Scharfenberg’s prescription for saving the ProJo

Nov 28, 2012

David Scharfenberg has a timely Providence Phoenix story on steps to make the Providence Journal more competitive as it — like other newspapers — wrestles with a soft ad market and an inexorable decline in print readership.

As Scharfenberg notes, the ProJo is a vitally important civic institution. It has a distinguished past and retains the largest reporting staff of any Rhode Island news organization.

But an ongoing downward trend can be seen in ongoing cuts, including layoffs of top photographers like Connie Grosch, the departure of DC correspondent John Mulligan, and a user-unfriendly online model, with poor early returns:

That access, at present, comes in the form of a glorified pdf of the print product — a one-dimensional, digital replica of the daily paper that looks like it was designed to drive readers from the site. And in a way, it was.

Scharfenberg notes how the Boston Globe has offered an instructive example of how to do things differently online:

It maintains a robust, well-trafficked, free web site at And its paywall-protected journalism resides at, a clean, intuitive site named the world’s best designed by the Society for News Design in the spring.

Casual readers, moreover, can stumble upon the occasional free article via a Google search or Facebook link. The same is true for the New York Times site, which employs a “metered” model offering readers a certain number of free articles per month before they have to sign up for the paid service.

Scharfenberg, a former ProJo scribe himself, gives just props to the Journal’s intrepid Statehouse bureau chief, Kathy Gregg, for her close scrutiny of Smith Hill, and to Mike Stanton for his investigative pieces. But he says the paper falls short on more often capturing the pulse and color of Rhode Island’s zesty politics:

Where was the in-depth work, this year, on Congressman David Cicilline’s comeback? How about Rhode Island’s shifting views on gay marriage? We’ve yet to read the definitive piece on how Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, who favors the sort of data-based, charter-driven reform in fashion in Washington these days, is faring under Governor Lincoln Chafee, who is skeptical of the new approach.

And in politics, or on any other beat, the ProJo should be doing much more in the way of news analysis — putting issues in a regional and national context, giving them meaning, making a bit of an argument. The paper has a broader reach and a deeper memory than any news organization in the state. It should exploit that advantage.

In keeping with Journal tradition, ProJo managers wouldn’t speak with Scharfenberg for his story. Yet as he notes, some employees there have initiated a dialogue about trying to improve the ProJo and its approach.

As others have observed, changing technology has made a great time to be a journalist — and a terrible time to be a newspaper. The Phoenix’s own parent faces considerable uncertainty, as Boston Magazine notes in a detailed story.

Rhode Island is fortunate to have a robust media landscape, populated by talented reporters at many news organizations. The ProJo, even in its diminished state, remains a vital watchdog. And that’s why all Rhode Islanders should care about its fate.