[Sidebar] August 16 - 23, 2001

[Features]

Wishful thinking

Persistent rumors that the New York Times Company will buy the Providence Journal speak mostly to poisoned morale -- and concerns that the newspaper's tradition is coming undone

by Ian Donnis

[] A FEW WEEKS ago, a rumor whipped through the Fountain Street headquarters of the Providence Journal: a deal in which the newspaper would be bought by the New York Times Company had been nailed down. Maybe this fanciful notion wasn't a surprise, coming just a few weeks after chatter that a little tagline on Journal stationery - indicating how Rhode Island's dominant daily is a subsidiary of the Dallas-based Belo Corporation - wouldn't be included in a fresh order of office supplies, but it proved just as apocryphal.

Speculation that the Times Company, or some other large media entity, would buy the Journal has persisted since Belo purchased the Providence Journal Company for $1.5 billion in 1997, and not entirely without reason. From the start, it was clear that Belo was primarily interested in the Journal Company's nine television stations, and would recoup some of its investment, the thinking went, by quickly reselling the newspaper. And just from a geographical viewpoint, it could be appealing for the Times Company - which acquired the Boston Globe in 1993 and the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1999 - to complete the regional hat trick by moving into New England's second most populous city.

But although the local rumor mill has intensified in recent months, no actual indication has emerged that Belo is interesting in selling the Journal to the Times Company, or anyone else. Instead, the longing of many staffers for a change in ownership reflects how the workplace atmosphere at the Journal - long considered one of the medium-sized jewels of American journalism - has become poisoned by a lengthy and bitter standoff between the Providence Newspaper Guild and Belo-backed management. "It's sort of the opposite of the devil you know - [the sense that] almost anything would be better than the current management," says Brian C. Jones, a veteran reporter and Guild activist. "It's a no-confidence vote that this almost wish for a new owner would happen."

From the start, some Journal insiders were opposed to the paper's acquisition by Belo in 1997, fearing that switching ownership from the Metcalfs - a local family with a vested interest in the community - to an out-of-town corporation would invariably lead to a diminished product and a heightened emphasis on the bottom line. Although the first few years of the transition exceeded expectations - and the in-house consensus was that the paper's journalistic quality remained intact - things took a decided turn for the worse in the run-up to the expiration of the Guild's contract in January 2000 (see "Playing Hardball," News, February 25, 2000).

Although Journal publisher Howard G. Sutton has defended the company's contract offer and denied any anti-union animus, management imposed concessions and, Guild members believe, targeted the union for removal. And while relations between reporters and front-line supervisors remain generally good, the prevailing mood in the newsroom often seems as dark as the black clothing that Guild members wear as a protest every Thursday.

With no new contract talks since February 14, the situation has grown only more rancorous in the interim, as a growing number of staffers have left the paper in the last two years - a trend dubbed by the Guild as "the exodus." In a wildcat sign of reporters' dismay, more stories are appearing without bylines, and the Guild is moving forward with plans for a possible boycott of the newspaper. Many of those who remain are unabashedly disheartened by what they perceive as the Journal's direction. "I've been here 19 years and I don't think this place has ever been this depressed," says medical reporter Felice J. Freyer. "This is a sad and anxious place now."

Such discontent remains imperceptible to most readers of the Journal, though, and upper level management continues to keep a stiff upper lip. Sutton didn't return calls seeking comment from the Phoenix, but, with no small degree of understatement, he recently told American Journalism Review, "Not having a contract, to a certain extent, has put some additional stress on management and union members."

Although the New York Times is justifiably viewed with considerable respect, the Times Company is hardly immune to the kind of Wall Street-influenced cost-cutting pressures that are wracking the newspaper industry. The staffs of the Globe and Telegram & Gazette have been winnowed through buy-outs, for example, since they were acquired. Still, there's fair reason to believe the Times Company would be more accommodating than Belo if it came to hammering out a deal with the Guild.

Of course, labor disputes aren't exactly uncommon at newspapers (although the Journal's former ownership is now recalled with nostalgia and longing, there was a strike at the paper in 1973). And although newspapers remain quite profitable, the Journal is far from alone in facing a squeeze because of diminished advertising revenue and rising newsprint costs. In fact, compared to the many papers that have trimmed marquee sections and sacked staffers, the Journal, at least on the surface, seems to have fared relatively well by comparison.

Joel Rawson, the Journal's executive editor, declined to be interviewed for this article, but in the past he's contended that the paper is better than it was 20 years ago, citing the four-person investigative team, in-depth coverage of big stories, and a steady report of local news. But despite the continued presence of many talented journalists and the publication of some outstanding work, Guild critics like Jones and Freyer believe something more subtle - and ultimately harmful - is at work: the steady erosion of the institutional culture that evolved as the Journal, once a bastion of Yankee nativism, was reinvented as one of the best American newspapers of its size.

Jones credits Rawson for diligently trying to maintain some of the paper's significant reporting - a difficult task during an embattled time. "There's a long way to go before the paper hits bottom," adds the outspoken union activist. "The thing that Joel doesn't acknowledge is that the direction is down, not up. I'm glad the thing isn't dying willingly, but he won't face up to the fact that there's a huge slide going on. There's not one hint, not one clue, that things will turn around."

A CURIOUS SCENARIO unfolded July 18 as a half-dozen Journal reporters, who were writing stories on deadline, scrambled to remove their cars from a photographers' parking lot, near the Journal building, after learning that the vehicles faced imminent removal by tow truck. Although the scribes knew they weren't supposed to be parking there, according to an account in the Guild's online newsletter, www.riguild.org, they blamed a refusal by management to provide parking for many union members. If this tableau seems almost farcical, it also illustrates how personal and petty things have become at the Journal.

On a regular basis, the Guild, which represents about 500 of 1200 workers at the paper, highlights a litany of gripes, from a diminution of security personnel at the Fountain Street office to a new demand that maintenance workers care for personal plants in the newsroom. More important concerns cited by the union include decreased staffing, a heightened level of timidity, and the sense that the paper's journalistic values are waning.

A commitment to investigative reporting and tough coverage of politicians has traditionally distinguished the Journal from its many soporific counterparts in cities with only one daily newspaper. In 1994, for example, the paper won a Pulitzer for uncovering the unethical machinations of Thomas Fay, then the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. But some reporters are troubled by what they perceive as the growing influence of Mark T. Ryan, senior vice president for legal and administration, who's known as a frequent presence in Rawson's office.

This is certainly well within Ryan's mandate as publisher Sutton's right-hand man, and former publisher Michael Metcalf was hardly a stranger to the newsroom. Still, says Brian Jones, "My sense that he's there too much. If I'm a news guy, I want to see the news side managing. It just seems to me that Ryan's physical presence around the newsroom and in Joel's office is too much."

Of particular concern is the belief that Ryan was involved in the recent decision to take reporter Karen Lee Ziner, a 21-year veteran, off an East Providence domestic violence story after the alleged victim in the case, Caitana "Tanya" Threats, complained to the Journal. Rawson declined comment, but Ziner says she returned from a vacation to learn she wouldn't be doing any additional work on the story, even though Rawson and Tom Heslin, managing editor/metro, found no fault with her story (see "ProJo editors cave on reporter after subject complains," This just in, August 2).

Other than the disposition of charges, there probably aren't going to be many more stories about this particular situation. It's possible, too, that there's more to the situation than meets the eye. But the idea of taking a reporter off a story after a complaint from a subject caused understandable outrage in the Journal newsroom, and some 80 staffers signed onto a letter of protest to Rawson.

"This sends a dangerous message to the public: subjects of stories can call the Providence Journal and intimidate management into removing reporters from a story, regardless of the story's validity," the letter states. "It also sends a disturbing message to the staff, whose members may now infer that if they engage in hard-hitting journalism, or even simply report the facts, they may be punished if their reporting angers someone who catches management's ear. Your punishment of Karen leaves us wondering whether the company will support us if we vigorously cover the news."

In the same way, although the Journal's commitment to self-scrutiny was inconsistent in the past, the willingness to publish legitimate stories involving the paper - the dominant media institution in Rhode Island - has withered since Belo acquired it (see "Disappearing ink," News, November 23, 2000). In one such recent example, Belo's flagship, the Dallas Morning News, published a solid story when Digital:Convergence, the manufacturer of the ballyhooed :CueCat computer peripheral - and a company into which Belo invested $37.5 million - laid off most of its staff in June. But even though the Journal made a big promotional push for the :CueCat (and delayed publication of a regular column last year when Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Mossberg was critical of the device), the paper ran just a brief item about the situation.

In any case, the Journal is unlikely to back away from its top-notch watchdog coverage of the State House, Providence City Hall and other local institutions, or other points of prestige. But with a hiring freeze, many departing staffers aren't being replaced, coverage of South County has been significantly cut, and more stories of local importance, albeit not of statewide significance, are increasingly going unreported, according to Guild administrator Tim Schick. The number of two-year reporter-interns - a program that was introduced to save money and beef up local coverage after the Evening Bulletin was discontinued in the mid-'90s - is being reduced. And there are times, even on Sunday, when the Journal can be digested with startling rapidity.

Still, Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University (who has conducted surveys for the Journal), feels the newspaper's journalistic quality remains very high. "They've done a number of in-depth investigative pieces that I thought were first-rate," and, he says, the paper is doing a much better job of covering racial and ethnic minorities than in the past, particularly with Scott MacKay and Ariel Sabar's ongoing series of stories about the 2000 census.

Noting that many Journal reporters feel unappreciated by Belo, West attributes much of the situation to broader trends. "The newspaper industry as a whole is under incredible price pressures, just because fewer and few people are reading newspapers," he says. "Competition from other news outlets is extraordinary. The trend is going to be towards cutting costs and relying on younger reporters who don't have big salaries. That's really not idiosyncratic to the Providence Journal, but is going to be a fact of life at most newspapers."

But despite diminished advertising and increased newsprint costs, newspapers - including Belo's newspaper unit - are "still very profitable operations," says newspaper industry analyst John Morton of Morton Research in Silver Spring, Maryland. "So far, the Internet has not damaged newspapers to any significant degree . . . Newspapers are still very large and dominant advertising vehicles, and we don't foresee there being any long-term difficulties," with the Internet since newspapers are positioning themselves to maintain their franchises with Web sites, Morton says.

The main change, as noted by Morgan McVicar, a 15-year reporting veteran at the Journal, is that publicly held newspaper companies like Belo are cutting spending not to avoid losing money, but to maintain the high profit margins of the recent boom times. "In that sense, we're no different from any other paper in the country that's going through the same thing," McVicar says. But the voluntary departure of more than 57 news staffers in the last two years speaks for itself, he says, and represents a situation particular to the Journal.

THE LATEST STAFFER to go is Zachary Block, a 25-year-old reporter for www.projo.com, the newspaper's Web site, who's leaving after two-and-a-half years to take a staff writer's job at the Brown Alumni Magazine. Block, who says he was attracted to the Brown job because of the opportunity to write more in-depth stories, and the near-term lack of opportunities for internal advancement, basically agrees with the in-house critics at the Journal. "There's no question what's going on between the union and management has poisoned the atmosphere, and there are a lot of bitter people," he says. "If it was more fun here, and there were better prospects down the road, would I have stayed? Maybe."

Similarly, Elliot Krieger, a 22-year Journal veteran, who recently completed a three-year stint as an assistant city editor, recently left to become the spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Education. Although the internal tension was a factor, Krieger says he was mostly attracted by the appeal of the new job itself. While the conflict has had little impact on the actual product, "People at the paper are scared," he adds. "They're expending an extraordinary amount of energy worrying about their jobs and livelihood and the future. It's not as much of a fun place as it used to be."

Management characterizes the turnover as typical attrition, and, as Rawson recently told me, the number of news employees stands at 303 - down just eight from a year ago. This may be compare favorably with the far more aggressive cost-cutting tactics of chains like Knight Ridder, but some Journal veterans shudder at the departures of Block and Krieger. In years past, the veterans say, staffers just didn't leave the newspaper for these kinds of jobs.

Those who have departed in the last two years may have had a variety of different reasons, but it's clear that diminished opportunities and the changing environment on Fountain Street have played a role. It's noteworthy that reporter Chris Chivers, who moved from Journal to the New York Times in 1999, felt compelled to write a letter to Belo chairman Robert W. Decherd, faulting him for minimizing the influence of poor internal relations in causing people to leave (see "Times scribe rebuts Belo chairman on ProJo ‘exodus' " This just in, July 19).

As Chivers wrote, "I chose to apply to a more prominent newspaper not just because I sought other opportunities, but also because I took the measure of the Providence Journal and saw worrisome signs of short-sightedness. And like many of the paper's readers and alumni, I have come to fear that the current exodus, as it has been called, undermines the spirit of a remarkable place."

McVicar goes farther. "The change in culture is tangible," he says. "There is not the espirit de corps that they're used to be here, the feeling of being here to produce the best . . . It's not the same newspaper it was 10 years ago or even five years ago. Ten years ago, there was a battle among reporters to get on page one, both daily and Sunday. Sometimes terrific, great-read Sunday stories were lined up in the computer like cars in the Callahan Tunnel [in Boston] at rush hour," but such stories, he says, are increasingly fewer and farther between these days.

"If the atmosphere does not improve," McVicar says, "you will continue to see the exodus of talented people, the company will not replace them, and the quality of journalism that Rhode Islanders have become accustomed to will continue to decline."

ASKED ABOUT the persistence of rumors that the New York Times Company will buy the Journal, Skip Cass, a Belo senior vice president in Dallas, seems as if he's about to emit a deep sigh. "I get a call on a weekly basis about what we might be buying or selling," he says with a mild Texas drawl. "We don't comment on rumors," or prospective "acquisitions or dispositions." In terms of suggestions that the rumors amount to a no-confidence vote in Belo-backed management at the Journal, he says, "We have the utmost confidence in that management team, and have, since our association with the Providence Journal Company."

This kind of management corporate boilerplate notwithstanding, Belo decision makers may see the Journal as a good counterpart to the Dallas Morning News, which is considered among the 10 best American newspapers. And although Belo - a media giant that owns 17 television stations, four daily newspapers, and six cable news stations - last year sold two of its newspapers, the Eagle in Bryan-College Station, Texas, and the Messenger-Inquirer, of Owensboro, Kentucky, the Journal is clearly in a different league, in terms of size, importance, and prestige.

Meanwhile, there's no sign of resolution to the Guild-Belo standoff. Instead, the two adversaries are preparing to go head-to-head when, after several delays, the National Labor Relations Board is scheduled to consider union complaints against management during a hearing starting October 22.

Asked about the prospect of the Times Company buying the Journal, Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and co-author of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times (Little Brown, 1999), says, "I don't think it's inconceivable. It would be a compliment to their market, but I wouldn't make a heavy bet on it. The price would be too much for what the Times would feel it would be getting," and the company is thought, he says, to be more interested in diversifying rather than buying additional newspapers.

Morton, the newspaper industry analyst, calls the prospect of the Times Company buying the Journal highly unlikely, "because there's been no indication that A.H. Belo has any interest in disposing of any of its papers." Such a transaction would become more likely "only if the family decides it wants to be taken over" - an unlikely prospect. Then again, few would have expected the Chandler family, which built the Los Angeles Times into one of the handful of premier American newspapers, would ever sell out to a company like the Chicago-based Tribune Company. Says Morton, "Nothing is inconceivable."

Even if the dream of ownership by the Times Company were to come true, it might represent an occasion of being careful about what you wish for, based on the experience at the Boston Globe and Worcester Telegram & Gazette. As Alex Jones puts it, "I don't know that it [ownership of the Journal by the Times Company] would be that different [than Belo]. There's only one thing at the Times Company that gets extra special attention and that's the news operation of the New York operation."

Adds Kathy Shaw, a reporter at the Telegram & Gazette, and chair of the Worcester unit of the Providence Newspaper Guild, "The expectation among most of the people in the newsroom was that the New York Times Company was going to put a lot of time and money into the news operation. It hasn't happened. If anything, they've managed to cut back."

Nor has the Times Company been particularly gentle in its dealings with the Globe. After the expiration of an agreement to not replace managers for five years, publisher Benjamin Taylor - whose family had owned the paper for more than 120 years - was sacked in July 1999 and replaced by Richard Gilman, a longtime Times Company executive whose expertise is in circulation and internal operations. Then, as Dan Kennedy reported in the Boston Phoenix, the Times Company tapped Martin Baron, the respected executive editor of the Miami Herald, but also a decided outsider, to replace outgoing editor Matthew Storin in July, rather than following Storin's preference for an in-house successor. And because of sizable staff cutbacks through buyouts, there are those who feel, as Frank Phillips, the Globe's respected State House bureau chief, told Kennedy, "It makes us very sad to see the New York Times Company diminish the newspaper."

Still, despite whatever flaws the New York Times Company might have, don't expect Journal staffers' yearning for a change in ownership to fade any time soon. The New York Times is the ultimate symbol of journalistic excellence, and for a lot of Journal veterans, this beacon remains awfully appealing when, as they believe, their own tradition of quality is under attack.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com.

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