Heslin's rise: A change of the guard, but to what effect?

As The ProJo Turns
By IAN DONNIS  |  November 19, 2008

Thomas E. Heslin, the Providence Journal's new executive editor — like his storied predecessor — bridges two distinctly different journalistic eras.

Heslin joined the ProJo more than 25 years ago, when print was king and Rhode Island's statewide daily rolled with a certain moxie. More recently, in 2005, he was promoted from a role as the paper's metropolitan managing editor to its managing editor for new media.

Yet to read the perfunctory story announcing his appointment, which played on the business front of the Sunday Journal, you'd never know that newspapers are fighting for their survival.

Publisher Howard G. Sutton was quoted thusly: "Tom is a seasoned and talented journalist and manager who will ensure the continuation of our tradition of quality journalism and service to our community."

No one can deny the journalistic chops of Heslin, 58, who succeeded Joel Rawson on an interim basis when Rawson retired in April (see "The end of an era at the ProJo," News, March 19). Heslin once oversaw the ProJo's investigative team, including the work that won a 1994 Pulitzer for exposing corruption in the Rhode Island court system. And the top challenge facing newspapers — how to maintain profits in the Internet age — clearly extends beyond Rhode Island.

But where's the sense of urgency? Where's the fresh thinking and new approaches that will to help ensure the future of the Journal? Although the paper has emphasized the addition of video clips to its Web site, the impression for most readers seems to remain one of a shrinking amount of local news.

A local educator, Kath Connolly, has gone so far as to start a Facebook site, entitled, "Can we keep the ProJo local?" She sent a message to members of her group this week, saying the Journal didn't respond to a letter she sent expressing her concerns about the paper's direction.

To be sure, there are still days when the Journal functions very well, covering a range of stories with the kind of sweep and detail that other Rhode Island news organizations can't rival. The paper, with its State House coverage and with its investigative team, retains its ability to function as an important watchdog.

Still, it remains open to question whether Heslin, after acting in an interim capacity over the summer, has any fresh tricks up his sleeve (he didn't return a call seeking comment).

The task of keeping newspapers relevant will test the wits of the brightest people in the industry.

As Bree Nordenson writes in the current Columbia Journalism Review, newspapers have an important role to play in our increasingly information-suffused age.

But if the news media "make snippets and sound bites the priority, they will fail. Attention — our most precious resource — is in increasingly short supply. To win the war for our attention, news organizations must make themselves indispensable by producing journalism that helps make sense of the flood of information that inundates us all."

  Topics: News Features , Columbia Journalism Review, Joel Rawson, Howard Sutton,  More more >
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