Providence's Alternative Source!

Sinking feeling
After two years of intensifying internal conflict, many of the fears about Belo's downsizing of the Providence Journal are coming to fruition

Illustration by Elizabeth Rock

The warm words offered after the death in February of William G. Chafee, a longtime former treasurer and secretary of the Providence Journal Company, suggested an ongoing appreciation for the newspaper's tradition. "He had a real genuine, deep concern for the employees," Mark T. Ryan, the company's executive vice president and general manager, said in an obituary for the 81-year-old former exec. A sense of continuity was implied by the fact, as the obit noted, that Chafee had hired Ryan in 1986.

For many Providence Journal employees, however, the appreciation was riddled with irony. Rather than being a caretaker of the newspaper's tradition as one of the best medium-sized American dailies, Ryan is seen by many insiders as a reflection of the ways in which the Journal has changed for the worse since the Dallas-based Belo Corporation bought it in 1997.

As publisher Howard G. Sutton's right-hand man, Ryan has been the point person in the pitched battle between management and the Providence Newspaper Guild, which represents about 500 reporters, editors, and advertising and production workers at the newspaper. According to the Guild, 122 non-management employees have departed in the last two-and-a-half years -- a movement dubbed "the exodus -- and union members remain frustrated by the lack of progress toward a new contract since the last one expired at the end of December 1999. And in an unusual move symbolizing the ascendancy of business interests over journalism at the Journal, Ryan was promoted last November to a position above that of Joel B. Rawson, the paper's executive editor.

Although the Journal generally takes seriously its watchdog role in monitoring private entities and public officials, the paper has increasingly opened itself to charges of hypocrisy by failing to report on its own role as one of the most prominent and important businesses in Rhode Island. In the latest instance, the Journal hasn't printed a word about a seven-day National Labor Relations Board hearing at Pawtucket City Hall -- which ended Tuesday, March 5 -- in which an administrative law judge considered evidence of 45 alleged violations of federal labor law by management at the newspaper.

It's no secret to anyone in the industry that newspapers have faced a difficult time during the ongoing recession. Many news organizations have cut staff and the need for belt-tightening is deemed so serious that some, such as the San Francisco Chronicle and Oregonian, even scrapped their summer internship programs for 2002. After Belo implemented a company-wide wage freeze, the use of a buyout late last year to reduce the Journal's staff by 94 employees, including about 26 from the news side, may seem relatively benign compared to more drastic cuts at organizations like Knight Ridder.

Still, it's clear that some of the recent steps at the Journal -- such as the January closing of the paper's Newport bureau, the retreat from the paper's franchise in covering statewide news, and the limiting to New England of the search for interns and new hires -- signify a singular dedication to the bottom line. And although some of these moves, particularly the shuttering of the Newport office, would have been inconceivable a few short years ago, this direction represents the fruition of the fears that opponents expressed before Belo bought the Journal .

Ryan and Sutton didn't return calls seeking comment. But Rawson, who declined a request for an interview, sounded an upbeat tone in using a December column to discuss the Journal's future. Citing Peter Lord's series on the dangers of lead paint, the investigative team's coverage of the federal probe of municipal corruption in Providence, and Kathleen Gregg's report on questionable legislative spending, among other things, Rawson said 2001 was shaping up in the time before September 11 "to be a fine year for our staff, one of the best for enterprise reporting I've seen in my career." He said the paper would fill some of the vacancies left by the buyouts and remained "committed to reporting news of statewide interest with a focus on public and private institutions in government, business, sports and the arts."

Certainly, there are still many talented staffers at the Journal who continue to turn out excellent work. Many newsroom insiders, though, are troubled by a sense not just that the Journal is understaffed, but softer, slower, thinner, and less vibrant than it used to be, and characterized by a sameness that doesn't come close to reflecting Rhode Island's multitudinous idiosyncrasies.

And although it might not be surprising that the Journal occasionally gets beat by someone like WPRI-TV (Channel 12) reporter Jack White, who won a 1974 Pulitzer at the paper for revealing that Richard Nixon had cheated on his tax return, it's pretty embarrassing when the Call of Woonsocket sets the pace on a story involving allegations of municipal corruption in Lincoln. The Call, part of the New Jersey-based Journal Register chain, which is known for slashing editorial resources, was four days ahead of the Journal last month in reporting how a well-known developer helped investigators to build the case against two suspects. "Five or 10 years ago, that wouldn't happen," says one staffer, and the Journal would have been quick out of the box with a detailed Sunday story explaining how the bust came together.

The paper's initial transition under Belo went well, but a growing number of staffers began to leave as morale worsened after the union-management conflict emerged in late 1999. The degree to which the Journal's resources have been thinned, however, remains unclear. Guild administrator Tim Schick says the paper has slightly more than 200 news staffers, compared to 375 in 1990 (when the afternoon Evening Bulletin was still published). Speaking a few months before the buyout last year, Rawson put the number of news staffers at 303 -- down just eight from a year earlier.

Some of the reduced staffing could be understood in the context of the soft advertising market facing the newspaper industry. But Schick attributes it more to the bottom-line oriented management philosophy that has come to the fore since Belo's acquisition of the Journal. The desire to squeeze every possible dime from the franchise can be seen, he says, in how the paper -- which remains a potent advertising vehicle because of its singular statewide penetration -- closed the Newport bureau even while making two seven percent increases in its open advertising rate last year and an additional four percent hike this year. And as Schick notes, the danger with fewer bodies is that "reporters wind up reacting to events rather than delving into the less obvious things that are going on" -- such as corruption in the suburbs.

This dichotomy marks a sharp contrast from the philosophy of the Metcalfs, the local family that operated the Journal before the paper was sold to Belo. "They would be offended that people who run the company only care about the bottom line, that employees are expendable," says Schick. "[Former publisher Michael] Metcalf and the other old owners viewed the paper as a public trust. They considered there to be a great responsibility that went along with owning the newspaper. The newspaper was not only a trust, but a service to the community. Making money was a means to doing things, as opposed to the other way around."

Judging by the lack of coverage of the NLRB hearing, Journal management sometimes seems to hope that ignoring problems will make them go away. But after several years of intensifying conflict and diminishing resources for the news side, awareness of the impact -- and the paper's double standard -- is spreading. During the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies at the Venus de Milo in Swansea, Massachusetts, on February 22, for example, House Speaker John B. Harwood, who's been the subject of no small share of the newspaper's scrutiny, was overheard joking that those who do the questioning don't themselves like to be questioned. Political insiders in Providence also express concern about the direction of the Journal.

Of course, the story of consolidation and the changes that come with the transformation of a paper from a locally owned entity to being part of a large corporation are hardly limited to Rhode Island. That the situation isn't unique, though, doesn't make it any better. And although insiders debate whether the impetus is coming from Dallas or the executive office on Fountain Street, the consequence remains the same. The question remains, will an improved economy mean enhanced staffing and a change for the better? As political reporter Scott MacKay says, "I guess a lot of us are waiting to see how serious they are about rebuilding the franchise."

For now, though, the degradation of the Journal comes as little surprise to Charlotte Metcalf, the widow of former publisher Michael P. Metcalf, who has distanced herself from the paper since taking up a new life on a farm in Norwich, Vermont. "Once something like that is done, there's really no way to turn back," she says, referring to the sale of the paper to an out-of-town corporation. "Obviously, I thought my husband would have felt, and I felt, that Rhode Island was losing a great asset -- that it wasn't going to be the same, no matter how outside management tried to be keep it that way. They're terrific people down in Texas, but they're down in Texas."

THE BEGINNING OF the end of the Journal's independence as a local entity was set in motion when Michael Metcalf was fatally injured during a mysterious bicycle mishap near his summer home in Westport, Massachusetts, in 1987. Speculation held that the solitary crash was actually a mob hit in retaliation for the newspaper's hard-hitting reporting, but an autopsy and an investigation by the Journal proved inconclusive. With Metcalf's death, a fundamental shift began when control of the paper passed to Stephen Hamblett, an advertising executive who had worked his way through the ranks, from the old Yankee textile family that had controlled it for more than a century.

Belo's interest in acquiring the Journal Company, which included nine particularly lucrative television stations, gained serious momentum with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which brought about a wave of consolidation by removing a limit on the number of television stations -- 12 -- that could be owned by a single company. Mindful of the good reputation of Belo's flagship Dallas Morning News, some staffers saw the suitor as preferable to a chain like Gannett. As quoted in the Texas corporation's 1996 report, Hamblett cited Belo as "a company that I believe is a mirror image of our own -- one that respects and will continue the long tradition of journalistic excellence and community service of the Journal-Bulletin and its television stations."

Then again, Hamblett was among those who profited handsomely from the sale of the newspaper, and he had started the streamlining process by offering buyouts, eliminating the Sunday Rhode Islander magazine, killing the fading Evening Bulletin, and introducing cheaper labor through two-year stints for a crew of temporary intern-reporters. For their part, opponents warned that Belo, as an out-of-town owner, would lack the local roots, willingness to spend money, and other elements that served as the foundation of the Journal's distinguished journalistic tradition.

"When Metcalf was the publisher, the company envisioned the product as the news," says Schick, the Guild administrator "When Hamblett was publisher, the vision was that it was an advertising vehicle, but that news was critical to providing the means of advertising. Under Sutton's leadership, the product of the newspaper has become money. It's bottom-line oriented. It's part of a bigger corporation. The publisher is no longer CEO."

It seems like no coincidence that the closing of the Newport bureau, where the Journal faced competition from the Newport Daily News, came during the tenure of Sutton, a 51-year-old Warwick native who began working at the Journal in 1973 as a circulation statistician. Although Newport is internationally known and a major source of news, the decision to close the office -- following similar steps in the mid-'90s in Westerly and Woonsocket, cities that also have their own dailies -- appears to have been based on the cold logic of numbers.

It's quite a contrast from the journalistic imperative, cited as part of a 1999 Journal series on the 20th-century, in which "[former publisher] Sevellon Brown built the Providence Journal into a nationally recognized newspaper that covered Rhode Island like the morning dew. After becoming editor in 1923, Brown opened bureaus outside the city so his reporters would be no more than 20 minutes away from `whatever might happen' in Rhode Island."

The Journal hasn't been without its flaws, from a strong sense of Yankee nativism in the early 20th-century, to a longstanding lack of diversity in the newsroom. Generally, though, the paper continued to improve through the '70s and '80s, using its reputation as a bastion of quality reporting and editing to attract talented journalists, including Rawson, now the executive editor, who exhorted reporters to tell compelling stories and once screened the film Witness as a demonstration of skillful narrative technique. And in contrast to the complacency bred by a lack of daily print competition in many cities, it was clear that the Journal took seriously its obligation to report in the public interest. Not coincidentally, the paper won four Pulitzers between 1945 and 1994.

Now, though, Rawson is seen as being more focused on administrative and financial concerns than in using his ability to advocate for reporters and help them shape compelling stories. "People like to move up in life and take on new challenges," says one staffer. "I think that's what he did, but I don't think that's what he's best suited for at all."

At the same time, the newsroom remains characterized by division and poor morale. Guild members, who were able to reach one contract after Belo bought the Journal in 1997, have come to believe that management is trying to destroy their 43-year-old union. The level of anxiety increased last year after veteran reporter Karen Lee Ziner was taken off a domestic violence story, with which editors apparently found no fault, after a complaint from a source. (Rawson, who was previously more voluble, hasn't spoken with me since the situation was reported by the Phoenix.) Morgan McVicar, another skilled veteran reporter, opted to leave the Journal when he was assigned to the night police beat as thinly veiled punishment for drafting a subsequent letter to Rawson that was signed by 80 reporters, and Ziner was quickly assigned to replace him. Another respected veteran, Jerry O'Brien, who had led the Newport office, up and left after the closing of the bureau.

From a distance, the Journal can glide on the strength of its old glory. Newspaper industry analyst John Morton of Morton Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, for example, says, "The Providence Journal has a longstanding reputation for quality journalism and I don't think it's suffered under Belo." Marc Genest, a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island, calls the Journal "one of the best small city newspapers in the entire country, if not the best." Then again, Morton doesn't read the Journal on any kind of regular basis, and Genest, a former San Francisco resident, concedes that his view is largely influenced by the mediocre quality of some of the papers he's been accustomed to in the past.

Up close, the distraction posed by the ongoing conflict is inescapable even for more recent hires. The festering dispute "has been kind of sad to me," says one reporter who joined the paper, attracted by its traditional strengths, a few years ago. "This shouldn't be what it's all about . . . I'm hoping it turns around. I hope the focus can get back." But, he adds, "You wonder what the time-frame is going to be for turn-around."

Jack White, the WPRI-TV reporter who spent about 10 years at the Journal in the '70s, leading the paper's first investigative team, recalls a time when "it was the best newspaper in New England." Now, he says, the paper is still good, but the Boston Globe has supplanted it and the closing of the Newport office remains inexplicable. Says White, "I don't think people are getting as much from the Journal as they did before."

A respected veteran at the Journal, who, like most staffers, asked to not be identified, acknowledges that things have become personal, but the reporter says it's important not to paint the changes with too broad a brush and that some of the departing staffers were burnt out and unproductive. "Sometimes it's good to get new people," the staffer says. "I'm waiting to see who they bring in -- how many interns, how many permanent. I think we're in such flux right now, we could definitely use more people. That's what I'm waiting to see -- can we get back to levels where we can do a good job covering the news? I hope so."

So far, though, the Journal has filled only a handful of posted openings, prominent holes remain (including computer specialist for the investigative team, food editor, and theater critic) and more emphasis is placed on promoting the most recent hires -- a possible attempt to counter the long memories of veteran employees. The paper's new practice of considering only New England-based interns and job candidates -- an apparent effort to save on the cost of flying people in for interviews -- also runs counter to longstanding practice. In fact, some of the Journal's best reporters, such as David Herzog, the former computer specialist on the four-person investigative team, and C.J. Chivers, who was initially hired for one of the temporary intern slots out of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and has since gone on to star at the New York Times, would have been excluded by the New England-only prohibition.

Reporter Gerald Carbone, a 14-year veteran, recalls how when he was first assigned to the Journal's Pawtucket office, the Maine license plates on his car contrasted with the tags on other vehicles of recently arrived reporters from Georgia and California. "Now we look for the best available interns in New England," he says. "It used to be we looked for the best available writers in the United States."

IT'S NOT TOO late for the Journal to recover. Reporter Ariel Sabar, who left in November for a job with the Baltimore Sun, says, "Once a contract is in place and the economy turns around, it has the potential to reclaim its status as one of the country's great medium-sized papers." At this point, though, the Journal seems far less interested in negotiating a contract than in deploying high-priced lawyers from Edwards & Angell to defend the company against the NLRB charges.

Rhode Island's newspaper of record may have been missing in action, but the Guild pursued coverage of the NLRB hearing with old-fashioned gusto, publishing two and sometimes three "editions" a day on, a special Web site. Medical reporter Felice Freyer took time off from her job at the Journal to file the reports.

Administrative law judge William G. Kocol is expected to make his ruling on the 45 charges within two to three months. Although some Guild members doubt that even the most advantageous decision will put an end to the union-management conflict, Kocol's ruling could become something of a moral victory. In practical terms, a ruling in the Guild's favor could result in a restoration of back pay and benefits. On the other hand, some insiders fear that a continuing dispute could lead to a newspaper boycott -- a move put on hold by the Guild for the time being -- firings, and additional turns for the worse.

For their part, Belo officials have publicly expressed confidence in Journal management, although some insiders wonder if a reckoning will come if the situation in Rhode Island continues to deteriorate. And although the Dallas Morning News, like the Journal, enjoys a good reputation from afar, local critics are more critical when it comes to the judgment of decision-makers at Belo, which owns four newspapers and 18 television stations.

In a February 28 column in the Dallas Observer, Eric Celeste pondered the implications of a recent federal appeals court decision that allows huge media companies like AOL Time Warner to buy more media companies. His conclusion? The Morning News can already be criticized for some of the excesses associated with media consolidation.

Similarly, Mitchell Schnurman, a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, recently cited a series of miscalculations and ill-time investments by Belo's senior management, ranging from some $40 million in support for the wildly unsuccessful :CueCat computer peripheral to a decision to settle for $27 million (and a pledge to buy some advertising in Belo's local properties) from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, rather than the previously agreed $34.5 million, for Belo's 12 percent stake in the Dallas team. The difference was small change for a corporation with $1.5 billion in annual revenue, Schnurman wrote, but it's still poor judgment and may explain why Belo's stock dipped three percent over the past five years while the Dow Jones Publishing Index was up nearly 68 percent.

Belo's stock, which trading recently at about $22, climbed 21 percent in 2001, compared to an overall 10 percent decline on the New York Stock Exchange, says Morton, the newspaper industry analyst. The increase was fueled by speculation that Belo could be a candidate for acquisition, although Morton doesn't think it is. In any case, a separate class of stock held by the family that controls Belo makes the company less vulnerable to takeover.

Meanwhile, a curious dynamic plays out in Rhode Island: largesse from the Providence Journal Charitable Foundation, whose millions were accrued during the tenure of the paper's previous owners, is associated these days with Howard Sutton. The publisher is active in civic and charitable affairs, but it's certainly not his advocacy for journalism that led Leadership Rhode Island to salute him two years ago as "a dynamic force for positive change in Rhode Island." That Sutton continues to benefit, even while presiding over the running down of the institution that endows his social status, is just another irony that would likely make the Journal's former owners cringe.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]

Issue Date: March 8 - 14, 2002