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The Journal plans relatively benign cuts

It could be a lot worse. Unlike such bigger newspapers as the Boston Globe and the New York Times, the Providence Journal has gone without any significant reductions in its journalistic staff since more than 90 employees, including 52 Providence Newspaper Guild members, took a late 2001 buyout. Still, some of the industry-wide general anxiety has percolated through Fountain Street as ProJo managers contemplate a variety of measures to cut costs.

"People are just looking over their shoulders, like, whatís the next thing?" says one reporter, noting how the paper is placing more emphasis on its Web site and the pervasive quest for convergence, albeit within the context of a hiring freeze. Meanwhile, reporters have been brought in for small group discussions "to warn us that [cost-cutting] stuff is coming down the road."

Guild administrator Tim Schick and other sources say that while there has been no discussion of buyouts or involuntary staff reductions, a variety of cuts are being pondered, from eliminating a weekly Spanish-language news page and abandoning a bureau in Somerset, Massachusetts, to taking steps to reduce press runs, including shrinking the space for stock listings. "They say they still have the commitment to do good journalism," says one insider, although newsroom managers have "given up this fiction of trying to have something from every town every day," the stated rationale for a bureau shakeup a few years back.

Joel P. Rawson, the Journalís executive editor, did not return a message seeking comment.

With heavyweights like the Globe and the Times shedding staff to cut costs, some observers cite the Journalís longstanding market dominance in explaining why reporters and editors are being spared. (The paper has added advertising staff, and in an unusual step for the ProJo, has offered deep discounts to some advertisers). At the same time, some insiders suspect that a past circulation scandal at the Dallas Morning News, which, like the ProJo, is owned by the Belo Corporation, is a factor in the pending cuts.

(Stephen Hamblett, 71, who died Monday and served as the Journalís publisher from 1987 to 1999, was remembered in the paper as the man who "shepherded the transition of the Journal Co. from a privately held Rhode Island-based company into a media powerhouse that merged with the Belo Corp. of Dallas, Texas, in 1997 to create one of the nationís largest media companies." Left unmentioned was how Hamblett set the ProJo on the course to its diminished present state by closing some suburban bureaus, killing the afternoon Evening Bulletin and the Sunday magazine, instituting the practice of hiring two-year reporter-interns, and ultimately taking the paper public and arranging its sale, making a fortune for himself and a small number of stockholders in the process.)

As the newspaper increasingly tries to merge its print and Internet versions, Guild president John Hill, a reporter, thinks managers havenít been sufficiently solicitous of input from staffers. "They donít talk to us, so we donít know what their plans are," he says, adding that this might be because the plans are still in flux. At the same time, Hill adds, "If they let us into the process, I think that would help them."

Besides establishing a new blog, the Journal has heavily advertised its Web site (without mentioning its news component) on radio and television, while expanding the number of chats and interactive reports on projo.com. The heightened emphasis seemed to start with the assignment earlier this year of Tom Heslin, a respected newsroom veteran, to a new post as managing editor for new media. "There seems to be a very, very strong emphasis on getting projo.comís profile higher," says Hill. "They want people here to think that thereís a deadline breaking every minute. They want people to think of themselves as being reporters for an Internet news organization as well as for a newspaper. I donít know if they know how theyíre going to do that yet."

Issue Date: December 16 - 22, 2005
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