in an opinion piece that these days, papers must “adapt or die.” GateHouse will most likely do exactly what they want to do with regards to lay-offs, outsourcing, efficiency, and maybe that’s the way print, in a media landscape cannibalized by free, digital access, has to work. It might be a ruthless reality, but there it is: these days, the press is only free when they’ve got a corporation behind them.