ProJo faces cuts: a sad day for journalism in Rhode Island

Sep 7, 2012

Here’s an unfortunate irony: on the same day that hundreds of people are discussing how to revive Rhode Island’s economy, the Ocean State’s statewide newspaper is facing further cuts.

Former reporter Brian C. Jones puts  the apex for newsroom staffing at the Providence Journal in the time before the paper was slimmed for sale to the Dallas-based Belo Corporation in 1997. The Journal had considerable swagger in the ’90s, with the kind of deep staffing suited to a state rich with colorful, sometimes eye-popping source material.

Some staffers started leaving when a prolonged labor stalemate erupted after the paper was sold to Belo. In 2001, Chris Chivers, who went on to become a star at the New York Times, took to task Belo’s chairman, Robert Decherd, for downplaying the impact of soured union-management relations.

It was later in 2001 when more than 90 ProJo employees took a buyout, including 52 Providence Newspaper Guild members. That came after about 60 people had left the newspaper in the preceding two years. Yet even if the later conflict played a role, it became clear, too, that the Internet was posing an existential threat to newspapers near and far.

The labor dispute was resolved in 2003. But another buyout, in 2008, led to 22 more departutes, including 12 news employees (including political columnist M. Charles Bakst; Mark Arsenault, now of the Boston Globe; and Scott MacKay, now with RIPR.) By then, the paper had also shuttered its former network of statewide bureaus.

If the ProJo has less staff than in the past, it also remains the best-staffed news organization in Rhode Island, with a number of talented reporters.

A new wave of of online reporters, web sites, and ideological bloggers emerged in Rhode Island over the last decade, supplementing — and sometimes beating – old-school print and broadcast media.

Yet a mass circulation daily remains vital for the civic culture of a place – as a record, a watchdog, and a source of common conversation. That’s why the ProJo’s fate should be a concern for all Rhode Islanders.