Short-sighted?

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 26, 2009

"A lot of times, unless one of us peered over the divider and asked the person next to us or called another bureau and said, 'Hey, have you seen anything like this?,' those connections wouldn't be made," said Hill, who worked for years in the bureaus.

Hill said the new system, which puts all the ProJo's reporters under the same roof, allows for more collaboration and a broader view of state happenings. And there is evidence of a shift.

Arts and education reporters recently teamed up to tackle the controversy over the ouster of the RISD Museum director; several desks provided pieces for a multi-part series examining the use of stimulus funds in the state; and a paper that might have looked at municipal contract squabbles in isolation under the old bureau system recently produced a trend piece on unions forced to make concessions in tough times.

The ProJo, which has also strived to put more of the quirky and colorful on the front page, is in many ways a more interesting read than it was a year ago. But the transition to a new sort of journalism is not complete.

For all the contextual work, there is still plenty in the way of narrowly tailored stories on local sewage plants or budget resolutions — sometimes of interest to a statewide audience, but often of limited value.

Indeed, while other papers lean more and more on analysis in a bid to stay relevant in a 24-hour news cycle — the Boston Globe recently ran an amusing piece on the hubbub over a Harvard Yard clothing line and turned Red Sox announcer Jerry Remy's return from cancer and depression into a piece on the psychological toll of illness — the ProJo still appears a gray document at times.

And there are barriers to improvement. Several of the paper's most experienced reporters and editors and columnists — those best positioned to connect the dots — left amid the buyouts and layoffs of the fall and a subsequent round of cuts in the spring.

And pulling reporters back from the zoning and school board meetings can make it harder to produce a more meaningful journalism. "The insight to do a good interpretive piece or the leads to do an investigative story often comes out of the nuts and bolts work," said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida.


'THAT'S NOT ME'

But depth is about more than trend-spotting and nuanced reporting. It is also about taking the full measure of a community. Putting out a paper that reflects the readers' interest in science and business and theater. And metropolitan dailies, forced to cut somewhere, have taken the ax to this sort of "niche" reporting first.

Newspapers in Tampa, Atlanta, and Denver have dropped film critics in recent years. The Los Angeles Times has jettisoned its standalone business section. And the Boston Globe is the latest to cut its science section.

The ProJo, for its part, still has its share of theater and music reviews. But much of the paper's specialized reporting has melted away. The commitment to book reviews has waned. The paper has dropped most of its in-house Celtics and Bruins coverage.

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