Does Declining Projo Need Ownership Like Globe’s John Henry?
Monday, March 10, 2014
One is full of energy, experimentation, and hope.
That one is in Boston.
The other is in limbo, rudderless and adrift.
That one is in Providence.
Talking to news staffers from both papers is a study in contrasts: like talking to someone who just won the lottery, and someone who had a death in the family.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on,” says one staffer. “Will it all work? Who knows? But there’s a ton of energy. ”
Says the other: “There’s a lot of anger and bitterness. That would be fair to say.”
This is the difference news-ownership makes – and especially, it should be emphasized, local ownership. It’s the difference between hope and despair, a future and oblivion.
The Boston Globe is now fully under the control of billionaire Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, who bought the paper last year from the New York Times Company for $70 million, and installed himself as publisher a couple of months ago. Henry is in the newsroom frequently, talking to reporters and editors, and his paper has just announced a series of sweeping changes, new hires, and strategic shifts that have boosted morale and given the enterprise a new sense of purpose.
The Providence newsroom is a ghost town. It goes without saying executives of its Dallas-based parent, AH Belo, are not frequent visitors to the newsroom and neither, for that matter, are its Providence-based executives.
“Leaderless,” says the staffer. “We’ve been leaderless for about six years.”
Belo says it hopes to have the paper sold by next month, and it really can’t come soon enough.
Of the bad financial news that has been emanating from the Providence Journal recently, among the most disturbing bits was this bit in passing from Belo is its most recent quarterly financial disclosure :
“Digital revenue increased 7 percent over the prior year quarter, as a 9 percent increase at The Dallas Morning News was offset by a decline at The Providence Journal.”
Belo said the Projo digital revenues also dragged down the rest of the company’s digital performance for the year.
The decline is remarkable because digital revenue has been growing at newspapers across the board. In some cases, as in Dallas, it’s growing a little, mostly via its digital-marketing units. In other cases, major newspapers like The New York Times, and the Financial Times and the Guardian in the U.K., it’s growing a lot. But it’s growing, usually powered by digital subscriptions, known as paywalls.
Everyone knows that print revenues have been shrinking at newspapers: print ads have fallen out of bed and print circulation continues to ease down (except at the Projo, where it has fallen much faster than the national average). Fair enough, but digital ads have been growing in the single and low double digits since the mid-2000s, according the Newspaper Association of America , while revenue from digital-only subscriptions grew 275 percent in the last decade throughout the industry and growth has actually been accelerating in the last couple of years.
Slower growth is one thing but negative growth is quite another. I asked Alison Engel, Belo’s chief financial officer and investor relations contact, for an explanation and will update if and when I hear back. It’s beyond discouraging.
It is difficult to watch my old paper, aimless and with no discernible strategy, as it prepares to be sold by its out-of-town owners into a market that so far as produced no promising buyers.
But it’s doubly difficult to see in contrast to the Boston Globe, which is in the middle of a period of unusual ferment and excitement.
The paper also announced it was going to disentangle its second site, boston.com, from the newspaper site, bostonglobe.com, and give it new leadership and a new identity.
The two-site approach has always been a bit of a hash – it was never easy to see where the free site left off and the paid site began – and the strategy seemed to capture the worst of both words: a hard paywall muted growth by not allowing reader to be drawn into the site and become convinced of its usefulness. Meanwhile, the free site provided another reason not to subscribe to the Globe and was burdened with all the disadvantages of trying to turn a profit on low-priced digital ads.
It’s still not clear how the two sites will work together – or not – but that’s not the point.
The point is, the paper is trying something, anything, to make a go of it.
Boston Magazine , which did a long look at Henry this month, posted an interview with him this week that portrayed an interested, engaged, and public–spirited owner fully invested in trying to solve the puzzle of making local news profitable again.
I’ve been a skeptic , but his rhetoric is becoming a little difficult to resist. Here he is on why he bought the paper:
I wanted to be a part of finding the solution for the Globe and newspapers in general. I feel my mortality. I don’t want to waste any of the time I have left and I felt this was a cause worth fighting for. Part of what’s been so satisfying with the Red Sox all of these years was the feeling among us of a common cause. It seems like virtually everyone I’ve met thus far in journalism shares that feeling as do so many at the Globe.
Another experiment the paper is trying is a new website with a focus on Catholic issues. The paper already hired John Allen, a well-respected reporter from the National Catholic Reporter, to lead the effort and now is adding new staffers, including Ines San Martin, a young Argentinian to cover the Vatican.
It was only seven years ago that the Globe was closing its foreign bureaus – in Jerusalem, Berlin and Bogota.
Now it’s opening one.
Is this a good idea? Who knows? Wags around the newsroom joke ask when the Jews get their own edition.
But there is precedent. The focus on faith takes a page from the playbook of the Deseret News, based in Salt Lake City and owned by the Mormon Church, which has enjoyed surprising success with a national edition focused on faith and family issues that has found an audience both among Mormon outside of Utah and other readers interested in such a focus.
Whether the Globe can similarly capture a national audience around a Catholic edition remains to be been, but it will have the advantage of an arm-length relationship to the institution it is covering, unlike the Deseret News.
And one other thing: If the Globe does go on to future success, some -- and maybe most -- of the credit should go to its former owner, The New York Times Company, which, for the most part, held the line during the worst of the newspaper industry’s free fall and largely kept the newsroom intact.
That was decidedly not the case in Providence, where Belo’s response to revenue shocks was to cut news staff, which only hurt product quality, leading to further revenue losses, and more staff cuts. If the Projo doesn’t make it, or doesn’t make it in a recognizable form, much the blame will go to Belo.
It should be said that even with its hard paywall, and before Henry appeared, the Globe had managed to reverse longstanding circulation declines, even as Providence Journal circulation continues it relentless decline, despite its own paywall.
Look, it’s important to keep things in perspective. As Henry himself says, the Globe is at best a break-even proposition, and that’s not good enough when revenue continues to declines. Reversing that is Job 1.
There is no guarantee that the new metered paywall will work, nor is there really a clear plan for the multiple-site strategy. I asked the Globe to explain how it all is supposed to work, and will let you know if and when I here back. Meanwhile, Henry is moving quickly to sell the company’s main asset – its Morrissey Boulevard headquarters – helping Henry recoup some of his investment and take some chips off the table.
And just last week, the Globe laid off the remaining half-dozen correspondents who provided its Your Town hyper-local coverage .
Like the Globe staffer quoted above, I don’t know if the paper can be stabilized financially and put on path to growth in a very difficult environment for local and regional journalism. But I do know someone has to try, and in Boston, someone is trying.
The Projo, for its part, is down to its last chance. Last week, the paper wrapped up contract talks with newsroom and advertising workers, a last hurdle to the paper finally being sold.
John Hill, president of The Newspaper Guild local at the paper, says the hope is for a local buyer though no credible reports of one have emerged so far. Hill says that the sale means, “Hey, we got a chance here.”
Everything depends on the identity of the buyer. A sale to a financial player, like Gatehouse Media Inc., would be another nail in the coffin to a vital independent newspaper in Rhode Island.
On the other hand, a local buyer with deep pockets and deeper knowledge of the media business could lead to a Globe style effort at reinvention.
Such buyers do exist in Rhode Island, and I have one in mind. The question is, will the buyer step up.
Related Slideshow: Rhode Island’s Changing Media Landscape
Radio, print, television and digital - the faces in Rhode Islands's media has changed drastically over the past months... Let's take a look at some of the biggest moves:
The long-time publisher was Belo's man in Providence. Howard Sutton was the man that implemented the changes that Dallas wanted to try and make the company more efficient and more profitable.
The results were dismal. Maybe no newspaper in the country lost a higher precentage of ad revenue than the Projo over the past decade.
He was the face of the paper in the community.
Rick Daniels has joined GoLocal24 as Chief Operating Officer.
Daniels is the former President of the Boston Globe. He also served as CEO of Gatehouse Media for New England and led a consortium of investors who attempted to purchase the Boston Globe from the New York Times Company in 2013.
Daniels then went on to play a key role at Empirical Media Advisors based in New York, focused mainly on Tribune Publishing, where Emprical’s co-founder and CEO, Jack Griffin, recently took the role of CEO.
WLNE-TV has fired anchor Karen Meyers. She had been with the station since 2011.
Meyers had anchored the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news with John DeLuca. Sources say station management opted not to renew her contract and decided to go in another direction.
Before Meyers joined ABC6, she was a reporter/anchor with New England Cable News and was a reporter in Washington, DC.
According to RIPR reporter Ian Donnis, Providence Journal's Health Reporter is leaving. Felice Freyer has been the sole reporter covering Rhode Island's largest businss sector.
Freyer leaves for the Boston Globe.
Her departure follows Phil Marcelo who recently left the Projo for AP in Boston.
Editor's note: An earlier version incorrectly had RIPR reporter Scott MacKay as breaking the story.
Veteran radio reporter Flo Jonic recently was fired by RINPR after she filed complaints against the station for gender-based pay discrimination.
Jonic is a 30 year veteran of New England news radio.
In her charge filed in February, Jonic wrote, "I believe that I have been discriminated against based on my sex by my employer," and referred to the difference in her pay and that of RIPR reporter Ian Donnis.
"Currently, [reporter] Ian Donnis earns at least $75,000 a year, while I make $51,000 per year. We perform the same duties, and I have 32 more years experience than he does," wrote Jonic in her complaint.
After a seven year stint reporting for the Providence Journal's state house bureau, Phil Marcelo left the paper to take a reporting gig with the Boston office of the Associated Press.
Hailing from Long Island, New York, Marcelo came to ProJo in 2006, and covered everything from regional news, to Providence City Hall and the Statehouse. Marcelo's departure was first reported by WRNI's Ian Donnis.
Formerly a nightly news reporter for WJAR, Tremmel was fired from the "Team You Trust" after two clips, one of her performing on-air handstands, and the other offering tips on what to do during a bear attack, went viral.
The video became an internet sensation, but long-time Channel 10 newsman Jim Taricani called Tremmel’s antics “a smudge on our station's reputation.”
A long-time staple of Channel 10’s news team, Taricani announced plans to retire after over three decades with the station.
Taricani has won 5 regional Emmy awards, an Edward R. Murrow award for investigative journalism and a Prestigious Yankee Quill Award from the New England Newspaper Association.
He was convicted to six months in prison in 2004 for refusing to reveal a source, and is the youngest person ever to be inducted into the Rhode Island Hall of Fame.
Ron St. Pierre
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