Former writer: ProJo spiked my final column


An unidentified editorial writer was among those laid off when the Providence Journal eliminated 30 news jobs in October. David A. Mittell Jr., who had been with the ProJo for 11 years, subsequently contacted me to identify himself as the individual in question. What's more, according to Mittell, publisher Howard Sutton spiked his final column -- a lament on the self-destructive ways of the newspaper industry.

Mittell, who lives in Boston's Jamaica Plain section and whose ProJo columns have been syndicated, was apparently among those cut since he was a part-timer. By contract, part-timers had less seniority than full-timers.

The Journal's op-ed page occasionally features columns on the woes in the newspaper industry, such as when Llewellyn King wrote a November 1 column, headlined Requiem for US newspaper journalism, or November 10, when Gil Klein wrote on how In journalism, gadgets beat content.

Yet in 2002, when Sutton spiked a similar op-ed by Charles McCorkle Hauser, a former executive editor at the ProJo, it signaled a growing level of timidity at Rhode Island's statewide daily.

If Sutton returns a telephone message, I'll post an update.

Meanwhile, here's most of what was intended to be Mittell's final ProJo column:

[N]ewspapers have made the mistake they, of all institutions, ought to have been wise to: believing their bad press. Shallow analysis has decided that newspapers are going the way of the sanitary gatherers who followed horses before horse power became horsepower. Newspapers have stopped believing in their own product. As railroads did, they are diminishing the quality of their product in a self-fulfilling prophecy that for some is going to assure their doom.

According to former Boston Globe columnist David Warsh, the major metropolitan dailies that have traditionally been the intellectual currency of our great cities are dumbing down their newspapers in favor of experimental attempts to imitate Matt Drudge, craigslist, "Hot Russian women" and downhill thence into a mire. It is their La Brea Tar Pits (my term, Mr. Warsh's idea).

Some newspaper executives don't know how to run a business, period. An example may be GateHouse Media, owner of 97 dailies, 198 paid weeklies and many free publications. The company acquired so many papers so fast its stock price dropped from $12.82 a year ago to 29 cents [in October]. Its future -- along with the Brockton Enterprise, the Herald News of Fall River, the Taunton Daily Gazette, and the Patriot Ledger -- is uncertain.

Other executives know how to run a business but not a newspaper. A classic case is Edward P. Johnson III -- at 78, still resident sage at Fidelity Investments. The story is that, irritated by the Boston Globe, he bought 96 Massachusetts newspapers, mostly local weeklies. He hired the late David Brudnoy as movie critic, but did not understand that people don't buy their local paper to read a movie critic, they buy it for the local news. He did not succeed, and in 2001 sold to the Boston Herald, which in 2006 sold to GateHouse Media.

Still other executives may know how to put out a newspaper technically, but don't [know] what a newspaper is. These are the ones Mr. Warsh says are running down their lifelines -- their paper editions. "The paper-and-ink version is easy to read, easy to share, comforting in its corporeality, reassuring in its permanence: it has a durable niche market .  ... Many readers will be satisfied with the inferior information they can get free anytime from the Web. But many will continue to prefer the real thing."

David Warsh is a quirky genius who has gone against the herd since I first met him as a college freshman, in 1962. Newspaper management won't admit it, but many of them no longer believe content matters; and they do not believe paper editions have a future. The Boston Globe has reduced the number of papers distributed to stores -- presumably to save the cost of picking up unsold copies. I would call it suicide.

You would think newspapers would be democratic; "Here are my clips. Judge me accordingly!" In fact, large newspapers are hierarchical bishoprics in which power takes a long time to acquire and is jealously guarded. De-ossifying antiquated stratification, not gutting content, is the correct imperative.

This newspaper, like many others, runs three-inch ads stuck on the front page above the fold. We were sorely criticized in 2006, when a political ad of this genre ran on election day. A candidate had outsmarted his rivals. What would they have said if we had censored the ad? The critic missed the more revealing point that the literally tacky ad eclipsed the news headline and a logo commemorating the Journal's 175 years of service to Rhode Island and the nation. 

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