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The Pulitzer quest, and two stances on expungement
By Ian Donnis

The Providence Journal struck an indignant tone in hammering a recent legislative attempt to halve the amount of time that convicts must wait before their criminal records are expunged, using a May 9 editorial to call it "the Felon Protection Act." But when it came to making a new contract offer to the Providence Newspaper Guild, Journal management conditioned the deal on the National Labor Relations Board expunging the companyís 27 convictions on unfair labor practice charges.

"The cynics would say that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds," says Guild administrator Tim Schick. "The rest of us would say that there is a little bit of hypocrisy going on."

Journal publisher Howard Sutton didnít return a call seeking comment.

The "poison pill" provision regarding the NLRB findings is among the reasons why the Guildís executive board unanimously recommended on Monday, June 2 that union members reject managementís offer. Guild members, who have been working without a contract since early 2000, are scheduled to vote next Wednesday, June 11 and Thursday, June 12. "Not everything in the contract proposal is bad . . . " according to a Guild flyer distributed to members, "but everything has been undermined by the companyís last-minute poison pill." Although it is not known whether the NLRB would agree to drop the convictions (which have been appealed by the Journal), the Guild bargaining committee objected to making the contract contingent on such a consideration.

The Guild also panned managementís offer for containing "little retroactive pay ó only 40 percent of what is owed to us ó and [it] allows the company to set wages in 2004 and 2005. The wage offer falls short of what the NLRB ordered by $1.2 million ó the exact amount of the bonus recently paid to Belo chairman Robert Decherd."

In related news, the Journal this week detailed almost all of the members of its Providence staff to an ambitious project as part of the paperís ongoing coverage of the February 20 fire at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, which killed 100 people and injured almost 200.

According to a May 30 memo from managing editor/metro Tom Heslin, deputy executive editor Carol Young, and city editor Sue Areson, "We are developing a computer model of the nightclub interior that we believe will enable us to examine in extraordinary detail what happened inside the building on the night of the fire. Part of this work will involve a database built on the results of interviews by the staff with all the survivors of the Station fire. These interviews will be a top priority for the news staff over the next two weeks."

Staffers seem to have a mixed view of the project. On one hand, it could provide a considerable public service by nailing down lingering questions, such as how many people were actually in the Station on the night of the fire, and adding to the historical record. At the same time, after getting outclassed by the New York Times and Boston Globe in the early coverage of the disaster (see "Losing the beat," News, May 2), the Journal has continued to focus on the story with what some staffers see as excessive attention, and Heslin has mentioned how he wants the paperís coverage to win a Pulitzer.

Heslin, who didnít return a call seeking comment, directed the coverage that won the ProJoís most recent Pulitzer, in 1994, for exposing pervasive corruption in the Rhode Island court system. And while journalismís top honor would obviously be significant in and of itself, it could overshadow the ongoing labor dispute and stifle chatter that the paperís quality has slipped since the Dallas-based Belo Corporation bought it in 1997. But just what the ProJo is able to turn up ó and whether it yields Pulitzer-caliber work ó remains to be seen.

Issue Date: June 6 - 12, 2003
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