Stephanie Chafee, the wife of outgoing US Senator Lincoln Chafee, is part of the family that owned the Journal before its sale to Belo, and Chafee’s fortune has been estimated in the $50 million range. But the notion of buying the ProJo is “not even a thought,” says a source close to the senator.

The admittedly most outlandish prospective suitor is former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci, currently wrapping up a 64-month federal prison sentence for racketeering conspiracy, and generally expected to be bound for a talk-radio gig after his return to Rhode Island from New Jersey.

In the years before he went away, the bombastic former mayor put forward several possibilities, including lining up backers to buy the paper in cooperation with the Providence Newspaper Guild, and taking it over with the resources of a large union pension fund. While Rhode Island’s rascal king was said to favor renaming Fountain Street as “Cianci Way” as part of this acquisition, so that his name would appear on Journal letterhead, his scheme seemed more fantasy than anything else (“Cianci’s secret plan to buy the Journal revealed,” News, This Just In, January 24, 2003).

HIGH ANXIETY: Like other newspapers, the ProJo — although still quite profitable — is struggling with the migration of readers and advertisers to the Internet.

Would local ownership be better?
The 1997 sale of the ProJo to a Texas-based corporation marked a sharp hit to local pride. While the transition went relatively well, the newspaper got bogged down in a four-year labor battle, resolved in December 2003, which fulfilled some critics’ dim predictions about the downside of corporate ownership.

Now, though, it’s hard to know whether the Journal would be in better shape, journalistically or business-wise, with local ownership.

While the notion of local do-gooders stepping in to strengthen the journalistic mission of the hometown daily — rather than diminishing it — sounds nice, it doesn’t always work out as planned. The signature example is in Philadelphia, where businessman Brian P. Tierney led a group of investors to buy the Philadelphia Inquirer last spring. Although the plan was to fund good journalism and steer clear of job reductions, the publisher and editor were subsequently axed, expenses were cut, and a large number of layoffs were considered very likely.

Even in the face of this well-publicized cautionary tale, local business people are looking to buy the local metro daily in Los Angeles, Hartford, Baltimore, and Boston — for reasons likely involving some mix of civic concern, ego, and the sense that there’s money to be made.

In theory, the TV stations once owned by the Journal Company could have helped to maintain a bigger infusion of resources at the ProJo. Then again, even if it hadn’t been acquired by Belo in 1997, a sale to some other entity, given the desire to cash out among some of the previous owners’ children, seems more likely than not.

Asked how the Journal might be different with local ownership, Guild administrator Tim Schick says, “I really don’t know, because what we’re seeing in the industry is an across-the-board reduction in force all across the country, and it’s a larger thing which is unrelated to corporate or local ownership. All you have to do is to look at Philadelphia and what’s going on there now. It’s not a panacea. Newspaper owners don’t have an operational business plan or business model. They’re just out there in a panic. They don’t know what to do — how to deal with the Internet, how to deal with dropping circulation, and they’re seeing advertising going down.”

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