The beginning of the end?

Journal to cut 100 more jobs.
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  February 25, 2009

There is nothing shocking anymore about the layoffs sweeping the newspaper industry.

Declining circulation, the steady migration of advertising from print to the web and the nation's economic travails have created an air of inevitability around the cuts.

But the news from Fountain Street this week — that the Providence Journal will slash about 100 of its roughly 700 positions on Friday, March 6 — still managed to stun.

The paper shed 53 news and advertising positions this fall through a combination of buyouts and layoffs. And there was hope, in some quarters, that the worst had passed.

"I don't want to say we didn't see it coming," said John Hill, a reporter who is president of the Providence Newspaper Guild, which represents news and advertising staff, "but we'd hoped that the beating we took in October would be enough."

It was not. And with the new round of cuts, announced Tuesday by the Guild and not yet confirmed by ProJo management, some insiders have begun to think the unthinkable.

"People are wondering, is this the beginning of the end?," one reporter said in an interview with the Phoenix.

Dire talk. But with the Hearst Co. threatening to shutter the San Francisco Chronicle, newspapers from Philadelphia to Minneapolis declaring bankruptcy, and the Boston Globe on the brink of dozens of layoffs (see "Don't Quote Me"), ProJo staffers could be forgiven for fearing the worst.

The newspaper had been bracing for the layoffs since January 30 when Robert Decherd, CEO of the Dallas-based A.H. Belo Corp., which owns the ProJo, the Dallas Morning News, and the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California, sent a letter to employees announcing the company would chop 500 jobs nationwide.

No one was entirely sure how the cuts would affect the ProJo. And there was tension in the building, staffers say. But in the end, according to union officials, the company decided to lay off 34 from the advertising department, 18 on the news side, and about 50 non-Guild employees.

There was some relief, amid the misery, that the cuts did not go deeper into the newsroom — and that reporters were spared this time around. But Hill said losing even a small number of experienced copy editors, photographers, and office assistants will chip away at the Journal's already diminished newsgathering capacity, not least because of the employees' long ties to the cops and neighbors in their hometowns.

"My worry is that we're losing our connection with Rhode Island as we lose these people," he said.

That connection had already begun to fray. The paper, which had eight bureaus scattered across the state in 1995, shrank to just four in recent years. And with the layoffs last fall, the Journal eliminated the remaining bureaus and consolidated its once far-flung reporting staff into a single newsroom on Fountain Street.

But the new cuts, by all indications, will not lead to any similar, large-scale reorganization. And insiders say they are hopeful that the paper will continue to build on the triumphs of recent months: a beefed-up breaking news operation at projo.com and in-depth coverage of the state's fiscal woes, among them.

The real short-term concern, they say, is the human cost of the layoffs. There were tears at the paper when the Guild made the announcement. Single parents are headed out the door. And employees with serious health problems could lose insurance.

The state's financial disaster has gutted its chronicler-in-chief. "This just puts us in touch," one newsroom stalwart said, "with the plight of Rhode Island."

ProJo publisher Howard Sutton and executive editor Thomas Heslin did not return phone calls from the Phoenix.

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