by by Katie Okamoto

illustration by by Susanna Vagt

By now, the so-called death of local print media seems an old story; if once there was an outcry, today the transition is more or less accepted. So call it another nail in the coffin or strictly business: last Friday, 22 members of news and advertising left the Providence Journal staff as part of a voluntary buyout program. Now the ProJo is preparing for the first episode of significant involuntary job cuts in the newspaper's history.

The layoffs will affect news, editorial, advertising and promotion departments and are the second part of a two-step effort of cutbacks initiated by the ProJo's parent company A.H. Belo, which as the ProJo reported on September 5, has pointed to the "unprecedentedly adverse business environment in the newspaper industry." A.H. Belo's first move was to approach employees for voluntary buyouts--a program that essentially pays people to retire. Twenty-two members of the ProJo's staff signed up, and their last day was September 12. Since A.H. Belo had expected more than 22 buyouts, the ProJo has met the company's demand and announced that it will cut an as yet unspecified number of employees.
The Providence Newspaper Guild, which represents about 370 people in news and advertising at the ProJo, has conferred with the newspaper's management about the layoff process. This is the first time that the newspaper has laid off members of the Guild, according to the Guild's Local Administrator Timothy Schisk. Schisk told the Independent that the guild contract dictates a "seniority-based process." The Guild will meet with management to work out the specific details.
"What we're seeing is the same process that has been happening at newspapers around the country," Schisk said. "It's rare to find a newspaper that has not been reducing its staff significantly in the past year or so. It's unfortunate, since ultimately it's the readers and the larger society that loses when newspapers cut back, but what we're seeing here in Providence isn't unique in any way."
The ProJo's Charles Bakst was one employee who took the voluntary buyout, bowing out last week after 40 years as a political columnist. Bakst "used a typewriter" and was "one of the old guys with old standards that endure," according to Bob Kerr, a fellow ProJo columnist who paid him tribute last week. Meanwhile, Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's homage to Bakst, which he delivered to the Senate on September 12, sounded more like a eulogy. He said Bakst was "legendary" and "miraculous," tackling local corruption with courage and integrity. To fellow typewriter users of the old guard, these are journalistic characteristics with which the American public has become less and less patient. Such are the familiar grumbles of a newspaper industry that at once venerates notions of a muckraking heyday--you know, when people actually read the local papers--while also scrambling to build a web empire.
Winston Wood--who edited at the Wall Street Journal until the arrival of Rupert Murdoch--wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review this August that "it's the business model that's failed, not the journalism." His advice: "If you're interested in journalism, even now, give it a shot. It's a great way to learn about the world, develop communication and analytical skills and provide a public service. But over the long haul, there's more stability and better money to be made panhandling."
If the Swiss Alps are suddenly condensed into an incredibly small volume and then begin to consume Switzerland and France with the force of their own gravity, it probably won't be the fault of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
At least, that's what Associate Professor of Physics Greg Landsberg reassured the Independent when pressed about the implications of the LHC experiment that was launched last week in Geneva. The LHC, the largest and highest-energy particle accelerator in the world, will recreate the extreme conditions that were present in the split seconds after the Big Bang. The experiment is groundbreaking because for the first time, physicists will be able to observe what have previously only existed as theoretical mind-blows. In Landsberg's words, "This is the point in science where the experiment is going to be the guiding star."
Landsberg was instrumental in posing the widely publicized possibility that the LHC could produce miniature black holes. But "the problem with black holes is everybody seems to know what it is," said Landsberg. "In fact, all arguments which are being brought up as worries and fears and doomsday scenarios are based on science fiction. They would not withstand any degree of critical analysis, and I guess the best rebuttal is that the collisions in the LHC actually happen every day."
It may or may not come as consolation to know that high-energy cosmic rays slam into the earth all the time, probably forming very small black holes. Like these naturally occurring ones, LHC black holes would exist for mere fractions of a second and their mass would be quickly dissipated by the small amount of radiation that all black holes emit. "Essentially what we will see are stable particles like photons or quarks or electrons, which actually will create a rather peculiar pattern to use to identify that this was a black hole."
Landsberg considers himself "more an experimenter than a theorist." He fills that role as part of a team of researchers--including two other Brown physicists and nine Brown students--focusing on the Compact Muon Solinoid, a machine that is part of the LHC suite. This machine will be used to detect black holes as well as new phenomena. So far, the standard model of physics has explained every physical phenomenon that humans have observed. However, physicists are not convinced that the model is universal.
Under extreme conditions not normally observable on Earth, the model may not perfectly predict the relationship between matter and energy. Landsberg proposes an analogy of probability and a pair of dice. We operate under the assumption that all possible outcomes must add up to 100 percent probability and that these outcomes are limited to the dice landing on the table. But what if the dice land in the air? "We think we are destined to find a new physics, an even more interesting situation if the dice land in the air and send us back to the background. It will show that we don't understand something very fundamental. And we don't really know what the phenomena would be."
The night of the LHC inaugural run, Landsberg attended a physics pajama party in Illinois and blogged on the New Scientist about his peers in bathrobes, downing bubbly. His entries have the temperament of electrons: "2:55 am--we made it! The beam just went through the CMS detector and lit it up like a Christmas tree! Wow--this is really exciting!"
Meanwhile, all over the world, little black holes are being born and dying.