As the ProJo goes…

The Providence Phoenix‘s Ian Donnis continues his ongoing coverage of the changes that are going on behind the walls of the Providence Journal. In his N4N blog, Donnis writes:

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.

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Tim
Tim
14 years ago

I would make the argument that qualitative reporting issues at the Journal has more to do with ideology/personalities than budgetary constraints. I do agree how they set the topics table for other media here in Rhode Island mainly because they’re a morning publication but think they’ve lost the impact buzz to talk radio. The Providence Journal is no longer the Kingmaker they once were. Much of that has to do with the introduction of other media into this market but what’s also had an impact is the Journal’s transformation from highly respected and one of this nations best mid-sized newspapers to nothing more than a liberal rag. The works of the “alternative media” at the Phoenix from liberals like Ian Donnis and Brian Jones would fit like a glove on the pages of the Journal. Yikes!!!!! lol That is not good! It’s quite sad to see what’s become of the Journal and as a result it’s talk radio who impacts this market the most. IMO it was talk radio who elected the unknown Don Carcieri. Talk radio took out John Sisto in North Providence. Talk radio was the mover and shaker that brought about action r/t reactions from Beacon Mutuals old management, Roger Begin resigning as head of the Board of Elections and will expose the illegal money making scam that is our new fire codes. What has the Journal done other than beat the drum of liberal social policy and kiss the a$$ of David Cicilline and other high powered Democrats here in Rhode Island? Their big Station fire investigation? The only thing we learned there was from the grand jury transcripts and what jurors were asking. Kudos to the Journal for requesting access to those transcripts but the Journal itself broke no new news by uncovering anything with… Read more »

Ian Donnis
14 years ago

Very smart post, Marc, and I think you’re right on the money. The old owners of the ProJo had that sense of noblesse oblige, but that was a long time back in media years.
Tim, twitting the perceived politics of the likes of myself might be fun, but your belief that personality/ideology is the driver conveniently ignores the industry-wide trend of dissipating newspapers. I think Yorke (as well as Hummel and Jerzyk) did a great job in focusing on North Providence, with much greater depth and dispatch than the ProJo, but talk radio is not a new medium in RI. Buddy was huge in his day, and Steve Kass helped to rally big crowds to the State House during the banking crisis. It helps to have such an environmental factor, of course, but Kass believes that talk radio’s influence has dimmed.
I’ll stick with Marc’s thesis: we’re all ill-served when the dominant local news institution, whatever its quirks and flaws, makes continued cuts and runs itself down.

Tim
Tim
14 years ago

Ian I don’t ignore the industry trends at all. I realize the Journal has downsized but here’s my question for you. Can you tell me how budgetary constraints have prevented Mike Stanton from investigating Beacon Mutual? From investigating how an Asst Supt of Providence schools got a 1/2 million dollar deal? Ian why can’t you acknowledge the blatantly obvious selectiveness of the Journal? It is interesting how Democrats like yourself who work in the media hate to admit that Democrats dominate the profession and the slant of the coverage. That lack of honesty shows in your collective works and it’s why more and more people are turning away from it.

Scott Bill Hirst
Scott Bill Hirst
14 years ago

Hi!
We must remember newspapers are a profit making business.However I do believe they have a public responsibility.The Providence Journal has no state wide newspaper peer in the daily print business only regional dailies like in my area The Westerly Sun http://thewesterlysun.com ,.
The Providence Journal http://www.projo.com is the most significant state wide news source in Rhode Island in ALL media.I do wish they did more local news.In our area more local news would be available in The Westerly Sun and The Chariho Times http://www.charihotimes.com ,.The Chariho Times is only a weekly.
I do have a question for you on this blog.How many of you get more than one paper?Our household gets three:Providence Journal,South County Edition,The Westerly Sun,and Chariho Times.The Sun also does a number of free weeklies and we get that also.What surprises me how many people locally don’t necessarily get the newspapers in my area.
Regards,
Scott

Marc Comtois
14 years ago

Tim: To some degree, I understand your point in that, inevitably, there may be some ideological-based reasons for “soft” reporting in certain areas. I find the contributions on the editorial page to be pretty balanced across the political spectrum, while the ProJo’s editorials are generally ideologically moderate/conservative (there are always exceptions). I also agree that talk radio is a major player in the state and, as Ian points out, it has been for some time. However, I also think that a lot of the short-changing of certain news is because the ProJo is becoming stretched too thin. Anyway, thanks for the input!
Ian: Thanks for the kind words and for compiling the critical mass of stories on the ProJo that got me thinking about all of this.
Bill: Of course a paper should make a profit, but I think that focusing on the bottom line over the quality of reporting is a mistake. And I subscribe to both the Warwick Beacon and the ProJo and read the Warwick Daily Times now and again.

Tim
Tim
14 years ago

Marc,
Agree with you and Ian that talk radio has long been a player but IMO the nature and role of talk radio has changed a great deal. Back in the heyday of Steve Kass he was all about energizing the troops, i.e. the banking crisis, the Constitutional convention etc. However today’s talk radio world at least around here is much more investigative and whistleblowing in nature. Former Speaker John Harwood was taken down by John DePetro at WHJJ and his expose on Wendy Collins. I’ve talked about what Yorke has been involved with and in fact those who don’t take that tact with their shows, Arlene Violet comes to mind immediately, lose miserably in the ratings game and fade away into oblivion. It’s as though talk radio has filled the void left by our wimpish and protective of their friends in high places Rhode Island print and TV media.
Concerning the Journal’s editorial page after the debacle of their casino flipflop in favor of Harrahs they have little credibility left with many in this community.

Ian Donnis
14 years ago

Tim, I would readily agree that the ProJo has selectively undercovered or not taken a very critical look at a few stories, particularly Cicilline’s mayoralty. That said, I don’t think this bespeaks a partisan agenda. The ProJo, after all, has led the way in uncovering the stories that led to the federal probe of State House influence-peddling, and that doesn’t reflect favorably on Democrats. Are reporters typically a bit more liberal than the public at large? Perhaps, but I don’t think this significantly influences coverage. Newspaper management/ownership tends to be a bit more conservative, and I’d say this is more influential.
“That lack of honesty shows in your collective works”??? This is a broad charge with no substantiation.

T. Shevlin
14 years ago

Ian and Marc are spot-on with their analysis, so I won’t add much except to note that the rise of the New Media should be regarded as a natural evolution of RI media very much in keeping with our state’s history.
From James Franklin’s pre-revolutionary Newport Mercury to the Block Island Wireless — which was the first wireless-based news service in the nation and founding partner in the Associated Press — Rhode Island has been at the forefront of journalistic innovation almost since its inception.
I don’t know that I speak for Marc or Ian, but I view Rhode Island’s New Media as the heirs to these past news outlets and I look forward to playing a small role in developing what has become an increasingly influential medium.

Greg
Greg
14 years ago

For this situation to matter to me I’d have to actually read the paper. Does anyone actually do that anymore?

Rhody
Rhody
14 years ago

Marc, your post is spot-on. For years I’ve been arguing with people about the problems caused by the increasingly corporate-controlled media (I’d love to hear Clinton get criticized for signing the Telecommunications Act of ’96 the way he’s been for less important things). People have seemingly accepted that responsible journalism and profit are mutually exclusive – that’s not necessarily the case.
As for Tim’s argument about liberal bias, there’s an easy agrument against it. You can argue about reporters’ biases, but the big decisions (budgets, editorial stances, what gets covered, who gets hired and who gets fired) are made by much more conservative forces, both locally and in Dallas.
Also, I’m pretty concerned about the seemingly arbitrary reassignment of TV/radio critic Andy Smith, a veteran, to help-wanted advertorial writing (a task usually handled by rookies or freelancers). It just seems really punitive or retaliatory – I’d love to see somebody get to the bottom of that. Andy does handle a beat which can get a reporter some heat from the fourth floor. The ProJo will not air its own dirty laundry the way it expects the state’s other major businesses to, and the Phoenix is really the only media outlet in the state that does it – the TV stations sure won’t touch Journal stories.

SusanD
SusanD
14 years ago

“For this situation to matter to me I’d have to actually read the paper. Does anyone actually do that anymore?”
They’ve made it pretty hard, Greg. The ProJo said, you know, everyone and everything has been gravitating towards the internet for a good five years. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s make our website real user unfriendly! Yeah!
I guess the thought was to drive readers back to the paper paper. Instead, we’ve chosen to just skip it altogether.

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