Short-sighted?

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 26, 2009

The paper pioneered the suburban bureau in 1925. Printed all manner of City Council and school board minutia. Placed a heavy emphasis on State House reporting. Built a tradition of writerly storytelling that was the envy of reporters across the country. And in what may prove to be the pinnacle of the ProJo's local report, the paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for an investigation of corruption in the courts.

The decay that followed was slow. The ProJo discontinued its Sunday magazine in 1995 amid declining revenue and surging newsprint prices. And the trimming of the news staff began in earnest with Dallas-based A.H. Belo Corporation's $1.5 billion purchase of the ProJo and the nine television stations it owned in 1996.

Vacancies went unfilled. The suburban reporting staff shrunk. Newsroom managers consolidated bureaus.

And then, in the fall, a more pronounced blow: the ProJo shed 53 news and advertising jobs through buyouts and layoffs and — in a curious move for a paper attempting to focus on the local — closed its four remaining suburban bureaus.

The reinvention had begun.

"I tell people, 'The Providence Journal you knew went out of business in October 2008 . . . and we all got a job at a new company,' " said John Hill, a reporter who is president of the Providence Newspaper Guild, which represents editorial and advertising staff.


CULTURE SHIFT

If the fall cuts were the turning point, though, a shift had been in the offing for some time.

There were the long-term economic pressures on the paper, of course. But there was also the rise of Thomas E. Heslin, a ProJo fixture who became interim executive editor in May 2008 after the retirement of Joel P. Rawson, a respected, old-school newsman.

Heslin, who declined to comment for this article, is firmly rooted in the paper's local news tradition. He presided over the team that won the Pulitzer for the court corruption series, after all.

But he also served as the ProJo's new media czar for three years before he took the top job. And after the fall cuts, he moved quickly to ratchet up the paper's web operation in what amounted to a profound shift in the newsroom culture.

A paper that had once competed with television and radio with depth and narrative — expensive and time-consuming propositions in an era of diminished resources — was suddenly competing with speed, too.

And the push to get there first created some early tension between reporters, worried about a slip in journalistic standards in the haste to get stories on-line, and web producers, pressing for an embrace of the new reality.

That anxiety has eased in recent months, by all accounts, as the newsroom comes to terms with the inevitability of Journalism 2.0. But the push to beef up the web site has not necessarily translated into greater readership.

Projo.com drew 590,000 unique visitors in July 2007, 481,000 in July 2008, and 530,000 in July 2009, according to comScore, a market research company. A typical leveling-off for a local or regional web site that does not have much appeal outside its core market.

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