When John Hill sought his first mortgage as a young reporter, his banker told him, “Oh, you’ll be fine — you work at the Journal.”
But job security isn’t what it once was — as anyone familiar with the newspaper industry knows — so Hill, now the president of the Providence Newspaper Guild, is among those watching and waiting as the ProJo prepares to implement what are thought to the first-ever economic layoffs in its lengthy history.
The cuts, which have not yet been reported in the Journal, were revealed September 24 by the Guild, and will claim roughly 30 news-related jobs (none in advertising), including three fulltime reporters. The layoffs are due to be implemented on October 10.
Those losing their jobs include Cranston reporter David Scharfenberg; East Bay reporter Meaghan Wims; online reporter Brandie Jefferson, news librarian Linda Henderson; experienced part-timers, such as Laura Meade Kirk, who has been with the Journal for more than 20 years; as well as at least two management employees, section editors Karen Maguire of the North edition and Jean Plunkett of the West Bay. Most of the cuts are based on lack of seniority.
Another reporter was due to be cut, but her job was saved when Sean McAdam, the ProJo’s nationally respected baseball writer, left for a job with the Boston Herald, reportedly frustrated by how he had been prohibited over the summer from appearing on sports radio station WEEI and espn.com.
Asked about the impact of the cuts, Hill says they can’t help taking a toll. Union officials are waiting until management shares its plans for reconfiguring the paper’s resources before offering a more detailed judgment.
The layoffs come after a recent company-wide buyout in the parent Belo Corporation, which was taken by 22 ProJo employees, failed to hit management’s minimum target of 35. “That was based on figuring that it was fulltime people going,” says Guild administrator Tim Schick, “and because our seniority system requires that they take part-timers first, they had to reach in deeper to reach the number they were looking for.”
Although it is not thought to be intentional, Schick says, the layoffs include a disproportionate ratio of women — by about a three-to-one margin.
Meanwhile, the ProJo’s “In Her Shoes” women’s initiative, conceived as an effort to draw more readers to the paper’s Web site, is reportedly on hold, in part because of the difficulty of pursuing the project with diminished staffing.
The most recent Sunday Journal still had some strong local reporting, including front-page stories by Mike Stanton on the intrigue about John Cicilline’s $75,000 bad check, and by Jennifer Jordan about tuition hikes in Rhode Island’s state college system.
Like other newspapers, though, the Journal faces an existential question: by reducing the number and breadth of people who produce the paper, is Rhode Island’s statewide daily being smart or planting the seeds of its continued decline?
“What they’re doing is taking steps to reduce their expenses, but whether that is going to be a successful strategy in remaining competitive and providing quality product going forward remains to be seen,” says Schick.