Does Declining Projo Need Ownership Like Globe’s John Henry?

Monday, March 10, 2014


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This is a tale of two newspapers.

One is full of energy, experimentation, and hope.

That one is in Boston.

The other is in limbo, rudderless and adrift.

That one is in Providence.

Talking to news staffers from both papers is a study in contrasts: like talking to someone who just won the lottery, and someone who had a death in the family.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on,” says one staffer. “Will it all work? Who knows? But there’s a ton of energy. ”

Says the other: “There’s a lot of anger and bitterness. That would be fair to say.”

This is the difference news-ownership makes – and especially, it should be emphasized, local ownership. It’s the difference between hope and despair, a future and oblivion.

The Boston Globe is now fully under the control of billionaire Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, who bought the paper last year from the New York Times Company for $70 million, and installed himself as publisher a couple of months ago. Henry is in the newsroom frequently, talking to reporters and editors, and his paper has just announced a series of sweeping changes, new hires, and strategic shifts that have boosted morale and given the enterprise a new sense of purpose.

The Providence newsroom is a ghost town. It goes without saying executives of its Dallas-based parent, AH Belo, are not frequent visitors to the newsroom and neither, for that matter, are its Providence-based executives.

“Leaderless,” says the staffer. “We’ve been leaderless for about six years.”

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The Projo, as everyone knows, is up for sale, a long overdue move that may in fact be too late. Belo has been a singularly ineffective owner, as I’ve written, managing to underperform the rest of the newspaper industry by a wide margin and while showering its executives with undeserved bonuses.

Belo says it hopes to have the paper sold by next month, and it really can’t come soon enough.

Of the bad financial news that has been emanating from the Providence Journal recently, among the most disturbing bits was this bit in passing from Belo is its most recent quarterly financial disclosure :

“Digital revenue increased 7 percent over the prior year quarter, as a 9 percent increase at The Dallas Morning News was offset by a decline at The Providence Journal.”

Belo said the Projo digital revenues also dragged down the rest of the company’s digital performance for the year.

The decline is remarkable because digital revenue has been growing at newspapers across the board. In some cases, as in Dallas, it’s growing a little, mostly via its digital-marketing units. In other cases, major newspapers like The New York Times, and the Financial Times and the Guardian in the U.K., it’s growing a lot. But it’s growing, usually powered by digital subscriptions, known as paywalls.

Everyone knows that print revenues have been shrinking at newspapers: print ads have fallen out of bed and print circulation continues to ease down (except at the Projo, where it has fallen much faster than the national average). Fair enough, but digital ads have been growing in the single and low double digits since the mid-2000s, according the Newspaper Association of America , while revenue from digital-only subscriptions grew 275 percent in the last decade throughout the industry and growth has actually been accelerating in the last couple of years.

Slower growth is one thing but negative growth is quite another. I asked Alison Engel, Belo’s chief financial officer and investor relations contact, for an explanation and will update if and when I hear back. It’s beyond discouraging.

It is difficult to watch my old paper, aimless and with no discernible strategy, as it prepares to be sold by its out-of-town owners into a market that so far as produced no promising buyers.

But it’s doubly difficult to see in contrast to the Boston Globe, which is in the middle of a period of unusual ferment and excitement.

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Last week, the Globe’s top editor Brian McGrory set the media world buzzing with a memo announcing a revamped digital strategy that will see the paper drop its hard paywall, which charges readers for access to any articles, in favor of a so-called “metered model” pioneered by very successful New York Times experience that allows readers several articles a month for free and unlimited access via search and social media.

The paper also announced it was going to disentangle its second site,, from the newspaper site,, and give it new leadership and a new identity.

The two-site approach has always been a bit of a hash – it was never easy to see where the free site left off and the paid site began – and the strategy seemed to capture the worst of both words: a hard paywall muted growth by not allowing reader to be drawn into the site and become convinced of its usefulness. Meanwhile, the free site provided another reason not to subscribe to the Globe and was burdened with all the disadvantages of trying to turn a profit on low-priced digital ads.

It’s still not clear how the two sites will work together – or not – but that’s not the point.

The point is, the paper is trying something, anything, to make a go of it.

Boston Magazine , which did a long look at Henry this month, posted an interview with him this week that portrayed an interested, engaged, and public–spirited owner fully invested in trying to solve the puzzle of making local news profitable again.

I’ve been a skeptic , but his rhetoric is becoming a little difficult to resist. Here he is on why he bought the paper:

I wanted to be a part of finding the solution for the Globe and newspapers in general. I feel my mortality. I don’t want to waste any of the time I have left and I felt this was a cause worth fighting for. Part of what’s been so satisfying with the Red Sox all of these years was the feeling among us of a common cause. It seems like virtually everyone I’ve met thus far in journalism shares that feeling as do so many at the Globe.

Another experiment the paper is trying is a new website with a focus on Catholic issues. The paper already hired John Allen, a well-respected reporter from the National Catholic Reporter, to lead the effort and now is adding new staffers, including Ines San Martin, a young Argentinian to cover the Vatican.

It was only seven years ago that the Globe was closing its foreign bureaus – in Jerusalem, Berlin and Bogota.

Now it’s opening one.

Is this a good idea? Who knows? Wags around the newsroom joke ask when the Jews get their own edition.

But there is precedent. The focus on faith takes a page from the playbook of the Deseret News, based in Salt Lake City and owned by the Mormon Church, which has enjoyed surprising success with a national edition focused on faith and family issues that has found an audience both among Mormon outside of Utah and other readers interested in such a focus.

Whether the Globe can similarly capture a national audience around a Catholic edition remains to be been, but it will have the advantage of an arm-length relationship to the institution it is covering, unlike the Deseret News.

And one other thing: If the Globe does go on to future success, some -- and maybe most -- of the credit should go to its former owner, The New York Times Company, which, for the most part, held the line during the worst of the newspaper industry’s free fall and largely kept the newsroom intact.

That was decidedly not the case in Providence, where Belo’s response to revenue shocks was to cut news staff, which only hurt product quality, leading to further revenue losses, and more staff cuts. If the Projo doesn’t make it, or doesn’t make it in a recognizable form, much the blame will go to Belo.

It should be said that even with its hard paywall, and before Henry appeared, the Globe had managed to reverse longstanding circulation declines, even as Providence Journal circulation continues it relentless decline, despite its own paywall.

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Look, it’s important to keep things in perspective. As Henry himself says, the Globe is at best a break-even proposition, and that’s not good enough when revenue continues to declines. Reversing that is Job 1.

There is no guarantee that the new metered paywall will work, nor is there really a clear plan for the multiple-site strategy. I asked the Globe to explain how it all is supposed to work, and will let you know if and when I here back. Meanwhile, Henry is moving quickly to sell the company’s main asset – its Morrissey Boulevard headquarters – helping Henry recoup some of his investment and take some chips off the table.

And just last week, the Globe laid off the remaining half-dozen correspondents who provided its Your Town hyper-local coverage .

Like the Globe staffer quoted above, I don’t know if the paper can be stabilized financially and put on path to growth in a very difficult environment for local and regional journalism. But I do know someone has to try, and in Boston, someone is trying.

The Projo, for its part, is down to its last chance. Last week, the paper wrapped up contract talks with newsroom and advertising workers, a last hurdle to the paper finally being sold.

John Hill, president of The Newspaper Guild local at the paper, says the hope is for a local buyer though no credible reports of one have emerged so far. Hill says that the sale means, “Hey, we got a chance here.”

Everything depends on the identity of the buyer. A sale to a financial player, like Gatehouse Media Inc., would be another nail in the coffin to a vital independent newspaper in Rhode Island.

On the other hand, a local buyer with deep pockets and deeper knowledge of the media business could lead to a Globe style effort at reinvention.

Such buyers do exist in Rhode Island, and I have one in mind. The question is, will the buyer step up.


Related Slideshow: Rhode Island’s Changing Media Landscape

Radio, print, television and digital - the faces in Rhode Islands's media has changed drastically over the past months... Let's take a look at some of the biggest moves:

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Bob Kerr

The long time Providence Journal columnist Bob Kerr was sent packing by the new ownership group.

The unceremonious dismissal ended the tenure of the Projo's only true news columnist. 

Kerr was talented and often controversial. 

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Howard Sutton

The long-time publisher was Belo's man in Providence. Howard Sutton was the man that implemented the changes that Dallas wanted to try and make the company more efficient and more profitable.

The results were dismal. Maybe no newspaper in the country lost a higher precentage of ad revenue than the Projo over the past decade.

He was the face of the paper in the community. 

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Andrew Gobiel

Andrew Gobeil has been named campaign manager for Republican candidate for Attorney General Dawson Hodgson.
Gobeil began his media career covering politics as a teenager for a Cape Cod radio station. He has served as one of the youngest NPR affiliate news directors in the country, Washington editor and national correspondent for a television station group, and managing editor and host of a statewide public affairs program.  
Gobeil was the morning co-anchor at Providence’s ABC-TV affiliate and co-host of a morning news program on WPRO radio.  He is currently working on a non-fiction book about the journalism business. 
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Rick Daniels

Rick Daniels has joined GoLocal24 as Chief Operating Officer.

Daniels is the former President of the Boston Globe. He also served as CEO of Gatehouse Media for New England and led a consortium of investors who attempted to purchase the Boston Globe from the New York Times Company in 2013.

Daniels then went on to play a key role at Empirical Media Advisors based in New York, focused mainly on Tribune Publishing, where Emprical’s co-founder and CEO, Jack Griffin, recently took the role of CEO.

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Fred Campagna

Fred Campagna has joined FOX25 in Boston.

Before Campagna began working at FOX25, he served as the Chief On-Air Meteorologist at ABC6 for fourteen years.

After leaving ABC6 in July 2012, Campagna launched his own digital weather platform, Right Weather.


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Karen Meyers

WLNE-TV has fired anchor Karen Meyers. She had been with the station since 2011.

Meyers had anchored the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news with John DeLuca. Sources say station management opted not to renew her contract and decided to go in another direction.

Before Meyers joined ABC6, she was a reporter/anchor with New England Cable News and was a reporter in Washington, DC.

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Felice Freyer

According to RIPR reporter Ian Donnis, Providence Journal's Health Reporter is leaving.  Felice Freyer has been the sole reporter covering Rhode Island's largest businss sector.

Freyer leaves for the Boston Globe.

Her departure follows Phil Marcelo who recently left the Projo for AP in Boston.

Editor's note: An earlier version incorrectly had RIPR reporter Scott MacKay as breaking the story.

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Flo Jonic

Veteran radio reporter Flo Jonic recently was fired by RINPR after she filed complaints against the station  for gender-based pay discrimination.

Jonic is a 30 year veteran of New England news radio.

In her charge filed in February, Jonic wrote, "I believe that I have been discriminated against based on my sex by my employer," and referred to the difference in her pay and that of RIPR reporter Ian Donnis.

"Currently, [reporter] Ian Donnis earns at least $75,000 a year, while I make $51,000 per year. We perform the same duties, and I have 32 more years experience than he does," wrote Jonic in her complaint.

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Phil Marcelo

After a seven year stint reporting for the Providence Journal's state house bureau, Phil Marcelo left the paper to take a reporting gig with the Boston office of the Associated Press.

Hailing from Long Island, New York, Marcelo came to ProJo in 2006, and covered everything from regional news, to Providence City Hall and the Statehouse. Marcelo's departure was first reported by WRNI's Ian Donnis.

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Julie Tremmel

Formerly a nightly news reporter for WJAR, Tremmel was fired from the "Team You Trust" after two clips, one of her performing on-air handstands, and the other offering tips on what to do during a bear attack, went viral.

The video became an internet sensation, but long-time Channel 10 newsman Jim Taricani called Tremmel’s antics “a smudge on our station's reputation.”

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Jim Taricani

A long-time staple of Channel 10’s news team, Taricani announced plans to retire after over three decades with the station. 

Taricani has won 5 regional Emmy awards, an Edward R. Murrow award for investigative journalism and a Prestigious Yankee Quill Award from the New England Newspaper Association.

He was convicted to six months in prison in 2004 for refusing to reveal a source, and is the youngest person ever to be inducted into the Rhode Island Hall of Fame.

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John DePetro

WPRO talk show host has come under fire for comments he made on air regarding women. Leading union organizations have called for DePetro to be fired. 

Most recently, he has been on announced suspension.

DePetro apologized for his comments.

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Helen Glover

Former star of the reality show Survivor, turned talk radio show host is out. Helen Glover departs and is replaced by radio Veteran Ron St. Pierre, who only months earlier was let go by 630 WPRO. St. Pierre is a radio Hall-of-Famer and former top sports anchor on WPRI-12.
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Mike Stanton

Mike Stanton, the remaining reporter from the Providence Journal's once storied investigative team, is leaving Fountain Street for a teaching job at the University of Connecticut.
Stanton, who was part of the team that won the Providence Journal's last Pulitzer and is the author of the "Prince of Providence," the Buddy Cianci expose, departs leaving the Projo without an investigative reporter. 
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Dean Starkman

GoLocal named Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Dean Starkman as a contributor and editor-at-large.
"Dean Starkman has a tremendous track record in financial, media, and investigative reporting. His work at the Wall Street Journal as a reporter and as an editor and writer at Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), coupled with ground-breaking investigations of public corruption for The Providence Journal, is unsurpassed in the region," said Josh Fenton, Co-Founder and CEO at GoLocal24, the parent company to
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Karen Bordeleau

Karen Bordeleau takes over for Tom Heslin as Executive Editor for the Providence Journal.
Before joining the newspaper in 1996, she worked at the Kent County Times and the Woonsocket Call. 
She is a graduate of Northeastern University and a Rhode Island native.
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Bob Whitcomb

Bob Whitcomb has been the editor of the editorial page of the Providence Journal since 1992 and Vice President since 1997. 
His book, "Cape Wind" unveiled the business and political story behind Jim Gordon's effort to build a wind farm off of Cape Cod.
Prior to being a powerful voice at the Providence Journal, Whitcomb served as Financial Editor at International Herald Tribune.
He is slated to leave later this year according to RI NPR.
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Tom Heslin

Managing Editor of the Providence Journal, Tom Heslin, is retiring. 
Heslin who has been a journalistic leader of the Journal since the 1990's, led the paper's team the one their last Pulitzer Prize in the early 1990's and had to implement a series of staff cuts during the past decade.
Widely respected by journalists, Heslin has recently suffered from health issues.
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Tara Granahan

The former co-host to the morning drive show is now Buddy Cianci's sidekick and co-host on the 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm drive time show on WPRO AM.
Granahan has had a host of assignments at WPRO and is the only woman on air at WPROAM. 
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Connie Grosch

She was the star photographer for the Providence Journal for better than a decade.
Her State House/Political photos made her one of the most influential members of the Providence Journal staff. 
In late 2012, the Providence Journal let her go as part of the latest cost cutting ordered by the home office in Dallas.
In January, she was named press secretary to U.S. Congressman David Cicilline (D-1). She just announced she was leaving the Congressman's staff to return to photography.
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Gene Valicenti

The co-host of Channel 10's 6:00 pm news is now doing double as the host for WPRO's 6:00 am to 10:00 am morning show.
Previously, Valicenti lost his 11:00 pm slot on WJAR.
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Jennifer Jordan

One of the top Providence Journal reporters is leaving not only Fountain Street, but also journalism. 
She was one of the guild members with the least longevity - more than 10 years.
She leaves for Boston-based Opportunity Nation - a not-for-profit.
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Ron St. Pierre

The new guy at WHJJ - he takes over the morning show from the departed Helen Glover.
For decades, Ron St. Pierre has been a key player in the media industry in both local television and radio.
St. Pierre handled sports at WPRI TV, hosted morning drive at WPRO AM, and most recently, was Buddy Cianci's co-host in the afternoon.
(Photo: Alan Levine, Flickr)

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