In its day, the Providence Journal’s statewide network of news bureaus was a marvel. A 1999 ProJo series recalled how Sevellon Brown “built the Providence Journal into a nationally recognized newspaper that covered Rhode Island like the morning dew. After becoming managing editor in 1923, Brown opened bureaus outside the city so his reporters would be no more than 20 minutes away from ‘whatever might happen’ in Rhode Island.”
One wonders what Brown, who went on to serve as the Journal’s publisher from 1942 to 1954, might think now.
The paper has steadily cut back its vaunted bureau system, eliminating offices in Westerly and Woonsocket in the mid-’90s, and taking a once-unimaginable step by shuttering the Newport outpost in 2002. But after months of speculation about spending cuts, the ProJo is implementing a plan to move reporters from bureaus in Warwick, Johnston, and Lincoln into the downtown Providence office, and to consolidate the office in Somerset, Massachusetts, with one in Bristol. The changes will leave the Journal — which had 16 bureaus about 50 years ago — with two Rhode Island bureaus and one in Washington, DC.
“We’re concerned that this is going to make it harder for our members who [cover many of the communities outside of Providence] to do their jobs as well as they’ve been doing them, because you’re going to be further away,” says Providence Newspaper Guild president John Hill. It could take 45 minutes to drive to the main office, for example, from a nighttime house fire in the northern village of Pascoag. And though he appreciates the economic pressures in the newspaper industry, Hill, a reporter in the Lincoln bureau, detects another adverse effect. “I can tell from personal experience that people come in here every day with stuff,” he says. “We don’t think someone with a local story is going to be willing to drive into Providence, pay $6 to park, and then knock on the [main office] door and hope someone lets them in.”
Through his assistant, Joel P. Rawson, the ProJo’s executive editor, declined to comment.
Although it has gone without significant staff reductions since a 2001 buyout, the Journal has been the subject of repeated cost cuts since before the Dallas-based Belo Corporation acquired it in 1997. It is far from alone as the newspaper industry grapples with declining circulation and the migration of advertising to the Internet, including to such non-newspaper entities as Google and Craigslist. “It’s a tough situation,” says Guild administrator Tim Schick, “because if it’s this [closing offices] or having fewer reporters, this is preferable, but if you look at the bigger picture, it makes it harder to have the brand identify of the Journal in the community.” (Like Hill, Schick was unaware of how much money will be saved by the move.) The ProJo has recently made some investment, converting six reporter-intern positions into permanent reporters, and adding staff at www.projo.com. But metro columnist Bob Kerr, chair of the Guild unit dealing with Providence issues, says the office closings represent “a further decline in our news coverage. We are not going to cover those cities and towns as well as we used to, because we are not going to be in them as much as we used to.”