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Bad to worse on Fountain Street


It's not as if the Providence Journal's newsroom has been a bastion of stellar morale in recent times. But concerns about sliding standards intensified after the Providence Journal Company last week unveiled a buyout proposal that could thin the editorial ranks and diminish the paper's institutional memory. Meanwhile, repercussions are still being felt from the episode in which a veteran reporter was pulled from a domestic violence story after a subject complained over the summer, and the Providence Newspaper Guild has scheduled a controversial vote that could lead to a boycott of Rhode Island's dominant media institution.

The prospect of buyouts at the Journal may seem relatively benign, considering diminished advertising in 2001, the generally dour climate in the newspaper industry, and the way in which some media companies have used layoffs and other measures to more aggressively cut costs. In previous interviews, executive editor Joel Rawson indicated that staffing on Fountain Street has remained relatively constant in recent years. Still, with a worsening management-Guild conflict, and the steady departure over the last two years of some 60 reporters, editors, and photographers, many insiders believe the buyouts will further erode the journalistic quality of the Journal.

"This is going to change the character of the newspaper," says Brian C. Jones, 59, a Guild activist and 35-year reporter at the Journal, who's among those initially inclined toward taking the buyout. Although he doesn't like the idea of leaving amid the unsettled nature of the labor dispute at the paper, "I think the writing is sort of on the wall for people who are my age and older. If I can go without being fired or laid off, and get some money, it's probably in my interest to do so."

The buyouts, subject to Guild approval by October 12, are being offered to full-time workers who are 55 or older. According to the union, which represents about 500 of 1100 workers at the paper, 79 of its members, and 87 employees in non-Guild areas, such as managers and members of the Teamsters and Pressmen's unions, would be eligible for the voluntary departure. In keeping with management's de facto policy, Tom McDonough, the Journal's director of human resources, didn't return a call seeking comment.

Guild administrator Tim Schick says the appeal of the buyout offer varies sharply, depending on the proximity to retirement of particular employees. The incentives for leaving include one month's pay for each year worked, up to a maximum of 18 months. Participants, who would leave work immediately, would receive pay and medical benefits through the end of the year, although no medical benefits beyond federally required Cobra benefits (which allow individuals to purchase health coverage at the group rate paid by the company for up to 18 months) would subsequently be offered.

In related news, the sporadic departure of reporters from the Journal has continued unabated. The pending exit of one of the latest, Ariel Sabar, who's taking a job in December at the Baltimore Sun, can be understood in the context of a young up-and-comer who's making a good career move. Sabar voices frustration about how the Journal, one of the state's largest employers, doesn't provide downtown parking for its reporters, and he's deeply troubled by the company's treatment of the Guild. At the same time, he says he's mainly making the move to the Sun because of the opportunity for professional growth.

But the factors behind Morgan McVicar's recent decision to leave the Journal seem more unsettling. A 15-year veteran who says he was twice nominated by the paper for the Pulitzer in the '90s, McVicar says he quit two weeks ago after being assigned to the 4 p.m.-midnight reporting shift -- a newsy assignment to be sure, but one typically given to well-regarded reporters who are very early in their tenure on Fountain Street. What's more, McVicar is convinced that the unorthodox assignment was retribution for his role in writing a letter that was signed by about 80 reporters and sent to Rawson after reporter Karen Lee Ziner, a 21-year veteran, was pulled from a domestic violence story over the summer (see "ProJo editors cave on reporter after subject complains," This just in, August 2).

The Ziner situation was unusual, since editors apparently found no fault with her reporting on the story, and also because tough, uncompromising reporting on politicians and mobsters has long been one of the Journal's strengths. Rawson has declined to comment to the Phoenix. But McVicar says Rawson was infuriated after news of the Ziner controversy, which was reported in the New York Times after the Phoenix's story received national exposure on Jim Romenesko's Web site,, triggered a wave of letters and phone calls from journalists and readers across the country.

The latest developments continue a spiral of worsening Guild-management relations since the Belo Corporation of Dallas bought the Journal in 1997. Although the early transition went better than expected, the atmosphere has deteriorated sharply since management's last contract offer was rejected by the Guild in early 2000.

Astonished when he was assigned to the night shift, "I asked whether this was retribution for me having written that letter," McVicar says. "In a rare moment of honesty, I was told [by one of Rawson's lieutenants], `You should not have written that letter.' " As a result, McVicar decided to leave the Journal outright, with no immediate plans. Regarding his time at the paper, he says, "I'll look back at 14 years as among the most rewarding I've had, both personally and professionally. But mostly I will look back with sadness at what the newspaper has become. If you had to use one word to describe the prevailing mood of reporters there now, it is sadness. It is not anger. It is sadness."

Compounding the situation, Ziner was assigned to the night shift to replace McVicar. According to Jones, Ziner (who declined comment), and he attempted to meet about the situation with Rawson, but he wouldn't discuss it, citing an American with Disabilities Act claim that she has filed against him and the newspaper. The claim relates to the company's unwillingness to pay work-related cab fare for Ziner while she was taking a medication and under doctor's orders not to drive. "It seems very mean-spirited of the company, absent their explanation of what's going on," Jones says. "It's hard to miss the coincidence," of Ziner's assignment and the controversy she was involved in over the summer.

Meanwhile, the Guild has scheduled a secret ballot vote for October 23 and 24 that could lead to a boycott of the Journal as the global showdown between the US and Islamic fundamentalists -- the most important news event in recent decades -- continues to unfold. Preparation for the boycott began more than a year ago as a way of pressuring Journal Company management to return to the negotiating table. Negotiations haven't been held since February 14. If approved, the ballot would authorize the Guild's 11-member executive board to declare a circulation boycott.

The potential boycott is a controversial subject within the Guild. Although still very profitable, newspapers have been losing circulation for years and the last thing they need, some people believe, is a further self-inflicted blow. Some Guild activists, though, frustrated by management's lack of interest in returning to the negotiating table, see the boycott as the union's most effective form of leverage. "We don't have to do much to make things worse [in terms of circulation]" says Jones. "That's kind of heartbreaking when you think about it, but it's probably more to our advantage than the company taking tremendous profits out of the newspaper and not putting enough back in."

The Guild has worked with the 80,000-member Rhode Island AFL-CIO and other unions over the last year to gather pledges from readers who would be willing to boycott the Journal. Guild members won't say how many pledges have been collected, but they describe the total as a significant number.

If all this sounds like a decided us vs. them atmosphere, that pretty much describes the current environment at the Journal. Although the conflict still remains invisible to most readers, the confluence of likely buyouts and internal turmoil will almost certainly exact a toll.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]

Issue Date: October 12 - 18, 2001