There may, in the end, be no way to save the American metropolitan newspaper. Plummeting advertising revenue and competition from the Internet often seem forces too daunting for even the savviest of publishers.
But in the last couple of years, broadsheets from Boston to Denver to San Francisco have settled on a single strategy: go local.
Glance at the cover of any major newspaper, outside a handful with national audiences, and you'll find roughly the same thing — a single wire service story out of Washington or Baghdad surrounded by missives on the latest murder, City Hall intrigue, and statewide unemployment figure.
Here in Rhode Island, the Providence Journal has taken the trend to its logical conclusion — moving all of its local coverage to the front section of the paper and banishing the national and international news, save for a front-page story or two, to a second section dubbed projoNation.
Absent any obvious path to financial security, the über-local approach may the best available for the modern daily. With national and international news just a click away, diminished papers are focusing their energies on what they, alone, can deliver.
But the new strategy is not merely a matter of moving parochial concerns from the back pages to the front. Layoffs, shrinking space, and a growing appetite for the instant on-line update are forcing editors to re-imagine the local news altogether, with profound implications for civic life.
Stories are shorter. Entire cities and towns are going uncovered. Local science, business and arts reporting are in decline. Newsrooms are shifting to a web-first mentality. And a retreat from intense and often narrow coverage of the city or town council has created an opportunity for a journalism with more perspective — and an impediment to the same.
An American newspaper that has narrowed its sights is, at the same time, embarking on its greatest experiment. And there is, perhaps, no better place to watch the beakers bubble than at the long, brick building on Fountain Street in downtown Providence.
'A PROVINCIAL NEW ENGLAND NEWSPAPER'
The ProJo, like its readership, has long been inward-looking.
In his introduction to The Providence Journal: 150 Years (1980), a sympathetic history by Garrett D. Byrnes and Charles H. Spilman, Edwin P. Young writes that the paper "was — and is — essentially a provincial New England newspaper."
That's not to say the paper has focused its sights on Rhode Island alone.
The late Jack White won a Pulitzer Prize for a 1973 story that detailed President Richard Nixon's underpayment of his income taxes. There have been series on the decline of the American farm and US interference in Latin America. And it was not so long ago that the ProJo was sending scribes to cover the Olympics, the national political conventions, and the Iraq War.
The paper, like most dailies across the country, has curbed its national and international ambitions in recent years. The Journal's only real presence outside the state now is a one-man Washington bureau.
But even in its heyday, the ProJo covered national and international events through a Rhode Island lens. And for decades, its bread-and-butter has been state and local affairs.
The paper pioneered the suburban bureau in 1925. Printed all manner of City Council and school board minutia. Placed a heavy emphasis on State House reporting. Built a tradition of writerly storytelling that was the envy of reporters across the country. And in what may prove to be the pinnacle of the ProJo's local report, the paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for an investigation of corruption in the courts.
The decay that followed was slow. The ProJo discontinued its Sunday magazine in 1995 amid declining revenue and surging newsprint prices. And the trimming of the news staff began in earnest with Dallas-based A.H. Belo Corporation's $1.5 billion purchase of the ProJo and the nine television stations it owned in 1996.
Vacancies went unfilled. The suburban reporting staff shrunk. Newsroom managers consolidated bureaus.
And then, in the fall, a more pronounced blow: the ProJo shed 53 news and advertising jobs through buyouts and layoffs and — in a curious move for a paper attempting to focus on the local — closed its four remaining suburban bureaus.
The reinvention had begun.
"I tell people, 'The Providence Journal you knew went out of business in October 2008 . . . and we all got a job at a new company,' " said John Hill, a reporter who is president of the Providence Newspaper Guild, which represents editorial and advertising staff.
If the fall cuts were the turning point, though, a shift had been in the offing for some time.
There were the long-term economic pressures on the paper, of course. But there was also the rise of Thomas E. Heslin, a ProJo fixture who became interim executive editor in May 2008 after the retirement of Joel P. Rawson, a respected, old-school newsman.
Heslin, who declined to comment for this article, is firmly rooted in the paper's local news tradition. He presided over the team that won the Pulitzer for the court corruption series, after all.