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Keeping 'the Hope' alive on Fountain Street

As the ProJo turns

The decline of the American newspaper is a story often told in bold print.

Foreign bureaus shuttered, mass layoffs, and — just up the road at the Boston Globe — threats of oblivion.

And here in the Renaissance City, the Providence Journal has had its own headline moments — most recently, a downsizing that claimed some 100 jobs in March.

But the low-profile stuff — quarterly earnings reports, obscure circulation statistics, a late baseball score that doesn't make it into print — can say as much, or more, about the health of a newspaper.

And the low-profile stuff has been troubling, of late, for the ProJo.

Just this week, the paper's parent company — Dallas-based A.H. Belo — reported a first-quarter loss of $103.1 million, including a one-time $80.9 million write-down on the value of the ProJo and a $4 million charge related to the layoffs at the Providence paper and other Belo properties.

Even without one-time costs, Belo reported an $18.1 million hit for the first three months of the year — about double what it lost during the same period last year. And for a company counting on the Web as salvation, this little disturbing factoid, buried deep in the report: Internet revenue was down fully 24 percent from last year.

Of course, the decline owes something to an economic downturn that has battered all manner of media. Advertising, after all, is one of the first expenses a struggling business cuts.

But there is reason for long-term concern, too. The ProJo, like other newspapers, is coping with the steady migration of advertising from print to the web. And the paper's slow diminution seems to have reached a tipping point with readers.

The latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show the paper's average weekday circulation dropped 13 percent from March 2008 to March 2009, landing at 120,783. That's double the circulation drop that hit the paper between March 2007 and March 2008.

Sunday circulation, meanwhile, fell off 12 percent — also doubling the previous year's rate of decline. And the newsroom is feeling the pinch. There were the layoffs in March and an earlier round in October. But there are other changes, too.

One newsroom veteran said the indignity of a cost-cutting push for earlier deadlines hit home last month when the paper published an abbreviated, mid-game report on the Red Sox first tête-à-tête with the Yankees this season. "I don't get how you can shut out something so basic — the Red Sox," said the source.

Word around the newsroom is the deadlines may be pushed back again. But there is other disheartening news. Belo, which also owns the Dallas Morning News, the Denton Record-Chronicle in Texas, and the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California, is seeking 2.5- to 15-percent pay cuts across the company in a bid to save $10 million.

The Providence Newspaper Guild, which represents news and advertising staff, must agree to the cuts since its contract calls for a 2 percent pay hike this year. And the union leadership, after consulting the rank-and-file, has asked for job security and other tradeoffs in exchange for the pay cuts.

But the company has offered just three extra personal days. And John Hill, a reporter who is president of the union, said management seems unwilling to give up more.

With little incentive to roll back their own salaries, newsroom sources say, the rank-and-file is loathe to bend to a corporation that granted Belo chairman Robert W. Decherd a 140 percent pay hike last year and did little to smooth things over with a more recent cut for the head honcho.

And pay is not the only issue. Last week, union members voted to file a grievance against the ProJo after management sought to delay a series of 401(k) payments meant to compensate for a freeze in the company's pension program.

With all this low-level unrest, one could read executive editor Thomas E. Heslin's extraordinary note to readers this weekend — assuring Rhode Islanders that the ProJo is "here" and "very much alive" — as a bid not just to shore up circulation, but to rally the troops at Fountain Street.

"This is the news organization that sets the public agenda," wrote Heslin, who did not respond to a call for comment. "This is the news organization of history," he continued. "This is the mirror. This is the big picture. This is the Hope."

And despite all that's happening in Providence and Boston, there is — remarkably — still hope in the ProJo newsroom.

The paper has made impressive strides in its online, breaking news operation in recent months. State House coverage continues to hum. And investigative reporter W. Zachary Malinowski is keeping up the heat on the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility, which came under scrutiny with the death of a Chinese national in its custody last summer.

Reporters are reporting, Hill said. Photographers are taking photographs. There is not much in the way of woe-is-meism. "You can't become a co-conspirator in your own demise," he said.

Here's hoping the demise doesn't come along anyway.


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  Topics: This Just In , Business, Jobs and Labor, Media,  More more >
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 See all articles by: DAVID SCHARFENBERG

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