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AS THE PROJO TURNS
Newport bureau bites the dust

BY IAN DONNIS

Although Newport is probably Rhode Island's best-known community, the Providence Journal has closed its bureau in the City-by-the-Sea -- a move that past and present staffers see as a symbolic retreat from the paper's commitment to statewide coverage.

In the mid-'90s, the Journal closed bureaus in Westerly and Woonsocket, communities that, like Newport, have their own local dailies. But because of the range of important stories that come out of Newport, the decision to shutter the office strikes many observers as misguided. "It's sad and it's shocking, really," says Elliot Krieger, spokesman for the state Department of Education and a former Newport bureau chief for the Journal. "That's like the New York Times without a Washington bureau. It's unbelievable."

The two-person bureau was closed Friday, January 4, and insiders believe the decision was driven by longstanding concerns about sales of the Journal in Newport. Deputy executive editor Carol J. Young mentioned the closing almost as an afterthought in a January 9 article on a rotation of the statewide staff, but she added, "Just as we don't need sleek race horses to get stories out of Scituate [the approach used during a murder arraignment in 1894], we no longer need a satellite office to cover Newport." Young and executive editor Joel P. Rawson declined requests for comment from the Phoenix.

Although Newport will presumably be covered out of Bristol, the loss of the Newport bureau comes as the latest in a series of steps by Belo-backed managers to consolidate the paper's news operation. More than 90 employees at the newspaper, representing a collective 1600 years of experience, took a buyout that was offered to cut costs late last year.

Citing a post in Newport as essential to an understanding of the state, observers are flabbergasted by the closing of the bureau. "They're putting business considerations ahead of important news considerations," says Tony Lioce, a former Newport reporter for the Journal, who's now assistant features editor at the San Jose Mercury News. "It's insane. It would be like if the Mercury News stopped covering San Francisco because we don't sell as many papers as the Chronicle."

As a strikingly beautiful place with colorful characters and jagged contrasts between rich and poor -- not to mention a prominent role in the Revolutionary War, the slave trade, and the underground railroad -- Newport represented a highly desirable assignment at the Journal. "You couldn't walk out of the office without coming back with five stories," Lioce says, recalling when the bureau was located on Thames Street.

Tim Schick, administrator of the Providence Newspaper Guild, sees the situation as part of a vicious circle in which the Journal, an early adapter of the concept of using suburban bureaus to report statewide news, is shrinking from its historic commitment. "I don't think the Journal was committed to putting the resources into these communities [Westerly, Woonsocket, and Newport] as necessary to compete for news coverage," he says. "If you don't compete on a news basis, you can't compete to get the circulation penetration. The lack of penetration then justifies the decision [to close bureaus]."

Speculation was also swirling in the newsroom about whether the Journal, which has exhibited a growing tendency toward self-censorship under Belo, would publish a piece about the Newport bureau by political columnist M. Charles Bakst. Bakst expects it to run, adding, "My column is purely a reminiscence."

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

Issue Date: January 17 - 24, 2002