As the ProJo goes…
The shifts reflect ongoing cost cuts at the ProJo, which has been spared in recent years the kind of buyout taking place at the Boston Globe. That said, they still represent a downward trend in the substance of Rhode Island’s biggest daily.
In an internal March 20 memo, ProJo publisher Howard G. Sutton cited the Providence Journal Company’s No. 1 goal for 2007 as: “Achieve the 2007 Financial Plan while fully leveraging product and marketing investments and human and financial resources in order to grow revenues at rates that exceed market growth.”
Donnis promises more in next week’s Phoenix.
So why is this important, right? Well, it’s apparent that the ProJo is sacrificing their overall depth of reporting for financial reasons. It’s also been my personal observation (far from unique) that they also seem to have ceded local coverage to smaller, semi-weekly papers, like the Warwick Beacon, or smaller dailies, like the Warwick Daily Times (which has recently undergone an ownership change itself). These small papers with small staffs still manage to do a decent job of local reporting. And, I suspect, the ProJo recognizes that. Many has been the time when I’ve read a story in the Beacon or the Daily Times one day and seen it in the West Bay section of the ProJo on the next. (Let me stress that I’m not accusing the ProJo of anything like plagiarism or story-stealing. With limited local reporting resources they have to take their tips where they can get them.)
As Donnis’ reporting reveals, the ProJo is also trimming back in other areas besides local reporting, with both staff losses and reassignments affecting their political, media and arts coverage. Put this all together and you have what appears to be the slow-bleed of a mid-market city’s primary news and media driver.
For that is what the ProJo is in Rhode Island.
It’s a mini-version of what the NY Times is to the national news outlets–and whether other media outlets will admit it or not–the ProJo sets the tone for what news is covered in this state, particularly by the TV and radio news outlets. Unfortunately, if the trend continues and the ProJo sacrifices reporting depth for the bottom line, it will also start to take on a generic feel.
The result will be that the ProJo will become the equivalent of a media “Big Box Store,” offering the same, lowest-common denominator news that can be found in Syracuse or Billings or Flagstaff. By focusing on cost-cutting, the ProJo is only watering down their product. Yet, they are so focused on the bottom line–on running the paper from an accountants perspective and not a marketing perspective–that I really don’t think they see the iceberg.
Here, the analogy to the NY Times also seems appropriate. Belo, Corp. (owners of the ProJo), if it was smart, should go to school on the Times, but it doesn’t look like they will:
Advertising revenue at The New York Times Co. fell 6 percent in February on weaker performance in every category of newspaper ads, the company said on Tuesday.
Total company revenue from continuing operations fell 3.6 percent versus February 2006.
The results reflect ongoing trouble at the Times and other newspaper publishers as they try to stem an advertising loss as more readers spend their time online.
Monthly revenue figures are like snapshots rather than broader overviews of how publishers perform, but they often can cause sudden swings in their stocks.
Dallas Morning News publisher Belo Corp. said last month that it will stop providing monthly revenue reports, saying its interests “are in informing our shareholders of meaningful financial patterns.”
Sigh. That’s probably because of numbers like this:
At The Providence Journal, advertising revenue decreased 1.8 percent in December 2006 versus December 2005, with total revenue down 1.2 percent. Adjusting for the additional Sunday in December 2006, advertising revenue and total revenue declined about 9.1 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively. Online advertising revenue increased 50 percent on a reported basis in December 2006 versus December 2005 led by a 101 percent increase in online classified employment.
I don’t think staff cuts or re-shuffling is enough to stop the financial bleeding. As I’ve said, maybe it’s time for Belo and the ProJo to look beyond their business model and concentrate on the qualitative content of the news coverage they’re delivering.
Yet, if the current trend continues and we are left with a Journal that offers shallow, generic reporting, the citizens of Rhode Island will have been done a grave disservice.
But there is a positive side to all of this. The ProJo has already opened itself up to losing news media market share to niche outlets (like Anchor Rising!) and Rhode Island may be ripe for new media to take the lead. But blogs like this one and RIFuture.org are just some of the potential local niche fillers. For instance, RIReport.com–a promising new Rhode Island-centric news aggregation site–offers a variety of stories from all of Rhode Island’s news outlets and blogs. The news media field is changing and the ProJo isn’t keeping up. (Incidentally, their new web-design gets a thumbs-down from this quarter).
However, the fact remains that all of us “new media” types still rely on the dead-tree folks (and their on-line presence) to give us most of our information.
As such, before I dance on the ProJo’s grave, there is a very important point to make. We bloggers don’t have the time or resources to commit to in-depth or investigative reporting. We rely on the ProJo and other media outlets to provide us with the fodder for our bloviation. While it is true that some bloggers have gathered together to contribute original reporting on both national and international news; or that a single blogger can coordinate a “volunteer staff” to offer reporting on single story, I think that we’re still a ways off from that here in the Ocean State. The success of the former (PajamasMedia.com) relies on many bloggers contributing to one, central information depot. The success of the latter (Brown’s own Josh Marshall) is attributable to being a full-time blogger and having a huge audience, which kind of go hand in hand.
Besides, I suspect that most bloggers prefer commentary over reporting–unless, of course, some benevolent benefactor would like to step forward and fund a full reporting staff of pleasant, if right-leaning, fellows? But I digress.
To conclude, I think it is in all of our interests for the ProJo to use it’s market-leading resources to do a good job of reporting. It is the Rhode Island media Leviathan and should operate with a bit more noblesse oblige–a sense of duty to it’s customers and community.
Then again, I’m just a blogger.