In 2003, former Governor Bruce Sundlun wrote a letter to Robert Decherd, the CEO of the Dallas-based Belo Corporation, expressing his interest in restoring local ownership of the Providence Journal. While Sundlun cited “no complaints about the paper,” “it is obvious that the newspaper management has been cutting expenses,” he observed, ultimately concluding, “My reaction as a Rhode Islander is that the state would be better off if [the ProJo] was owned by a representative group of Rhode Islanders.”
Sundlun was hardly alone in such thinking. A number of locals, including more than a few in the Journal’s newsroom, believed that the paper, traditionally one of the medium-sized jewels of American journalism, had come under siege since being bought by Belo in 1997, and that locals were more likely to operate it as something resembling a public trust, as did the old-line Yankees who used to own it, than a corporation in a distant part of the country.
While he declines to identify his prospective partners, Sundlun, still an outsized personality at 86, did once run Outlet Communications, a group of more than a dozen TV and radio stations. And by inquiring whether Belo would have any interest in selling the ProJo “to a Rhode Island group of investors,” he foreshadowed the trend in which local business people have acquired, or expressed interest in acquiring, such papers as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and Hartford Courant.
Besides Sundlun, a handful of other Rhode Islanders could potentially have the motivation or the means to put together a deal for the ProJo — ranging from the (improbable) likes of former Providence mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., soon to be released from federal prison, who previously schemed about buying his journalistic nemesis — to Jonthan M. Nelson, the successful principal of buyout firm Providence Equity Partners, a frequent participant in big media deals.
But while the concept of returning the Journal to local ownership has a certain appeal, it ain’t going to happen.
Despite occasional rumors, Belo, which bought the Journal Company and its nine television stations for $1.5 billion, has consistently indicated that the newspaper is not for sale. As far as Sundlun’s inquiry, Decherd “wrote me back a very curt letter,” he says, “saying they had no interest in selling.”
With the entire newspaper industry in a state of persistent anxiety, due to the migration of readers and advertisers to the Internet, Belo’s ownership of the Journal now seems considerably more benign than in the past. While the paper is thinner, less comprehensive, and not as well staffed as it once was, some bigger dailies — like the Inquirer — have been marked by sharper cuts and more precipitous changes in identity.
Considering all this, it’s very hard to know whether local ownership would result in a better newspaper for Rhode Islanders. The more important question, then, is, journalistically speaking, is this as good as it gets?
The crisis in newspapers
Seen one way, the Providence Journal’s journalistic heart remains strong: the paper’s four-person investigative team continues to pursue its historic mission in rooting out corruption and wrongdoing; the three-person State House bureau, led by the tenacious Kathy Gregg, offers the most copious coverage of statewide politics; the ProJo covers the news of the day, and when it focuses its reporting resources, it performs very well.
Yet Rhode Island’s dominant daily, like every American newspaper, is very different from what it was 10 years ago. In one reflection of its slighter scope, most of its statewide bureaus — once a particular source of pride — have been closed in recent years. “Obviously, the Journal’s way diminished from what it used to be,” says one reporter. “Everyone knows that.” That it still compares favorably with other similarly sized papers doesn’t make this retreat more palatable.
Welcome to the current state of journalism. Although newspapers remain profitable (insiders have heard that the ProJo’s profit margin still exceeds 20 percent), Wall Street’s pessimism about the future has prompted widespread cutting across the industry. A variety of other factors, including consolidation in the banking and department store businesses, and the movement of classified advertising to such sites as Craigslist, have exacerbated the situation.
The ProJo itself has gone without significant reductions since a 2001 buyout, and the newspaper has managed staffing through attrition, periodically filling vacancies. “I give them credit,” says reporter John Hill, president of the Providence Newspaper Guild. “They’ve gone where they wanted to get without laying people off, and that means something. Other places have not done it that charitably.” (Talented journalists continue to leave, however. The latest to go is Andrea L. Stape, an enterprising and industrious business reporter, who is taking a job with Fidelity Investments.)