A flock of turkeys

The foulest of the fowl: The Phoenix presents its fifth annual dishonor roll
By PHOENIX STAFF  |  November 26, 2013

 1129_turkeyintro_top.jpg
Illustration by Dale Stephanos

B101 has been blasting Christmas music for almost a month now, which means it must be Thanksgiving.

Yes, Thanksgiving! The holiday with the stately name and nebulous feel-good backstory (“See? Native Americans love us!”) that serves as our annual excuse to fly home, jam our faces full of turkey, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pie before collapsing on the couch to quietly flatulate and doze off in front of a muted TV screen.

But there’s no sleep for us at the Phoenix, where Thanksgiving brings only a staff meal of saltines and flat soda and the task of compiling our list of locals who have strutted and squawked in all the worst ways this past year. They are Rhode Island’s “turkeys” and, in 2013, we bring you our fifth annual flock.

Read on, pilgrims.

THE A.H. BELO EXECUTIVE TEAM

As much as we poke and prod the ever-shrinking Providence Journal for its dustiness and self-satisfaction (among other sins), we’re actually terrified of a Rhode Island without it. This state desperately needs smart and steady coverage of business, politics, crime, education, and other topics, and the Journal is still the biggest, baddest (we mean that in the James Brown sense) operation around. Which is why our 2013 coverbirds are the paper’s far-off corporate overlords — the “Management Team” of the Dallas-based A.H. Belo Corporation — who, since purchasing the paper in 1997, have been slowly sucking away its life force.

A bit of background: it was big news when the A.H. Belo Corporation purchased the ProJo and its nationwide portfolio of TV stations for $1.5 billion. “With the acquisition,” the New York Times wrote at the time, “one of Texas’s oldest newspaper companies will move decisively beyond its inky roots and into the upper reaches of the broadcasting industry.”

But the decade and a half since hasn’t exactly brought a cornucopia of delights to Fountain Street. There have been drawn-out labor disputes bringing stress and frustration to the Journal newsroom. There has been at least one ill-advised investment by A.H. Belo, when they poured tens of millions into a feline-shaped, desktop bar-code scanning device called CueCat now recognized as one of the worst tech flops of recent years.

And, worst of all, there has been serial underperformance, in terms of circulation and ad revenue — plummeting numbers that have far outpaced the woes the rest of the struggling newspaper industry. As a result, Journal employees have grown accustomed to seemingly annual purges of staffers via buyouts and layoffs. And did we mention A.H. Belo execs have continued to rake in millions of dollars in raises and bonuses all the while?

Consider this. In 2001, a recently-departed Providence Journal reporter — one of 38 news staffers to leave the paper in the preceding 18 months — told a North Texas public radio station, “Morale is just terrible. . . I’m really glad I left.” In 2013, when news of a new round of layoffs and buyouts broke in September, Providence Newspaper Guild president and Journal reporter John Hill told Rhode Island Public Radio, “Morale is terrible.”

So, before we get to the rest of this year’s turkey roster, let’s gather ’round the table, hold hands, and say a special grace for our friends in Dallas. It goes like this:

“Listen up, schmucks. It’s time you either sell the paper or get serious about saving it. And while you’re busy working on one of those outcomes — we suggest Option 1, but if you choose Option 2, you’d better have some serious magic up your sleeve — we have an interim suggestion.

“From now on, every time you issue a decree for more bloodletting in Providence, you will dip into the executive bonus fund to buy a plane ticket to Rhody so that you can look each departing Journal staffer in the eye and shake his or her hand as they lug their cardboard box of belongings out onto Fountain Street.

“And, seriously, if you have any remaining self-respect, never blame the Journal’s underperformance again on the ‘unwelcoming environment’ of the Rhode Island economy, as you did during a phone call with investors earlier this year. That’s our job to complain about the state, not yours.

“Amen.”

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