The ProJo's Local Problem

I've got a wide-ranging cover story in the current issue of the Phoenix on the Providence Journal's failing business model and lackluster journalism. I've received more email on this piece than any in memory - a sign, I think, of both the widespread dissatisfaction with the paper and the broad hope that it will do better.

Anyhow, one of my correspondents said he'd dropped his subscription to the paper, in part, because it had shuttered the regional bureaus that once produced four-day-a-week "zoned" sections covering different parts of the state. It's a critique that didn't make it into my piece. But it's one I share. Let me explain.

When I was a reporter at the ProJo, I worked in one of those bureaus, covering the city of Cranston. The bureau was a standard starting point for a new staff writer. Show some promise and, after a couple of years, you might land in the main, first-floor newsroom on Fountain Street.

I was eager to make the leap. And not merely out of some sense of ambition, though that certainly played a role. The hyper local stuff - City Council meetings, school board meetings - can be mind-numbingly boring to sit through. And even in the most capable hands, the material can make for uninspiring stories.

But for parents with kids in the local schools, city employees, or those with an (unexplainable) interest in City Hall politics, this was important stuff. And with the ProJo in decline, the zoned sections - ours was called "West Bay" - were a reason to keep buying the paper.

The paper shuttered the bureaus in the fall of 2008, just as I was laid off. It seemed an odd business decision to me then. And it still does. Sure, closing the offices probably produced some short-term savings. But it seemed a real blow to the paper's emerging brand: in an era of diminishing resources and a fragmenting web, the ProJo was ceding national and international news to and staking its future on local news.

If the paper insisted on closing the bureaus, there were other ways to produce hyperlocal news on the cheap. The Boston Globe's "Your Town" web portal, for instance, makes good use of student journalists. But the ProJo has done nothing of the kind.

Instead, it's pursued the course that makes the least sense: printing in the main section of the paper - sometimes on the front page - the sort of City Council meeting stories that once prevailed in the zoned editions. These are stories of no interest to anyone outside the town of origin. And if you print enough of them, you get readers wondering if they should keep buying the paper at all.

This isn't to say that local government should never make it into the paper. A well-wrought trend story - here's a problem 20 different cities and towns are grappling with - can be of use (the ProJo has done some of this with its pension coverage). And I'd like to see more profiles of local pols on the make; where's the piece on Cranston Mayor Allan Fung's rising star?

The paper should also realize that there's one Rhode Island city worth covering in greater depth. As Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy points out, capital cities are municipalities we all have in common. If your average reader from Cranston could care less about South Kingstown, she probably does have some interest in Providence doings.

A paper that insists on shuttering its bureaus should pour more of its freed-up resources into covering the East Side, the colleges, and the city's tech entrepreneurs. That's local journalism worth paying for - and the ProJo is in real need of paying customers.




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