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AS THE PROJO TURNS
Cianci's secret plan to buy the Journal revealed

BY IAN DONNIS

Whatever the faults of Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., few would criticize the former Providence mayor for having thought small. So it shouldn't come as a complete surprise that one of the unrealized yearnings of Cianci -- now serving a 64-month sentence at a federal prison in Fort Dix, New Jersey, for racketeering conspiracy -- involved a plan to seize control of his leading journalistic nemesis, the Providence Journal.

The prospect of Cianci being able to buy the Journal seems more fantasy than fact, not least because the Dallas-based Belo Corporation -- which paid $1.5 billion for the Journal Company and its nine television stations in 1997 -- appears unlikely to sell the paper even now. As newspaper industry analyst John Morton puts it, "Newspapers the size of the Providence Journal are very, very hard to find, and once a large company buys them, they tend to hang on to them."

Still, Cianci seemed serious enough a few years ago when he ran into a member of the Providence Newspaper Guild at Murphy's, a downtown bar, and expressed his interest in buying the Journal in cooperation with the Guild. "It wasn't much more specific than he thought he could line up some major backers," says Guild administrator Tim Schick. "We attempted to follow up, but there was never any [additional] contact made. He never got back to us."

Another hint of Cianci's aspiration to become a media mogul came during a September 2000 roast of Phoenix columnists Phillipe and Jorge at Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet. ProJo columnist Bob Kerr, the master of ceremonies for the event, recalls how Cianci told him "that when he bought the Journal, the first thing he would do is have me pick up his shirts every morning. He also said, although I did not hear it, that he was going to change the name of Fountain Street to Cianci Way, so the Journal would have to put his name on the letterhead."

One version of the tale is that Cianci hoped to leverage the pension fund of the Laborers' International Union of North America, but that the plan fell apart after former union president Arthur A. Coia pleaded guilty to a felony count of tax fraud in connection with his hidden ownership of three Ferrari sports cars. Still, even in the months before he reported to Fort Dix in December 2002, Cianci talked privately about how he had plotted to take over the Journal with the assets of a large union pension fund. "He seemed to be very serious," says WPRO-AM talk-show host Steve Kass, who was teamed with Cianci as a co-host for a few months last fall. "You can imagine the challenge it would have been and how titillating it would have been. Whether he could have pulled it off, I have no idea. The thought of it was absolutely mind-boggling."

It's no shocker that Cianci, a mercurial, bullying, and charismatic control freak who ruled Providence for most of the last 27 years, would have relished the prospect of riding roughshod over Rhode Island's singularly dominant daily. The Journal's four-person investigative team, after all, broke many of the stories about the underside of the Providence Renaissance that were subsequently aired during Cianci's trial last spring in US District Court. Last year, Cianci also told his unauthorized biographer, I-team leader Mike Stanton, to go play in traffic.

Schick called the possibility of Cianci having bought the paper "intriguing," noting with some understatement, "I think it would have presented its own set of problems, but on the other hand, if that meant a more enlightened labor-management situation, that would have been welcome, too." Union-management relations at the Journal have deteriorated sharply since Belo acquired the paper, and many staffers believe the Texas-based corporation has an anti-union animus. "Quite frankly, I think the Cianci attempt was naïve," Schick adds, "because you have to have tremendously deep pockets and a willingness [to sell] on the other side. I'm not aware of a forced sale of a newspaper within the last 30 years. The only place a sort of involuntary change in ownership came was with extreme financial distress at the New York Daily News."

Guild-management relations have thawed slightly with ongoing off-the-record contract talks, and during a visit to Providence a few weeks ago, according to the Guild newsletter, www.riguild.org, Belo CEO Robert Decherd, in addition to denying any anti-union bias, asserted, "The Providence Journal is not for sale, period." Then again, Guild veterans note, former publisher Stephen Hamblett made a similar pronouncement before the Journal was unceremoniously sold to Belo.

In terms of Buddy Cianci, it seems as if his desire to buy the Journal was another unrequited pipe dream for an ambitious man not given to idle thinking.

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

Issue Date: January 24 - 30, 2003