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Newspapers are a great bargain — until they're gone

As The ProJo Turns
By PHILIP EIL  |  October 16, 2013

1018_TJI_ProJo_top.jpg 
BITTERSWEET A photo from Journal columnist Edward Fitzpatrick's Twitter account.

Longtime Providence Journal writer Mark Patinkin went out of his way in last Sunday’s column, “Penny for Penny, A Newspaper Is the Best Bargain Going,” to describe the editorial hierarchy at 75 Fountain Street. “When I finish a column, it goes to one editor, who often challenges me on various parts of it,” he wrote. “It then goes to a second ‘section editor,’ who catches more problems, and finally the copy desk, which puts together pages, and those editors, too, will spot things that need fixing.”

So it was all the more surprising, then, that nobody in this chain of command thought that maybe last Sunday wasn’t the best time for a column touting the Journal’s size (“about 125 professionals — at least five times the size of our closest competitor”), stature (“something you don’t find often in the blogosphere: Trained journalists backstopped by editors with their own deep knowledge of issues who make sure articles are written factually and with high standards”), and overall bang for the buyers’ buck (“But $1 for a paper? Do you believe it?”).

After all, the column arrived at a time when line graphs of the paper’s ad revenue and circulation look like black-diamond ski slopes and when the Journal’s owner, A.H. Belo in Dallas, had recently announced a new round of buyouts and layoffs, following similar purges in 2012, 2009, and 2008. (“Morale is terrible,” Providence Newspaper Guild president, John Hill, told Rhode Island Public Radio in September.) In fact, Patinkin’s column came just two days after fellow Journal reporters live-tweeted the newsroom farewell of four veteran colleagues who had opted to take that buyout. Photos of the cake at the celebration revealed just how much experience and institutional memory was lost in that single afternoon: 143 years.

Now, Mark Patinkin is a writer whose columns I’ve admired for years and whose Rhode Island Dictionary, illustrated by Don Bousquet, is a work of local literary genius. And he’s actually not wrong that the Journal is well worth its $1 newsstand price. Look no further than Bill Malinowski and Amanda Milkovits’s masterful, three-part “Cost of a Bullet” series that began on Sunday for a sense of what that $1 pays for. (Though, if we’re talking bargains, $0.00 for the Phoenix is tough to beat.)

But quoting former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino in your column on how he and other politicians used to “read The Journal with one eye closed, wincing at what might be on the next page,” does not turn our clocks back to 1984, when Paolino took office and the Journal was flush with enough subscribers and classified ads to underwrite that kind of watchdog power. Similarly, quoting Thomas Jefferson — “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter” — doesn’t magically make Craigslist, Facebook, the Huffington Post and all the other forces luring eyeballs away from Journal disappear.

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