Buyout falls short of goal; questions remain

As The ProJo Turns
By IAN DONNIS  |  August 27, 2008

Twenty-two Providence Journal employees, 12 in news and 10 in advertising, have taken the company up on its latest buyout, leaving unanswered for now the question of whether the newspaper will resort to layoffs to reach its target of eliminating at least 35 jobs.

With the exit of three news stalwarts — political reporter Scott MacKay, political columnist M. Charles Bakst, and versatile reporter Mark Arsenault — another big question is how the statewide daily will configure its political coverage going forward.

“Everyone has questions, but we don’t have the answers yet,” says Providence Newspaper Guild administrator Tim Schick.

According to a newgroup e-mail circulated among Guild members, the union “expects to hear from the company by the end of [this] week on whether additional staff cuts are necessary. If they are, the Guild and the company will need to discuss how additional reduction will occur.”

Acting editor Tom Heslin and publisher Howard Sutton didn’t return calls seeking comment.

As it stands, the departure of Bakst, MacKay (a 24-year veteran), and Arsenault (a 10-year staffer) represents a serious loss of institutional memory, and as well of writers who have imbued the statewide daily with some of the texture of Rhode Island, of its politics, and its quirks, charms, and flaws.

In a statement, MacKay recalled a satisfying ProJo career marked by significant stories and fine editors, but also a downward trend after the statewide daily was acquired by the Dallas-based Belo Corporation in 1997. “The newspaper industry is in decline and the present cutbacks were probably inevitable at some point,” he wrote. “As is the case with many other employees here, I do believe the situation in Providence was made worse by an incompetent management in Dallas that frittered away millions on the hapless :Cue-Cat, blew millions more on a circulation scandal and wasted more money and resources waging a foolish four-year Jihad on the Providence Newspaper Guild.”

Arsenault, 41, who plans to pursue his sideline in writing mystery novels, was more philosophical.

Since he has one book in the works at St. Martin’s, another one completed, and an idea for yet another, the time felt right, he says. He was out of work for a while prior to arm sur-gery over the summer, and he enjoyed the experience of spending his days at home, tapping at the computer.

“There’s never a perfect time to place a very large wager on yourself and your abilities,” Arsenault says, “but if not now, when?”

The ProJo continues to heighten its emphasis on the Web, seeking — like other media entities — a more stable business model for changing times.

Yet whether a downsized news organization can satisfy enough of its readers remains the biggest question.

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