Not for Nothing was on an airplane today. And the big news, while I was unplugged, was the Providence Journal laying off 23 workers, or about 5 percent of its workforce. This comes on top of the 11 employees who took buyouts in September. The good news for readers: no reporters or editors are losing their jobs in this latest round of cuts. The bad news: the layoffs do not bode well for the long-term health of the paper.
Indeed, while other urban papers like the Boston Globe seem to have found something like equilibrium in recent years, the ProJo's trend seems consistently downward: declining circulation, declining advertising revenue, a shrinking staff.
There are no easy answers. But the primary lesson in the Globe's relative success, it seems, is this: you've got to innovate, you've got to try new things, or you'll die. The Globe has put the bulk of its journalism on a clean, highly regarded, paywall-protected website at bostonglobe.com, while maintaining a separate, spunky, free site at boston.com. The company is experimenting with an online radio station. It has built an on-site media lab that serves as an incubator for new ideas.
The ProJo obviously has fewer resources than its Boston cousin. But the paper could still be a whole lot more creative. A cleaner, 21st Century web site. An opinionated blogosphere. Columnists on the front page and a lot more news analysis there, too. A weekly interview with a big thinker on College Hill or beyond. A requirement that every reporter file at least one public records request per month, paving the way for a deeper dive into government's failings. There are so many possibilities.
And in a small, often parochial state where the ProJo has dominated for years, a little creativity could go a long way. Despite their grousing about the paper, Rhode Islanders want it to succeed. They just need a product worthy of their continued attention.