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
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, www.poynter.org/medianews/, triggered a
wave of letters and phone calls from journalists and readers across the
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 email@example.com.
Issue Date: October 12 - 18, 2001