The Providence Journal's building on Fountain Street stretches for three blocks of prime downtown real estate. The newsroom is located in a cavernous three-story room that used to house the gigantic printing presses that roll out the paper with each daybreak. Reporters run from desk to desk, sharing the latest wire reports and press releases. The constant click-clack of keyboards and ringing of phones must pale in comparison to the presses that used to sit here, but the newsroom is still a bustling blur. However, the room has gotten increasingly quieter as the ProJo has eliminated almost 22 percent of the newsroom's staff in the past few months.
On October 10, the paper laid off 31 members of its news staff. This is the first time the paper, the oldest major daily newspaper in the nation, has been forced to cut its staff. The paper also closed all of its local news bureaus, consolidating all of its reporters to the Providence newsroom. But the significance of the cuts goes even further; the ProJo has long been the primary source of local and state-wide news for Rhode Island residents. While cuts like the ProJo's have occurred at many papers across the country, in the small state of Rhode Island, they will have an immediate effect on local readers as well as other local news outlets.
THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE PROJO
The lobby of the ProJo building on Fountain Street shows signs of the paper's eroding revenue base. Two doors are locked; the room beyond them is bathed in darkness. A sign on each states that the Classifieds Counter will close on February 18. As two reporters left the newsroom, one asked the other: "Have you cleaned out your desk yet?"
These employees were likely part of the October layoffs, the second round of job cuts the ProJo made this year. Earlier this fall, the paper eliminated 22 positions, including a dozen news staffers, through buyouts. But that was not enough for the A.H. Belo Corporation, the Dallas-based owner of the ProJo. Two weeks ago, the paper laid off 31 more workers, all from the newsroom.
The ProJo also shuttered its local bureaus in South County, the East Bay, the West Bay, Northern Rhode Island and the Metro area. For the ProJo, published since 1829, this is a bellwether change to its mission of delivering hometown news via a statewide paper. Each region's bureau focused on the minutiae of town life, from council meetings to changes at the local middle school. These stories, which were of little interest to those outside of the towns, are no longer printed in the Journal. Rather, they have been moved onto the paper's webpage, with a select few printed in the Rhode Island section each day.
This concept was formed in 1925 under managing editor Sevellon Brown. Brown created 12 local news bureaus spread throughout the state and parts of Massachusetts. A 2004 report on the Journal's website said that his goal was that "no matter where news broke, a Journal reporter could be there in twenty minutes or less." That is no longer the case.
The president of the Providence Newspaper Guild, John Hill, released a statement after the Belo announcement condemning the impeding disintegration of the paper's state-wide coverage. "The newspaper we have known will disappear October 10. Next week we will begin work for what is effectively an entirely new company," he said.
PART OF A NATIONAL TREND
Newspaper circulation rates have been falling across the board, averaging a three percent drop per year, according to statistics from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Between 2003 and 2005, the Journal's seven percent drop was one of the largest among the top papers in the country. The Los Angeles Times, the fourth-largest daily in the nation, saw an even steeper decline of eight percent, part of a four-year tailspin in which the paper has hemorrhaged over a fifth of its circulation.
A quick look at the rise and current slide of the LA Times helps explain the fears of A.H. Belo and other media companies. In the May 10, 1947 issue of the New Yorker, the paper ran an advertisement touting its potential for growth in the fastest growing market in America. At the bottom, there is a note that reads: "Due to the newsprint shortage and our primary obligation to supply our growing list of readers a complete summary of news--we continue to ration advertising space." By the 1970s, the paper had established hegemonic dominance, capturing 93 percent of the ad market.
The LA Times no longer has to worry about rationing its ad space. Instead, it has been scrambling to fill its pages with sufficient advertising to pay for the paper. In the past year, large companies such as AT&T and Macy's have cut their paper ad budgets by over 20 percent. Falling readership has led clients to demand commensurately lower rates. Perhaps the biggest indicator of the paper's souring fortunes came three years ago, when the auto giant General Motors pulled all of its ads from the paper.
The move away from print media and ads has eroded the base upon which the newspaper industry supported itself. With the advent of sites like Craigslist and Monster Jobs, people now flock to the web to sell their belongings and to look for jobs. The web allows for complete descriptions, pictures and a larger audience, all for free. It's no surprise that the classified section has become considerably thinner in recent years.
Janet L. Robinson, the chief executive of the New York Times Company, told analysts last week that half of last quarter's decline in revenue came from the classified department. On the West Coast, the other Times dissolved its Real Estate section in June, eliminated syndicated columns and moved some stories to other sections, while focusing most of their diminished staff on the listings on their website. In Chicago, the Tribune pulled its job listings from print editions.
LOCALISM IN A GLOBAL WORLD
With the disappearance of the local sections of the ProJo, readers may wonder where their local coverage will come from. Some possible print alternatives are weekly local papers like the Sakonnet Times and the Bristol Phoenix, which have historically competed with the Providence Journal. Still, such papers aren't exactly thrilled at the departure of the ProJo.
Scott Pickering is the managing editor of the Phoenix. He told the Independent that the ProJo's downsizing is "not a positive thing," but a negative move for the local information landscape and a sign of the newspaper industry's poor health. He fears that the absence of the ProJo will decrease the amount of hard-hitting and deep-digging journalism in Rhode Island.
Pickering said that local weeklies will be "better protected" than large dailies in the rough media market. A weekly paper needs less paper than a daily, so it is cushioned from the rising costs of newsprint, which are at a 12-year high according to Bloomberg News. Even large papers such as the Wall Street Journal and the LA Times have cut columns or switched to more lightweight paper.
The intimate nature of local stories also makes them better suited for print, rather than online editions. One of the hometown paper's roles, Pickering said, is to put regular people's names and faces in print. Publishing them online does not have the same impact. Local stories are ones that readers would, as Pickering says, "cut out and put on the refrigerator."
THE BEGINNING OF THE END?
However, it remains to be seen how much longer the quaint notion of having the news delivered to your doorstep each morning will remain financially tenable. "We're going to see some major metros collapse," cautioned Dave Morgan, an ad strategist, in a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington think tank. "The costs they cannot control are just extraordinary."
Those days may have just begun to arrive. Last Tuesday, the Christian Science Monitor, published out of Boston, announced it would stop its presses in April and publish exclusively on the web with the exception of a weekend magazine. John Yemma, the editor of the century-old paper, told the New York Times that the Monitor was just riding the early waves of the changing tides of the industry: "We have the luxury--the opportunity--of making a leap that most newspapers will have to make in the next five years."
Some of a paper's greatest costs include maintaining the investigative teams and long-form features reporters. These are the very reporters who write the important stories that stay on reader's minds and their refrigerators. As revenues continue to decline, media experts fear that hard-hitting investigations may turn soft. An Arizona State University study found that two out of three newspapers no longer have an investigative team. At the ProJo, the recent buyouts led to the departure of some of the paper's most read and respected writers, such as political reporters M. Charles Bakst and Scott MacKay.
MacKay, who took an early retirement with the buyout, told the Independent that he "doesn't know what the future of long-form journalism is." The ProJo has been pushing writers and resources to its website, which offers continuously updated blogs and subpages specialized for each town in the state. The paper positions the site as a resource for residents to easily get a picture of what is going on. But these pictures rarely go beyond the most basic level of the story. Most of the blog posts are shorter than 20 lines, a far cry from the lengthy and well-researched reports of newspapers past.
While the ProJo's dominance in the Rhode Island market has allowed it to maintain a good reporting staff until now, some papers across the country are making cuts that will fundamentally change the nature of their product. In the past year, papers across the country have not renewed their subscription to the Associated Press (AP) wire service. Last week, the New York Times reported that over a dozen papers ranging from a pack of eight small Ohio papers to Chicago's Tribune Company, which also owns the Los Angeles Times, will not renew their AP memberships when they are up in two years. The Ohio papers have banded together to share articles amongst themselves to make up for the loss in state wire reports. Other companies are exploring less comprehensive, but cheaper, newswires such as Reuters. In the article, the Star-Tribune of Minneapolis said that the AP's million-dollar price tag, the equivalent of a dozen reporters, was too much. Dropping the wire service, which provides national and international news that most papers cannot support on their own, could mean a new direction for print reporting, a hyper-localized one as suggested by the ProJo's website.
For now, the ProJo continues to roll off the presses and onto delivery trucks each morning. But as newspapers drop the wire services that carry the stories marking the changes of our nation and world, the local daily may become more of a vehicle for news of car accidents and house fires, car ads and pictures of cute pets. It's unclear how much longer readers will be woken up by the thud of the world's news on their doorstep.
JOHN MCGARRY B'10 is too fit to print.