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By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 26, 2009

But he also served as the ProJo's new media czar for three years before he took the top job. And after the fall cuts, he moved quickly to ratchet up the paper's web operation in what amounted to a profound shift in the newsroom culture.

A paper that had once competed with television and radio with depth and narrative — expensive and time-consuming propositions in an era of diminished resources — was suddenly competing with speed, too.

And the push to get there first created some early tension between reporters, worried about a slip in journalistic standards in the haste to get stories on-line, and web producers, pressing for an embrace of the new reality.

That anxiety has eased in recent months, by all accounts, as the newsroom comes to terms with the inevitability of Journalism 2.0. But the push to beef up the web site has not necessarily translated into greater readership. drew 590,000 unique visitors in July 2007, 481,000 in July 2008, and 530,000 in July 2009, according to comScore, a market research company. A typical leveling-off for a local or regional web site that does not have much appeal outside its core market.

But the site, whatever its eyeball count, has made strides on content. No longer a catalogue of the latest fires and arraignments, has become a repository of video and breaking news briefs from across the spectrum. Sometimes hard to penetrate. Not as clean as, say, the New York Times web site. But improved, nonetheless.

And the web-first focus is not the only major shift in the ProJo newsroom. Current and former employees say Heslin, whose interim appointment became permanent in November, had long chafed at the often bland municipal meeting coverage and sometimes rigid beat structure that prevailed on Fountain Street.

And in the fall, he reorganized the news staff into five flexible, thematic desks: a breaking news desk, composed of "first responders" who flood crime scenes and hurry to get news on-line; a public policy desk covering state and local politics; a justice desk covering crime and courts; a commerce and consumer desk; and a futures desk, covering education, the environment, health, and medicine.

The system did not abandon the old geographic beats altogether. Each pod has responsibility for keeping an eye on a certain region of the state, in a faint echo of the old bureau system. And some reporters cover a town or two and nothing else.

The shift in emphasis is unmistakable, though. And no one is quite sure how it will play out. "I don't know yet," said one newsroom source. "The whole thing is evolving before our eyes."

But the reduction in staff and reorganization of the newsroom has yielded some obvious casualties. A slimmed-down ProJo has eliminated comprehensive coverage of large communities with small readerships — Pawtucket and Central Falls, chief among them. And the move raises troubling questions about coverage of urban affairs.

"If you have a chance and you drive through, say, Central Falls right now, it's like a barracks — it's boarded up," said Dennis Langley, president and CEO of the Urban League of Rhode Island, "and that has not come to the attention of the public enough."

The diminution of the state's most prominent watchdog also seems destined to sting taxpayers in smaller municipalities. There are the scandals that will go unreported, of course. But there is something more subtle, too.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, said the behavior of a local town council or school board is altered by the mere presence of a reporter.

"I've had public officials say their calculus is, 'How would I explain this decision to the reporter from [the local newspaper?],' " he said. "That's an influence that journalism has that's essentially invisible."

And the ProJo's narrowed footprint means thinner coverage from local radio and television stations, which have long followed the daily's lead and are struggling with financial woes of their own.

But the ProJo, even at its peak, could not cover every town council or board. And the old regime had its flaws. Reporters say they often filled the now-discontinued regional sections — East Bay, West Bay, North, South County and Metro — with less-than-interesting fare out of an obligation to feed the beast.

And under the balkanized bureau system, there was too little in the way of trend and thematic stories — too little in the way of the contextual journalism that distinguishes a quality metropolitan newspaper from a local weekly.

"A lot of times, unless one of us peered over the divider and asked the person next to us or called another bureau and said, 'Hey, have you seen anything like this?,' those connections wouldn't be made," said Hill, who worked for years in the bureaus.

Hill said the new system, which puts all the ProJo's reporters under the same roof, allows for more collaboration and a broader view of state happenings. And there is evidence of a shift.

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Related: Will the Globe survive?, The Journal gets a facelift, Keeping 'the Hope' alive on Fountain Street, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Media, Sports, Providence Journal,  More more >
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Re: Short-sighted?
 Are you serious? 'Uber-local' You think the Journal is focusing on local news? Their reporters don't get beyond the urban ring, sort of. Hell, you never get a serious story out of Pawtucket unless someone is bleeding from knife or gunshot wound, or mauled by a pit bull. The coverage of local government, the level of government that affects all of us the most, is non-existent. Check out some of the web pages for the towns. They're blank, save for some retread pieces. The Journal covers local news as part of a theme, like TV. Although, I should criticize TV as WPRI-12 ace Tim White regularly feeds the ProJo its lunch. The whole theme team concept is death t otrue news coverage, especially local coverage. You can't show up in town every few weeks for a feature story or to grab a few graphs for a round story on an issue and convince people they are getting local news.
The serious economic problems in the local communities are going uncovered by The Journal. Think of that for a moment. All the thunder the ProJo reports from Smith Hill is only an echo of the lightning strikes in Town Halls that the journal has turned its back on. But local news is available and locals are turning to the state's weeklies to get their news. The Breeze newspapers in northern Rhode Island and now Pawtucket and the Bristol Phoenix chain of papers have credibility not only from their accurate, thorough, well written reporting but by being present in our communities. Their reporters and editors - many being former ProJo hands from the Journal's old, dearly departed bureaus - are present at our council meetings, school committee meetings, plannng board and zoning meetings. They produce not the sort of grind it out coverage you infer those old ProJo bureaus produced, but in-depth, substantial news articles that offer us perspective. They get their leads at the meetings and they pursue the stories out the door.
We former readers of the ProJo are not fooled by Tom Heslin's rearranging of unmarketable journalistic merchandise from the dusty back of the store shelves to the window display of the A-section. The news product that the state's largest daily produces, in terms of local news, is inadequate and not worth the buck.So spare us this local news initiative by the ProJo. 
By Jeremiah J. Green on 08/28/2009 at 3:37:22

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 See all articles by: DAVID SCHARFENBERG

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