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A new day — and an ominous mood — on Fountain Street

As The ProJo Turns
By PHILIP EIL  |  September 10, 2014

The completion of the sale of The Providence Journal to the newspaper mega-conglomerate GateHouse Media — officially announced in the paper on Wednesday, September 3 — felt less like a Buckingham Palace change of the guard and more like a tornado had touched down on Fountain Street.

According to veteran Journal reporter and longtime Providence Newspaper Guild President John Hill, 22 employees were not re-hired by the Journal — laid off, in other words — in the Belo-to-GateHouse transition. The most notable of them was beloved ProJo columnist Bob Kerr, whose dismissal brought howls of anger and dismay. On Twitter he was hailed as “one of American journalism’s treasures” (WGBH News senior editor Peter Kadzis), “our own RI Woody Guthrie of journalism” (local artist/writer Jessica Rosner), and “the voice of RI and a model of human decency” (Brown University professor of biostatistics Joe Hogan). Boston Globe reporter and Journal alum Mark Arsenault tweeted, “Why not just visit every reader individually, and slap them in the face when they open the door?”

There were other changes, too. Head to the Editorial Board’s page on providencejournal.com and you’ll find the ranks trimmed from five members to four. Gone are stalwarts Irving Sheldon and David Brussat (both reportedly let go), with interim publisher Bernard Szachara, in their place. (It should be noted that the board remains strikingly middle-aged, male, and white.)

And then there are the promises and premonitions. The good news is — if you believe anything Gatehouse publicly says, that is — according to an interview Szachara granted to the Journal, the paper will ultimately hire enough new staffers to bring the paper to 98 percent of its pre-sale, 350-employee total. The paper will also be bolstering its investigative reporting staff, Szachara said.

According to the September 3 edition of the Providence Newspaper Guild’s newsletter, The Guild Leader, though, Gatehouse “officials said they intend to outsource ad makeup work by the pre-pub department in January [2015] and the work of the copy desk in February, which could mean as many as 30 more layoffs over those two months.”

“These are good jobs,” Hill told us in a phone interview. “People can feed a family with these jobs. They can own a home with these jobs. And they’re gonna be gone.”

So, what’s the mood like inside ProJo HQ?

It depends whom you ask.

In a September 7 column that conspicuously parroted Szachara’s promises of new hires and increased investigative reporting while whitewashing both the disastrous Belo era and the anguish of recent days, longtime columnist Mark Patinkin — who did not lose his job in the change in ownership — wrote, “despite transition pains and the loss of a few beloved colleagues, I’m reporting today from the inside that the mood is pretty good.” He called the change “a historic transition.”

John Hill, meanwhile, sees things differently. “As somebody who has talked to people in the newsroom, people in the advertising department, people in the photography department. . . people are very upset with the way this is going,” he tells us. Given indications the paper may lose up to 50 jobs over the course of the GateHouse-ProJo absorption process, “I don’t see how anyone would feel reasonably good about that,” he says.

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