Would the ProJo be better with local ownership?

Belo — unwilling to sell to Sundlun — seems a bit more benign than in the past
By IAN DONNIS  |  December 7, 2006

In 2003, former Governor Bruce Sundlun wrote a letter to Robert Decherd, the CEO of the Dallas-based Belo Corporation, expressing his interest in restoring local ownership of the Providence Journal. While Sundlun cited “no complaints about the paper,” “it is obvious that the newspaper management has been cutting expenses,” he observed, ultimately concluding, “My reaction as a Rhode Islander is that the state would be better off if [the ProJo] was owned by a representative group of Rhode Islanders.”

Sundlun was hardly alone in such thinking. A number of locals, including more than a few in the Journal’s newsroom, believed that the paper, traditionally one of the medium-sized jewels of American journalism, had come under siege since being bought by Belo in 1997, and that locals were more likely to operate it as something resembling a public trust, as did the old-line Yankees who used to own it, than a corporation in a distant part of the country.

While he declines to identify his prospective partners, Sundlun, still an outsized personality at 86, did once run Outlet Communications, a group of more than a dozen TV and radio stations. And by inquiring whether Belo would have any interest in selling the ProJo “to a Rhode Island group of investors,” he foreshadowed the trend in which local business people have acquired, or expressed interest in acquiring, such papers as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and Hartford Courant.

Besides Sundlun, a handful of other Rhode Islanders could potentially have the motivation or the means to put together a deal for the ProJo — ranging from the (improbable) likes of former Providence mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., soon to be released from federal prison, who previously schemed about buying his journalistic nemesis — to Jonthan M. Nelson, the successful principal of buyout firm Providence Equity Partners, a frequent participant in big media deals.

But while the concept of returning the Journal to local ownership has a certain appeal, it ain’t going to happen.

Despite occasional rumors, Belo, which bought the Journal Company and its nine television stations for $1.5 billion, has consistently indicated that the newspaper is not for sale. As far as Sundlun’s inquiry, Decherd “wrote me back a very curt letter,” he says, “saying they had no interest in selling.”

With the entire newspaper industry in a state of persistent anxiety, due to the migration of readers and advertisers to the Internet, Belo’s ownership of the Journal now seems considerably more benign than in the past. While the paper is thinner, less comprehensive, and not as well staffed as it once was, some bigger dailies — like the Inquirer — have been marked by sharper cuts and more precipitous changes in identity.

Considering all this, it’s very hard to know whether local ownership would result in a better newspaper for Rhode Islanders. The more important question, then, is, journalistically speaking, is this as good as it gets?

The crisis in newspapers
Seen one way, the Providence Journal’s journalistic heart remains strong: the paper’s four-person investigative team continues to pursue its historic mission in rooting out corruption and wrongdoing; the three-person State House bureau, led by the tenacious Kathy Gregg, offers the most copious coverage of statewide politics; the ProJo covers the news of the day, and when it focuses its reporting resources, it performs very well.

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