The ProJo's fading memory

Tomorrow's Phoenix will contain my profile of Mark T. Ryan, general manager and executive vice president of the Providence Journal, whose influence has steadily ascended during Howard Sutton's eight-year tenure as publisher.  

As Anchor Rising's Marc Comtois astutely pointed out, the fate of the Journal should concern all Rhode Islanders since, as the state's largest and most important news organization, it has a dramatic impact in determining which stories do (and don't) get covered. An emaciated ProJo is not good for anyone.

However, institutional memory is among the casualties of the ongoing cuts on Fountain Street. I write about this in a sidebar to my profile of Ryan:

When former Dodgers pitcher Clem Labine, a Woonsocket native who played a key role in the Brooklyn Bums’ 1955 World Series triumph, died at age 80 on March 2, his death barely got a mention in the next day’s Providence Journal.


            On March 4, sports editor Art Martone, a graceful and knowledgeable baseball writer, got up to speed with a column, albeit one that ran on page C-10, about Hall of Famer Stan Musial’s abysmal hitting record against Labine. So it wasn’t until sports columnist Bill Reynolds offered a section-front appreciation on March 6 that the venerable old hurler got his due.


            Although the ProJo still offers a lot of important reporting, staffers and outside observers cite such lapses in drawing a sharp distinction between the paper’s surefooted past and its more elliptical present.


            The Journal hasn’t had a buyout since 2001, when more than 90 staffers (and 52 Providence Newspaper Guild members) -- representing 1603 cumulative years of experience -- elected to leave the paper. Yet some key players, including executive editor Joel Rawson and political columnist M. Charles Bakst, are approaching retirement. Metro columnist Bob Kerr isn't that far behind.


            Kerr hit on these concerns himself with a column on April 5, 2006, noting how the March 27 passing of the longtime former owner of a downtown bar-deli frequented by ProJo staffers initially went unnoticed, and “many people learned of his death from a paid obituary in the Journal.”


            “There was a time when news of Greg Karambelas’s death would have reached the Journal and worked its way quickly from editor to reporter to photographer to sportswriter to pressman,” Kerr wrote. “We would have gathered to mourn one of the last of the great saloonkeepers, a generous man who would occasionally point out, with relish, that he was a Greek running a Jewish-style deli in a bar called Murphy’s.


            “There’s a very good chance we would have headed across the street to raise a glass in his memory. But that time is gone. Vital connections have been broken. In the best of newspaper worlds, someone who regularly traveled the 75 yards from the Journal’s front door to Murphy’s would have heard the news last week and come back to make sure that Karambelas was given his well-deserved place in the pages of a paper so richly influenced by lessons at the bar.”


            Things didn’t go much better for Don Murray, who died at age 82 on December 31, 2006, and whose death the ProJo covered with a five-paragraph Associated Press obit -- even though he had played an instrumental role in helping to establish the paper’s in-house writing program.


            Rawson remarked on the oversight in a memo sent to staffers next day, calling it “not adequate notice of his passing. Don Murray had a tremendous impact on this newspaper, and on many of us who heard him and wrote for him, for he always made us write, editors as well as reporters.” 


            Ultimately, Rawson wrote, “What I learned was that an individual with a pencil and a notebook determines the quality of the work he or she produces, not the institution they work for. It is a lesson I hold close as our industry changes around us.”

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