The ProJo’s power behind the throne

Mark Ryan exemplifies the changes during 10 years of Belo’s ownership
By IAN DONNIS  |  March 28, 2007
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THE BOTTOM LINE: Sutton and Ryan operate in tough times for newspapers, but they’re a far cry from the old Yankee ownership, which poured money into the newsroom.

Mark T. Ryan is a man of many descriptions.
 
To some, he is the civic-minded Providence Journal executive who draws enthusiastic plaudits for his past work on the board of Amos House, a homeless shelter, as well as those of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and the Providence Performing Arts Center.
 
To others, Ryan, the Journal’s 50-year-old general manager and executive vice president, can be both charming and a very brusque his-way-or-the-highway kind of guy.
 
His fans praise him as an independent thinker who has helped make the ProJo’s editorial page — which last year shocked Rhode Islanders by abruptly reversing its long-held opposition to a Narragansett Indian casino — less rigid and less uniformly Republican than in the past.
 
Yet regardless of the view, Ryan personifies how the ProJo has experienced a dramatic change, in both its substance and its internal culture, since the Dallas-based Belo Corporation acquired it 10 years ago.
 
Some of Ryan’s admirers tab the one-time Irish Catholic kid from Warwick as a born-and-bred Rhode Islander — a description they would never bestow on the Journal’s former Yankee owners, even though they were among the state’s founding Five Families. The irony is that Ryan, who shares more in common with typical Rhode Islanders, is presiding over the ProJo’s transformation from one of American journalism’s medium-sized gems to a thinner, far less vibrant version of its former self.
 
Ranking second only to publisher Howard G. Sutton in the Belo-backed newspaper’s local corporate hierarchy, Ryan is generally considered more actively involved in the daily’s day-to-day management. And though mostly unknown by the public — even many staffers have said little more than “hello” to him — the GM is positioned to have a big influence on the ProJo’s future. This is due in no small part to how executive editor Joel Rawson, a throwback to headier days at the newspaper, is in his early 60s and approaching retirement.
 
As if to underscore the continued power shift from the newsroom to the business side, Sutton wrote in a March 20 internal memo that Tom Heslin, the Journal’s new-media czar, “will have a solid reporting line to Mark Ryan, and a dotted line to Joel Rawson.” Perhaps as a sop, Rawson is gaining oversight of the paper’s investigative team, a role held by Heslin since the early ’90s.
 
The primacy of Sutton (also a Warwick native) and Ryan, who slowly worked their way through the ranks, marks a sharp contrast from the days when setting the ProJo’s course was part of the birthright for the Metcalfs, an old-line Yankee family who invested deeply in the news side. To some, including House Speaker William J. Murphy, who considers Ryan a friend, the GM and Sutton have fostered a less elitist approach and a more open-minded concern with what’s best for Rhode Island’s future.
 
Yet even with the continued presence of the Journal’s most important attributes — dogged State House coverage, the investigative team led by Mike Stanton, and the largest reporting staff in the state — Rhode Island’s newspaper of record has undergone a decided change in identity since its acquisition by Belo. While this was initially seen as a distinctly local issue, industry-wide retrenchment now makes it hard to distinguish the ProJo’s cuts (which have been relatively benign compared with those at many larger dailies) from a sober reading of the current environment.
 
So Ryan, in other words, ascended during a time of growing high anxiety in the newspaper industry. The business plan that has served newspapers for a half-century is no longer working — and panic-stricken publishers don’t have a new one. The typical response around the country has been continued cuts, raising the prospect that newspapers are contributing greatly to their own demise.
 
While the ProJo and other papers are putting more resources into their online sites, the consensus is that the defining paradigm of the new media era has yet to emerge. The broader question, then, is whether newspaper executives like Ryan are canny enough to seize the future, or capable just of squeezing money from the slow fade of a bygone model.

A man on the move
Even as a high school student at the Catholic prep school La Salle Academy in Providence, Mark Ryan seemed like a young man on his way.
 
Classmate Bob Dillon recalls Ryan as a “Renaissance guy” involved with sports, the school newspaper, and the yearbook. “He was certainly among the brighter classmates we had,” Dillon says. “He had a very sharp wit, with a lot of acuity about him.”
 
State Senator Paul Moura (D-East Providence), another acquaintance in the Class of 1974, says Ryan “seemed like a guy who was pretty well grounded. He knew he was going to be successful in life. He was mature in high school. I respect that more now.”
 
After attending Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, Ryan transferred to the University of Rhode Island. He joined the Providence Journal Company in 1986, not long after having graduated from the New England School of Law, and after having worked for Amica Insurance.
 
He steadily advanced through a series of promotions, becoming the company’s director of risk management in 1992, assistant general counsel in 1996, and later that year, as then-publisher Stephen Hamblett prepared the company (a highly attractive takeover target, since it owned nine television stations) for its acquisition by Belo, vice president for legal and administration.
 
Ryan’s continued rise coincided with that of Howard Sutton, who began at the ProJo as a circulation statistician in 1973, and who succeeded Hamblett as publisher in 1999.
 
The change set in motion when former publisher Michael Metcalf died in a mysterious 1987 bicycle accident had come full circle. Although part of the paper’s longstanding Yankee ownership, Metcalf had cut his teeth as a reporter as a young man. Control shifted after his death to Hamblett, a fellow Harvard graduate, albeit someone outside the ownership family and who began his career at the paper by selling advertising. The rise of Sutton (a Notre Dame grad who did some post-graduate work at Harvard) and Ryan further distanced the Journal from its former ownership and from blueblood executives with journalistic experience.
 
Those old Yankees had also proven themselves as forward-looking businessmen, investing in television stations, cable TV, and cell phones when the latter two were a riskier bet than today. By contrast, Belo (whose CEO, Robert Decherd, is part of a longtime Dallas newspaper family) catapulted itself into the ranks of the largest US media entities when it bought the Journal Company, although it has also stumbled since then with the ill-advised :CueCat computer peripheral and with a circulation scandal at the flagship Dallas Morning News.

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