Yet Rhode Island’s dominant daily, like every American newspaper, is very different from what it was 10 years ago. In one reflection of its slighter scope, most of its statewide bureaus — once a particular source of pride — have been closed in recent years. “Obviously, the Journal’s way diminished from what it used to be,” says one reporter. “Everyone knows that.” That it still compares favorably with other similarly sized papers doesn’t make this retreat more palatable.
Welcome to the current state of journalism. Although newspapers remain profitable (insiders have heard that the ProJo’s profit margin still exceeds 20 percent), Wall Street’s pessimism about the future has prompted widespread cutting across the industry. A variety of other factors, including consolidation in the banking and department store businesses, and the movement of classified advertising to such sites as Craigslist, have exacerbated the situation.
The ProJo itself has gone without significant reductions since a 2001 buyout, and the newspaper has managed staffing through attrition, periodically filling vacancies. “I give them credit,” says reporter John Hill, president of the Providence Newspaper Guild. “They’ve gone where they wanted to get without laying people off, and that means something. Other places have not done it that charitably.” (Talented journalists continue to leave, however. The latest to go is Andrea L. Stape, an enterprising and industrious business reporter, who is taking a job with Fidelity Investments.)
Like other papers, the Journal has heightened the emphasis on its Web site, www.projo.com, bolstering news and ad staffing, introducing more blogs, and using a sing-song line, “ProJo, you give me double vision,” in TV and radio commercials, to tout the reach that comes with advertising cars, homes, and jobs online and in the newspaper. While useful as a source for breaking news or finding recent articles, projo.com — even with a redesign this week — has a way to go, though, in approaching the promise of the Web, by making use, for example, of video and audio clips from reporters.
More fundamentally, even though newspapers can roughly approximate their peak circulation of years past by combining online and print readership, they’ve yet to discover how to reap the same revenue from ads on the Web as from those in print. Advertising and younger readers, meanwhile, continue to migrate to the Internet.
So the real question, says Tim Schick, administrator of the Providence Newspaper Guild, is if the increased commitment of resources to projo.com “will pay off in terms of a turnaround in advertising. They seem to be banking on it.”
Some press critics remain untroubled by the reverberations of this volatile phase. As Jack Shafer wrote in the online magazine Slate in June, “Whatever you do, don’t mistake the decline of newspapers with the decline of journalism. Much of what we’re witnessing is the delayed right-sizing of newspapers and newspaper publisher and editor egos in the multimedia age.”
Still, while the better television reporters, radio-talk show hosts, and bloggers contribute to civic discourse in Rhode Island, the danger is that downsized newspapers have a diminished capacity to do their job — and nothing else seems poised to effectively take up the slack. As Hill puts it, “The only thing that makes the Journal unique is Rhode Island.” If news resources are continually cut, he says, “We lose the one thing that we can sell.”