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38 Studios, the ProJo, and the Future of Journalism

The Providence Journal has a strong front page story today by veteran scribes Mike Stanton and Andy Smith explaining Curt Schilling's side of the 38 Studios debacle. The paper gets inside the company's generally off-limits headquarters, provides a splash of color - Schilling shows up in the first paragraph "gaunt, unshaven and wearing a wrinkled 38 Studios T-shirt" - and offers a blow-by-blow account of the saga consuming the state and much of New England.

This is the paper at its best. It's a reminder of the ProJo's importance in the state's cultural and political life. And more broadly, it's a reminder of what the nation's daily newspapers still do better than anybody else.

But a couple of stories from recent days, on the fortunes of daily newspapers in New Orleans and Boston, remind us of the precarious quality of this sort of journalism - and provide new insight on the future of the ProJo.

New York Times media writer David Carr laments the fate of New Orleans' Times-Picayune, which will no longer publish every day.

I was in the city right after Hurrican Katrina in 2005, and the role the newspaper and its Web site played cannot be overestimated. Many of the women and men who work at the paper stayed and filed articles even as their families dispersed and their homes went underwater. It was the kind of journalism that won Pulitzers, but more important, reunited families, gave people critical guidance and brought order out of incredible chaos.

Since then, the newspaper has prosecuted coverage that has kicked up federal investigations and helped bring rogue cops to justice. In a city where not much of anything works, the newspaper does.

I return to New Orleans often — to fish, eat and dance. But it is a particular pleasure to sit in one of the city’s many coffee shops and watch plain old folks jaw over The Times-Picayune, brandishing it like a weapon when they want to make a point.

The paper will now publish three days a week - Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays - with its diminished staff focused on the web. But New Orleans, as Carr notes, is not a particularly wired city. And the paper's web presence has never been its strength. One can't help but wonder if the Times-Picayune's tradition of in-depth journalism will suffer as it goes increasingly digital.

Closer to home, a different story.

The Boston Globe, after facing down its own existential crisis, seems to have reached some equilibrium. Its clean, handsome subscription web site, bostonglobe.com, was recently named the "World's Best Designed" by the Society for News Design. And Boston's NPR affiliate, WBUR, had a story today on the Globe Lab, a high-tech center at the newspaper's Morrissey Boulevard headquarters in Dorchester that is churning out software that aims to redefine the news business.

So where, then, does the Providence Journal stand on this continuum? Is it the Times-Picayune, the Boston Globe, or neither?

The ProJo is clearly not engaging in the sort of high-tech innovation that is powering the Globe these days. A quick glance at the paper's web site - some news briefs, coupled with a pdf of the print product buried behind a pay wall - is all the evidence you need. But the analogy to the Times-Picayune isn't quite right either.

TheTimes-Picayune has conceded to the future - scaling back its print edition and making the hard, and deeply uncertain, transition to the web.The ProJo, by contrast, is clinging steadfastly to the past. Indeed, the pay wall the paper has erected on its site seems a naked ploy to drive readers back to the traditional, and more lucrative, print product.

That can seem a ridiculous strategy when the Globe is pursuing the opposite tack, just up the road, to what looks like greater success. But Greater Boston is a different market - more affluent, more wired. Indeed, Rhode Island - blue-collar, parochial, broke - shares more in common with New Orleans and its environs than we might like to acknowledge.

And if Rhode Island lies somewhere between Boston and New Orleans, then the ProJo's strategy looks a little more clear-headed than it once did: Rhode Island isn't wealthy enough to support a Journal Lab, the paper's executives seem to be arguing, but it's got enough money to keep a traditional, struggling broadsheet alive longer than, say, New Orleans might.

The paper is, in essence, betting that Rhode Island will remain a wealthy region's struggling client state. It's not a terribly inspiring vision. But the 38 Studios debacle - just the latest sign of the state's shoot-itself-in-the-foot economics - suggests it's probably a realistic one.

Now, whether the ProJo's backward-looking strategy can sustain the paper for more than a few years, even in a state better suited to the strategy than most, remains to be seen. Indeed, the paper may pay, in the long-term, for its failure to face the future.

But for now, the Journal can look to the Times-Picayune and say: "well, it could be worse."

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