Saving the ProJo

Why the paper is falling apart — and how to bring it back
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 28, 2012


When I interviewed for a job as a reporter at the Providence Journal in early 2007, there was still a whiff of innovation about the place.

The paper's breaking news blog, if a bit dated, had been considered pioneering just a few years prior. And the job I interviewed for — covering twentysomething life — suggested a certain forward-looking mien.

But a hiring freeze killed the job before the paper could offer it. And while I landed a post as the Cranston beat reporter a few months later, it didn't last long.

In the fall of 2008, a union official walked into the ProJo's main newsroom and satellite bureaus with yellow bulletins bearing news of the layoffs we'd all been dreading; anyone hired after a certain date would be let go.

"Does this include me?" I asked, knowing the answer.

"Are you the one with a baby on the way?," she replied.

I was, needless to say, deeply disappointed. But I wasn't embittered. Far from it. In my short time at the ProJo, I'd developed a real fondness for the place. And my own experience left me acutely aware of the twin challenges facing management: a struggling Rhode Island economy and the larger decline of print journalism.

So when I moved over to the Phoenix six months later and took up political journalism and media criticism, I brought some real sympathy for ProJo management to the job. It's a sympathy I still harbor. But over the last three-and-a-half years, it's been tested.

The ProJo is not the only daily newspaper that has stared down a crisis in recent years, after all. And while others have found ways to innovate — indeed, innovation has never been more important — Rhode Island's paper of record has been astonishingly unimaginative.

Its web site is retrograde, its smartphone app nonexistent, its journalism too often plodding and gray when the paper needs to be fighting for every reader. The ProJo, as one observer put it, is failing to engage with 2012 in some fundamental way.

A recent spate of buyouts and layoffs — affecting 34 employees, in total — has cast the problem in stark relief: Rhode Island's largest news organization, its most important watchdog, the only outfit capable of fully chronicling our salty, colorful, parochial culture is in real trouble.

The sense of crisis is not lost on ProJo employees. When talk of the latest round of buyouts and layoffs first surfaced a few months ago, a group of reporters and advertising representatives penned a letter to publisher Howard Sutton and acting executive editor Karen Bordeleau offering a few reform ideas and, more broadly, a partnership in moving the paper forward.

The missive was well received, by all accounts. And there are a few signs of life on Fountain Street; the paper has recently discovered Twitter, for instance. But it's not clear that management is weighing the kind of wholesale change the moment demands.

In a state this small, saving the ProJo feels like an urgent task, even a personal one: if you didn't work there, as I did, then you visited an aunt in the newsroom, delivered the paper as a kid, or appeared on Page 1.

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