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On the Ahlquist Story and Analysis

Providence Journal education reporter Jennifer Jordan had a fine cover story in Sunday's paper about the controversy over the prayer banner, recently deemed unconstitutional, at Cranston High School West.

She also had a smaller piece that was, in essence, an interview with Charles C. Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington who, as the article puts it, "specializes in the intersection of public schools and religion."

Haynes had some interesting things to say. And I've got no particular quarrel with Jordan on the piece; it looked like a quick, and compelling enough, sidebar to her main piece, which was obviously quite an undertaking.

But the Haynes story, I think, speaks to a bigger problem for the Journal which I've touched on before, a problem for the editors to tackle: the paper gives short shrift to analysis.

A broadsheet that insisted on a more robust analysis, that delved deeply into context and meaning, wouldn't run a single-source, afterthought sidebar in the Sunday paper. It would canvass plenty of smart people on the topic; it would make an all-out effort to answer the "what does it all mean?" question.

The potential for story angles here - for a piece that moved beyond the divisions at Cranston West and the (rather straightforward) constitutional questions - was endless: a rumination on present-day Rhode Island's disconnect with its founder and exemplar of religious tolerance Roger Williams (which Haynes mentions in passing in the interview); a take on what the reaction to the court's decision on the banner says about the state of religion - as faith, as cultural marker - in Rhode Island, circa 2012; a dissection of talk radio's role in pushing the story and making it national. The list goes on and on.

Providing this sort of analysis has become a crucial part of many newspapers' survival strategies, these days - the size and institutional memory of their staffs giving them a leg up on their quick-and-dirty, digital competition.

That may be less of a consideration in Rhode Island, where the Journal's competition hasn't been terribly fierce, historically. But the rise of alternatives - Rhode Island Public Radio, Ted Nesi over at WPRI.com, GoLocalProv, hopefully the Phoenix from time to time - is starting to change that dynamic. And the soon-to-be-erected "pay wall" at providencejournal.com could make the competition look even more appealing.

But strip away questions of competition and economics - and, in truth, even local papers that have placed a greater emphasis on analysis are struggling - and you're left with this: the ProJo would simply be a better newspaper if it thought more often and more deeply about context, if it put a story labeled "news analysis" on the cover of the paper every couple of days. And that alone, in the view of one humble media critic, is reason for change.

Correction: An earlier version of this post called Rhode Island Public Radio by its old call letters, WRNI.

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