Scott MacKay Commentary: Providence Journal, We Knew Ye Well

Dec 6, 2013

For nearly two centuries, the Providence Journal has been Rhode Island’s most important news organization. Now that it is up for sale, RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay brings us the ProJo’s  storied  past and uncertain future.

The Providence Journal building in downtown Providence
Credit Emma Ruddock / RIPR

When the first edition of the Providence Journal  was printed in 1829, it was a four-page broadsheet hand pressed into paper fashioned from recycled linen rags.

Providence was a town of 16,000 souls. Rhode Island would become an industrial powerhouse and Providence would become known as the nation’s most prosperous city, reaching a population of a quarter of a million by World War II.

As the Ocean State flourished, so did its largest newspaper. During the Civil War, the state’s appetite for battle field news led to an afternoon edition called the Evening Bulletin.

In the Jazz Age, heavy industry made Providence the Silicon Valley of the era. The Journal-Bulletin, under the watchful direction of editor Sevellon Brown, pioneered a system of covering local news that was copied around the nation. So many news bureaus were opened around Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts that no reporter was more than 20 minutes from a fire, labor strike or political gathering.

It was a newspaper marinated in Rhode Island’s culture. When a Rhode Islander was hatched, matched or dispatched, the Journal-Bulletin noticed. It evolved into a news outlet that had a strong Washington Bureau with a national reach but also covered every town council and school committee meeting from Napatree Point to North Attleboro.  It noted every church dinner and  covered every high school sports team. If you wanted to know which neighbor was getting married or divorced, when the police chief was retiring or where that siren-blazing fire truck was headed, it was all in the paper. Obituaries were subjected to the same careful editing as news stories. And the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post wires brought news from around the globe.

The Journal-Bulletin was owned by a local group of well-born, King James Bible-reading  Yankee Protestants who cared deeply about their home state. At the middle of the 20th Century, the newspaper became what an economist would call a monopoly utility protected from government regulation by the First Amendment. Like telephones or electricity, just about every household subscribed to the newspaper. If you wanted to sell anything you had to advertise in the ProJo.

The owners focused on journalistic excellence. Yet  they were not always so welcoming to the waves of Roman Catholic immigrants who thronged a state where manufacturing jobs begged workers.  Until the dawn of the 20th Century, the paper ran the notorious NINA – No Irish Need Apply ads.  Italian-Americans were too often denigrated  in print; as recently as 1996 the newspaper ran a story implying that Johnston would be a prime location for a gambling casino because it had the nation’s highest concentration of ``Italo-Americans.’’

The money-machine that was the ProJo and ownership’s  generous investments in quality journalism gave the paper influence far beyond southern New England. In the 1950s, a black reporter, Jim Rhea, and his white colleague,  Ben Bagdikian, traveled the American South and  penned an eye-opening series on Jim Crow racism. By the 1970s, a robust  Washington  bureau  would cover national political campaigns and break the story of President Nixon’s resignation. Hamilton Davis, the paper’s Washington bureau chief, recalls having a team of five reporters covering the both the 1972 Republican and Democratic National Conventions. One of them was a young M. Charles Bakst, who would become Rhode Island’s most influential political columnist.

The story that hammered the nail into Nixon’s Watergate coffin was written by Jack White, who reported that Nixon cheated on his income tax returns. The president’s response was to say that he ``was not a crook.’’ White won a Pulitzer Prize; Nixon was forced to resign. The paper would win another Pulitzer, its fourth, in 1994 for uncovering corruption in the Rhode Island court system.

During the Blizzard of 1978, the state was shut down for a week, but journalists camped out at the Biltmore Hotel managed to get a paper out every day.

The newspaper became a magnet for aggressive, ambitious young reporters and photographers who learned their craft under demanding editors. In the 1980s, the 24-hour newsroom was as busy as a rush hour train station, a cacophony of ringing phones, deadline shouts and over-caffeinated reporters, all  encircled in a haze of cigarette and cigar smoke.

The Journal carved a reputation as a paper that nurtured fine narrative writing and sharp investigative and political reporting. Photo journalists were among the industry's best. It built a very good sports department. Talented reporters were sent around the world to such hot spots as the Iraq War, the Cambodia killing fields, and Berlin when the wall came down. Carol Young, a sharp-eyed editor with a gift for mentoring young reporters, molded the newly hired, who often were Ivy League graduates. The nation's top newspapers, such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe all are studded with the bylines of ProJo alums.

Executives lunched at the waspy, all-male Hope Club. Reporters and editors adjourned after midnight to Hope’s, a dingy Washington Street barroom that gleefully thumbed its nose at the state’s 1 a.m. closing hour.  Jounos imbibed and talked newspapering into the wee hours, their fingers stained from thumbing through the early editions off the press that were delivered every night to the bar. It was not unusual for the ProJo night crew to leave Hope’s under the grey light of dawn.

The paper’s owners had their benign quirks.  When John C.A. Watkins, a devoted yachtsman, was publisher, small craft warning flags flew from atop the roof of company headquarters in downtown Providence. In 1986, after the America’s Cup races sailed away from Newport to Australia, the Journal did too. A Perth bureau overseen by Andy Burkhardt  covered  that year’s Cup trials. There were more ProJo journalists at the Australia Cup races than there were at Fenway Park for the Red Sox-Mets World Series that year.

The ProJo brass were Republicans, the reporters and pressmen were mostly Democrats. While the owners didn't much appreciate unions, especially in the public sector, they treated their own unionized workers pretty well. The newsroom slogan was that while they wanted employees to know their places, the Calvinist guilt-tinged higher ups never wanted to see them on a food stamp line. ProJo workers had good health benefits, were paid above average wages and had decent pensions.

Journal employment  was coveted;  they were well paying union jobs at a company that  never laid anyone off. As Rhode Island’s economy matured, the owners took their newspaper profits and plowed them into investments into television stations, cable television franchises and paging devices. A 13-day strike by the Providence Newspaper Guild in 1973 did nothing to slow the cash flow.

Journal executives were stalwart stewards of Rhode Island’s cultural, economic and educational assets. Gov. Lincoln Almond recalls wooing Fidelity Investments to move operations to Rhode Island during the go-go 1990s stock market. As the deal neared, the governor had a crucial meeting with Fidelity chief Ned Johnson. The only other person Johnson would allow in that room was Stephen Hamblett, ProJo publisher. Hamblett and banker Terry Murray would also play a major role in convincing Almond to support construction of the Providence Place Mall. Current publisher Howard Sutton has upheld that tradition of community betterment, particularly with his strong advocacy for Crossroads, which has helped improve the lives of Rhode Island's under privileged.

Changes in the economy would lead to the demise of the Evening Bulletin in the mid-1990s. Competition from television and the decline of the state’s manufacturing economy had leached the market for afternoon editions.

The death of publisher Michael Metcalf in the 1980s fissured the owning families; a group of them were tired of their modest dividends and wanted to cash out for millions. Pride of ownership and stewardship of a pedigreed New England institution that to this day is the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in the U.S.  was trumped by money.

Newspapers were once owned by families who treated them as both cash cows and civic treasures and passed them down through the generations; think the Chandlers of Los Angeles, the Binghams of Louisville, the Grahams of Washington, the Taylors of Boston. Now, only the Sulzbergers, major owners of the New York Times, fit that mold.

The Journal and the nine television stations the company owned were sold in 1997 for $1.5 billion to the A.H. Belo Corporation of Dallas, which published the Dallas Morning News and also owned other media properties.

Shortly after the sales agreement was announced in 1996, yours truly was covering a Bill Clinton campaign rally at the Fleet Center in Boston. Mary McGrory, the revered Washington Post political columnist,  was there. She was older then and often asked younger reporters to help carry her laptop and fetch lunch. I had the grand good fortune of getting her meal from the media buffet. The two of us ate together.

McGrory, a daughter of Irish Boston, squinted at my press badge and saw that I was a Providence Journal reporter. ``I was very sad to see such a good independent New England newspaper sold to Dallas,’’ she said.

My reply was the company line: that at a time of relentless newspaper mergers, the Belo combination may not be so bad. After all, I told her, they have a record of running a respected journalistic property in the Dallas paper.

``Yes they do,’’ she told me. ``But with Texans, you just never know.’’

When Journal circulation plunged, the Texas  owners closed the Washington bureau and shuttered all the news bureaus in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts.  The NY Times, LA Times and Washington Post news feeds were cut in a cost-saving move. This spawned a downward spiral of circulation and advertising. Soon after came the first of several rounds of employee buyouts and layoffs. A newspaper that once had a robust, even bloated, newsroom was stripped for sale. They raised the price of both daily and Sunday editions. The ProJo did not embrace the digital reality of the 21st Century as aggressively as some other dailies.

While Belo put out a fine newspaper in Dallas, the political and social cultures of Texas, that Stetson-wearing reddest of states, and Rhode Island, an Oxford button down New England redoubt where politics are as deep blue as Narragansett Bay on a sunny July Afternoon, were never a great fit.

And when the newspaper business hit the skids, it was inevitable that the Texas overseers were going to protect what they had in Dallas at the expense of the newspapers it owned in California and Rhode Island.

Executives in Dallas blamed the lingering recession in southeastern New England for the Journal’s financial foundering. But a newspaper that survived  the Great Depression had much higher hurdles in the 21st Century.

In the end, the Providence Journal, which thrived from the Civil War to the Iraq War, in good and bad economies, through hurricanes and nor’easters, met its match in absentee ownership and  competition from the Internet .

When the decision to seek a buyer for the newspaper was announced last week, many were saddened. Few were surprised. Analysts quoted by the Boston Globe, which was recently purchased for a pittance of its $1.1 billion 1993 sale price to the New York Times, estimated the ProJo is worth only about $40 million or so. Journal readership, once more than 216,000 daily copies and 262,000 on Sunday is down to an anemic 74,400 daily and 104,000 on Sunday, the most lucrative advertising edition.

One dreary morning two weeks ago, marquee columnists Bob Kerr and Bill Reynolds were chatting in the newsroom .  Kerr and Reynolds are both deep into their sixties now. They are fountains of knowledge about journalism, Rhode Island and Massachusetts They looked at each other in disbelief  as they peered across the sprawling room and saw that they were the only two writers there at 10 a.m.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard at 6:35 and 8:35 every Monday on Morning Edition and at 5:50 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at