Will the last reporter to leave the Providence Journal please turn out the lights?
No, things haven’t yet gotten that bad. Still, the news dropped Monday by the Belo Corporation, the ProJo’s Dallas-based parent — that a company-wide buyout will eliminate up to 54 local jobs, including 37 on the news side — represents the latest incision in a painful dance of many cuts. That similar things are happening throughout the newspaper industry, and in such nearby cities as Boston, Hartford and New York, is of little consolation.
In Rhode Island, the buyout targets maximum reductions in the following job classifications: five section editors; four copy editors; four reporters (print and online); five columnist/special writers (which include critics and reviewers); and four photographers, among others.
Just who will leave won’t be known until a sign-up period ends on August 20, and the buyout offer isn’t particularly generous: “1.5 times weekly base pay for the first 15 years of continuous service, 2.5 times weekly base pay for years of service over 15. (Program caps at 21 years/40 weeks pay).”
The departures may nonetheless include some of the ProJo’s most veteran reporters, photographers, and editors. At the other end of the spectrum, a few of the most recently hired reporters could be vulnerable if too few (or too many) other staffers take the buyout, since Providence Newspaper Guild seniority would apply.
One insider describes what will be left as “murder and mayhem, sports and spike heels,” the latter being a reference to the ProJo’s forthcoming women’s lifestyle’s initiative, known as “In her shoes,” which is slated to have a heavy Web emphasis.
This is a bit harsh, considering how the ProJo’s crown jewels — the paper’s State House bureau and its investigative team — are unlikely to get axed.
Then again, political columnist M. Charles Bakst, who had already been mulling retiring next year, and metro columnist Bob Kerr are among those considering the buyout. If they go, it’s open to question if the Journal will maintain the columnists’ high-profile real estate on the front of the Rhode Island section.
And the buyout will make the ProJo, long a medium-sized jewel of American journalism, even thinner after it went through two similar rounds. One was to make it a more attractive target before Belo bought it (and the main prize, the Journal Company’s nine television stations) in 1997. The paper then lost a cumulative 1603 years of experience when 52 Guild members (and 38 other workers) subscribed to a subsequent buyout in 2001.
“It certainly is demoralizing,” says one reporter. “As it stands, we’re already working so hard and still not getting to all the news we should. Cut 10, 15, maybe 20 people out of that mix? I can’t even imagine. Even worse is to consider some of the names that might go. They’re people who are the real heart and soul of the place, and they’re not easily replaced. If we lose too many of the real stars at once, it could take years to recover.”
Tom Heslin, the ProJo’s acting editor, and publisher Howard G. Sutton, didn’t return calls from the Phoenix seeking comment.