Tom Heslin, executive editor of the Providence Journal, opened his speech before Common Cause Rhode Island last night with an amusing tale of his first reporting job at the York County Coast Star newspaper in Maine and spoke of a small abbreviation that appeared on the front of the broadsheet: THWTB. It stood, he said, for "The Hard Way's The Best."
Heslin went on to deliver an upbeat lecture on the state of the ProJo and pledged that the paper would bring the best journalistic values of the past into an uncertain future. He pledged that it would dig. That it would continue to do it the hard way.
But doing it the hard way, with far fewer resources, has proven, well, hard. And the paper, racing to keep up with a digital age, has put a premium on the instantaneous, on-line news report - a medium that does not lend itself to the rigorous reportage of the past.
Indeed, doing it the "hard way," these days, is perhaps a better description of the business challenges facing the paper. Figures released earlier this week show circulation of the daily edition plummeted close to 20 percent. And there could be more bad news this afternoon when the ProJo's parent company, A.H. Belo, releases third-quarter numbers.
But Heslin, in spite of all this, seems genuinely hopeful about the future of the ProJo as news organization, if not as newspaper. Audience response to the Journal's news blog, he said, suggests there is a continuing market for the "journalism of verification" - the straight-news kind - as opposed to the "journalism of assertion," which also has a market.
But how to wring enough profit from that market? Several audience members asked Heslin that question and he did not have an answer. In fairness, no one does. It will be a hard way forward.