Brave new world revisited
Considering Ryan’s bluntness and his long history at the ProJo, it would be fascinating to hear his thoughts about the future of newspapers in general and that of the Journal in particular. Yet in keeping with ProJo management’s practice of not speaking with the Phoenix, two requests for an interview went unanswered. (Howard Sutton did not return a call seeking comment; executive editor Joel Rawson declined to comment.)
Back in the ’70s, during the heady post-Watergate era, Rawson helped to dramatically raise the ProJo’s journalistic game, and the local owners poured in considerable accompanying resources.
Nowadays, the Journal remains a very good paper on its best days. A case in point was Sunday, March 11, when Amanda Milkovits wrote an excellent in-depth report on an innovative approach to reducing crime in upper South Providence, Mark Arsenault offered a revealing look at how a GOP campaign operative enriched himself by exploiting antipathy toward liberal candidates, and Scott Mayerowitz had a detailed takeout on the question of whether Rhode Island is a welfare magnet.
The sad fact, though, is that this kind of toothsome journalistic meal, which used to be the norm, is now far more of an exception (and Mayerowitz is gone, having taken a job with ABC News). While the ProJo can be counted on to cover the big stories of the day, and do something special from time to time, it has been typified over the last decade by cost cuts — staff buyouts; the decimation of the paper’s once-fabled network of statewide bureaus; even sponsorship of the statewide spelling bee and modest cash prizes for an in-house writing competition have been pulled.
The ProJo’s
 Web site, meanwhile, is a practical conduit for news — if no great shakes in terms of being visually appealing or user-friendly — but it can’t take the place of the local reporting that has long been the newspaper’s franchise. Ryan is said to be strongly focusing on the Internet, and encouraging that, but, as one observer says, “It appears the Internet is being boosted at the expense of print.”
Over the last 10 years, circulation declines in the daily and Sunday Journal — from 168,368 to 159,788 (about five percent), and 243,643 to 212,971 (about 12.5 percent), respectively — seem roughly comparable to those experienced by similarly sized dailies in other New England markets. A number of big American dailies, in cities including Los Angeles and Philadelphia, have lost more than 20 percent of daily circulation during the same period.
On the news side, things seem unlikely to get better as management makes continued cuts, detailing veteran scribe Andy Smith to a job-related ad supplement, and sending assistant feature editor Alan Rosenberg — who reportedly will not be replaced — to manage one of the two remaining suburban bureaus.
Rawson is a relative short-timer. Potential successor Tom Heslin, who was part of the team that won the paper’s last Pulitzer, in 1994, is certainly a talented editor, but whether he — or anyone else — can reverse the ProJo’s downward investment in journalism is another question. Meanwhile, an age-related gap can be expected to widen between staffers over 40 who make a career at the Journal and those in their 20s who spend a few years working there before moving on.
One day, perhaps, a new model will emerge that enables a more robust commitment to covering the news in Rhode Island. Right now, though, that seems a long way off — and we’re all the poorer because of it.

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