A strong in-house writing culture is a big part of what has long distinguished the Providence Journal from other similarly sized dailies, so reporters are disheartened by management’s elimination of the money for pizza during monthly writing discussions and of $400 in monthly cash prizes for top-notch writing.
In a January 17 internal memo, executive editor Joel Rawson recalled how the writing program began without official support when “I invited several writers to a bring-your-own-bag lunch to discuss stories. At the time I was editing the Sunday paper and I wanted Page One centerpieces. That was in the mid ’70s and I thought there were maybe a half dozen reporters here who had the talent to be really good writers. I was wrong. There were dozens of people who had the talent, the desire and willingness to learn and work hard.”
Thanks in part to the strong writing culture that Rawson helped develop, readers were treated to compelling narratives, and, not coincidentally, a number of ProJo staffers have gone on to work at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and other leading papers.
Now, though, especially considering the relatively paltry amount of money involved in the writing program (a $100 monthly prize for public service writing, and $75 prizes for deadline writing, developed writing, single-edition writing, and a wild card), a number of staffers see the Journal’s tradition as being increasingly threatened. “To me, it’s just another sad retreat,” says one reporter, adding that newsroom morale is worse than during an extended union-management labor battle that ended in 2003.
In his memo to the staff, Rawson noted, “There are many things going on in this business that are beyond our control. Most of them concern money.” Since the quality of staffers’ work is the thing over which they have the most control, he wrote, “We need to keep celebrating our best work and talking about how it was done.”
Rawson, who declined a request for comment, told staffers in the memo, “I hope you will agree to continue the writing committee and recognize your peers’ work even without a cash prize.” He said he will spring for the pizza for the “First Fridays” writing gathering in February, and, “After that I will ask you all to chip in.”
The move — following recent revelations that the Journal has relinquished its status as lead sponsor of the Rhode Island Statewide Spelling Bee — comes as it “is doing as good or better than other newspapers in New England,” says Providence Newspaper Guild administrator Tim Schick. “I think it’s more toward the latter than the former.”
Mark T. Ryan, the ProJo’s general manager and executive vice president, didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Guild president John Hill, a reporter, says advertising “is getting whacked” with the same kind of “nickel and dime” cost-cutting. “This is dollars and cents,” he says. “If [management] can’t see a return to the bottom line [from spending], they’re just not going to do it.” Hill adds that things like the spelling bee and the writing program certainly have positive effects, albeit ones which are “just harder to quantify.”
Some of those benefits are more tangible to other observers. Last week, the Valley Breeze, a free weekly in northern Rhode Island, resurrected this year’s statewide spelling bee by stepping in as its main sponsor.