Paolino Coy on Whether He's Interested In Helping to Buy the Providence Journal

Feb 5, 2014

Paolino in his downtown offfice, near a copy of a front-page ProJo story heralding his 117-vote victory in the 1984 race for mayor.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

Former Providence mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr., who was part of a group that tried to buy WLNE-TV (Channel 6) in 2011, is keeping his cards close to his vest on whether he's looking at being part of an effort to acquire the Providence Journal.

As part of an interview broadcast on RIPR Thursday morning, Paolino started wagging a finger and laughed softly when asked if he's looking at a role in buying the statewide daily. He went on to say: "I have made it a practice that if I'm ever acting as a broker or an investor or part of a group looking at things, looking at opportunities or investments, and if they haven't been completed or they haven't been finalized, or they haven't really done anything, not to really comment, because it's just thinking out loud and I don't think the people want to know what I think when it comes to something I haven't done."

The Dallas-based A.H. Belo Corporation announced in December it was putting the ProJo up for sale. Belo hired an Arkansas-based firm to to explore the transaction, and any deal was not expected to take place before this summer. By one estimate, the statewide daily could sell for as much as $41 million.

Paolino became acting mayor when Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. left office in 1984. He won the post in a close election later that year and served until making an unsuccessful run for governor in 1990. Paolino runs his family business, Paolino Properties, a major downtown property owner, and he served as US ambassador to Malta during the Clinton administration.

Despite his reticence in speaking about a possible transaction, Paolino was enthusiastic about the prospect of returning the Journal to local ownership.

"I'm very big into local ownership," he says, "and I would hope that local people or a local group would step forward that has expertise and looks at that paper to buy it, because I think what hurt that paper is when the Texans came in and bought it. So if local people go in there, understand the sensitivity that we in Rhode Island have, I think it would be a home run. I'd love to see it happen."

Belo bought the Providence Journal Company, which included nine television stations, for $1.5 billion in 1997. That was shortly before the rise of the Internet undermined the advertising base for newspapers. Belo-backed managers also sparred with the Providence Newspaper Guild, the newspaper's largest union, during an almost four-year battle that ended in 2003. It was that year when former governor Bruce Sundlun contacted Belo about trying to buy the newspaper.

Prior to Belo, the Journal was owned by the Metcalf family, which was known for operating the paper as a public trust and sinking an above-average amount of money into its journalistic staffing. 

When it comes to prospective buyers of the ProJo, "We have heard nothing," says Guild president John Hill, a reporter, who believes a local owner could help put the paper on a stronger economic footing. "We're interested in someone who knows Rhode Island, cares about Rhode Island," he says.

Local ownership of newspapers became increasingly rare in the 70s and 80s, as heirs in publishing families had less interest in journalism and more interest in cashing in.

Hill believes Stephens, the Arkansas firm hired to shop the ProJo, has yet to provide materials about the paper to prospective buyers. He says he expects curiosity-seekers to take an initial look at the ProJo, before talks about a possible sale may get more serious later this year.