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New ProJo deadline poses concern on sports coverage

There's another squeeze on the news side at the Providence Journal. Here are the details, as reported in a piece I prepared for this week's Phoenix

When the Providence Journal focuses its resources, it remains quite a good newspaper.

This was the case last week, when the ProJo did an impressive job in offering the state’s best and most comprehensive coverage of three important stories: the governor’s budget proposal; the latest developments in an ongoing federal probe of State House influence-peddling; and the release of grand jury testimony in the 2003 Station nightclub fire disaster.

By offering detailed stories through a combination of Web- and print-based reporting, the Journal showed how it’s more than capable of upholding its traditionally strong journalistic mission.

            Still, given ongoing retrenchment and less-than-stellar morale on Fountain Street -- and industry-wide uncertainty about the direction of newspapers -- it’s only reasonable to wonder about the ProJo’s future.

            And after some curious recent cost-cuts (including sponsorship for the RI Statewide Spelling Bee), executive editor Joel Rawson announced in a January 24 memo that the Journal’s deadline was being moved forward 30 minutes “to accommodate distribution while they adapt to a new organization and method of distributing the paper.”

            While Rawson indicated that the normal deadline is supposed to resume on March 19, some staffers are doubtful.

            Since the executive editor is said to have unsuccessfully argued against the earlier deadline, this is another sign of how the ProJo’s editorial side remains committed to quality – but the business guys are calling the shots.

            Distribution concerns are nothing to sneeze at. Yet if the earlier deadline – said to be 10 pm for most editions – remains in place, it could seriously erode the paper’s sports coverage. As a New England institution, the Boston Red Sox sell a ton of newspapers, for example, and the team’s home games rarely end in time for a 10 pm deadline. Not surprisingly, “The sports guys are pretty freaked out,” says one insider.

The ProJo’s bedtime had already been moved up in the past.

            Sources believe the deadline was changed this time because changes in circulation and distribution have left the Journal with little margin for error in getting the paper printed and ready for delivery.

            Meanwhile, a small note recently tucked into a delivered ProJo by one carrier described how the newspaper and its corporate parent, the Dallas-based Belo Company, “have reorganized all the distribution routes throughout the state. All sub-contracted carriers are now required to delivery 7 days a week,” as opposed to just Sunday or Monday through Saturday.

            In a related matter, some readers perceive a change that has left the Journal’s editorials with a less-than-fresh quality. After the November election, for example, the paper’s first editorial about it didn’t come until five days later.

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