By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 26, 2009

But the site, whatever its eyeball count, has made strides on content. No longer a catalogue of the latest fires and arraignments, has become a repository of video and breaking news briefs from across the spectrum. Sometimes hard to penetrate. Not as clean as, say, the New York Times web site. But improved, nonetheless.

And the web-first focus is not the only major shift in the ProJo newsroom. Current and former employees say Heslin, whose interim appointment became permanent in November, had long chafed at the often bland municipal meeting coverage and sometimes rigid beat structure that prevailed on Fountain Street.

And in the fall, he reorganized the news staff into five flexible, thematic desks: a breaking news desk, composed of "first responders" who flood crime scenes and hurry to get news on-line; a public policy desk covering state and local politics; a justice desk covering crime and courts; a commerce and consumer desk; and a futures desk, covering education, the environment, health, and medicine.

The system did not abandon the old geographic beats altogether. Each pod has responsibility for keeping an eye on a certain region of the state, in a faint echo of the old bureau system. And some reporters cover a town or two and nothing else.

The shift in emphasis is unmistakable, though. And no one is quite sure how it will play out. "I don't know yet," said one newsroom source. "The whole thing is evolving before our eyes."

But the reduction in staff and reorganization of the newsroom has yielded some obvious casualties. A slimmed-down ProJo has eliminated comprehensive coverage of large communities with small readerships — Pawtucket and Central Falls, chief among them. And the move raises troubling questions about coverage of urban affairs.

"If you have a chance and you drive through, say, Central Falls right now, it's like a barracks — it's boarded up," said Dennis Langley, president and CEO of the Urban League of Rhode Island, "and that has not come to the attention of the public enough."

The diminution of the state's most prominent watchdog also seems destined to sting taxpayers in smaller municipalities. There are the scandals that will go unreported, of course. But there is something more subtle, too.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, said the behavior of a local town council or school board is altered by the mere presence of a reporter.

"I've had public officials say their calculus is, 'How would I explain this decision to the reporter from [the local newspaper?],' " he said. "That's an influence that journalism has that's essentially invisible."

And the ProJo's narrowed footprint means thinner coverage from local radio and television stations, which have long followed the daily's lead and are struggling with financial woes of their own.

But the ProJo, even at its peak, could not cover every town council or board. And the old regime had its flaws. Reporters say they often filled the now-discontinued regional sections — East Bay, West Bay, North, South County and Metro — with less-than-interesting fare out of an obligation to feed the beast.

And under the balkanized bureau system, there was too little in the way of trend and thematic stories — too little in the way of the contextual journalism that distinguishes a quality metropolitan newspaper from a local weekly.

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