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May 12, 2020, 4:42 p.m.

In Rhode Island, the state’s largest daily no longer has any opinions of its own

The Providence Journal’s former publisher calls its elimination of editorials “an affront to Rhode Islanders.” But Gannett’s knife keeps cutting.

It is not news that Gannett, by far America’s largest newspaper chain, is cutting costs. (“Newspaper Cuts Costs” is perhaps the most banal headline of the past two decades.) The central argument for its November acquisition (brand and all) by GateHouse was that it would be able to cut $300 million or more in annualized costs via the alchemical magic of synergy.

As I noted today on Twitter, Gannett CEO Mike Reed said his newly merged company had 24,000 employees in November; last week, on an earnings call, Reed spoke instead of his “nearly 20,000 colleagues here at Gannett.” (As well as “our progress on the integration and realization of synergies.”)

Those cuts have taken many forms, but at The Providence Journal, one stood out. The newspaper — by far Rhode Island’s largest, about 10 times the size of any non-Gannett daily in the state — announced that it would no longer publish editorials. Here’s executive editor Alan Rosenberg:

We reached a milestone in Monday’s Journal, without saying so.

We published what may well have been the last Providence Journal editorial.

It’s a decision that we don’t make lightly. But it’s been coming for a long time…

[After the partisan newspapers of the 19th century,] most newspapers abandoned partisanship in their news pages, but kept the idea that they should speak out, in their editorials, on what they perceived as the best interests of their community and country.

But in doing so, they inadvertently undermined readers’ perception of a newspaper’s core mission: to report the news fairly. Our goal in news stories is always to learn, and reflect, the facts of a situation, then report them without bias. Reporters’ opinions, if they have them, have no place in our stories.

But when the newspaper itself expresses opinions on those same subjects, it causes understandable confusion. Readers wonder: Can reporters really do their work without trying to reflect the views expressed in their employers’ name? Can they cast a skeptical eye on a politician their paper has endorsed, or a generous eye on one it has opposed?

The answer is a definite “yes” — but my email since I became executive editor shows that many just don’t buy it.

This is compounded by today’s atmosphere of hyper-partisanship. People who oppose a particular official or candidate are infuriated by any editorial praise of him or her; people who support them are outraged by any criticism. None of which has anything to do with our reporters’ work.

And all of which gets in the way of what’s really important: our journalism…

So for now, at least, we’re done with editorials. I can’t bind my successors, but for the present The Journal will not run them, or endorse candidates at election time.

I say this with no disrespect to Rosenberg, who I’m sure is doing the best with what he has to work with, but: Horsefeathers!

Back in the real world, the Journal just laid off its editorial page editor in a round of Gannett cuts. That editor was Edward Achorn, a former Pulitzer Prize finalist for Commentary and had been at the paper for two decades. (The Journal’s editorial-page staff had around 11 people when he started; the newsroom had about 300 staffers altogether.)

Although I have produced pages through Monday, Friday was my last day at The Providence Journal. It has been my tremendous honor to have served the people of Rhode Island on these Commentary pages for nearly 21 years, fighting political corruption, advancing reform and defending our hard-won freedoms, particularly the First Amendment. Along the way, I was privileged to be named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Commentary and to win the Yankee Quill Award for lifetime achievement in New England journalism and many other prizes.

Expressing ideas is often a difficult task, subjecting one to personal attacks or worse. But I can never forget the extraordinary kindnesses I received. I feel wonderfully blessed to have won the friendship and support of readers as well as leaders in business, government, and religion here, and to have edited the work of superb journalists and writers, including our intrepid corps of letter writers.

We have seen a retrenchment in editorials and endorsements at a few other papers, like my alma mater, The Dallas Morning News, which decided it would stop endorsing a candidate for president. (Does all of this have anything to do with the fact print newspapers’ older audiences are more likely to support Donald Trump, someone who almost no American newspaper was willing to endorse in 2016? I have my suspicions. “Why anger some of our best customers?” someone at corporate likely asked.)

But the Journal abandoning editorials is a scale of retreat that may be unique in the United States: a state’s dominant paper, in its capital city, volunteering to abandon one of its most significant roles — with no rival paper in a position to take its place. Sure, Rhode Islanders may not need the Journal to know who to vote for president or senator. But for races lower down the ticket — state legislature, city council, ballot initiatives, school board — an editorial board provides an important civic function.

(Not least in a state like Rhode Island, where politics is dominated by Democrats — they hold 99 seats in the General Assembly, versus 14 for Republicans — and traditional partisan attachments aren’t as useful a heuristic for voters.)

The change was stark enough to draw this fiery opinion piece from Howard G. Sutton II, the ProJo’s publisher from 1999 to 2014.

There is an unwritten protocol that the publisher emeritus stays sanguine regarding the future of the enterprise and silent on newspaper issues.

The Providence Journal recently announced that it was discontinuing the publishing of editorials. This is clearly a corporate cost-cutting measure thinly veiled as eliminating any confusion readers might have between a newspaper’s editorial stance and factual reporting. Apparently, the newspaper of record does not think that its readers are insightful enough to discern the distinction between news coverage and editorializing.

This is an affront to Rhode Islanders that causes me to break tradition and speak out.

For 15 years, I had the privilege of being the publisher of The Providence Journal. With that stewardship came the responsibility of overseeing the editorial position of a venerable, statewide newspaper of distinction…

Reporters are the heart of a newspaper and the editorial pages are its soul. The Providence Journal has lost its soul…

The Journal’s editorials stepped on plenty of toes. But change for the better is not possible without offending someone. The loss of this voice for the people of Rhode Island is a sad chapter in the storied history of The Journal.

I fear that the story is nearing its conclusion. Bang the drum slowly. Play the pipe lowly.

It was less than three months ago that the Journal highlighted Achorn and the importance of a strong editorial section.

My role is important because people, they see news fly by them. And I say, “Wait a minute. This story is important. Let’s discuss it.”

I think for that reason, the editorials in The Providence Journal, particularly in matters of the state government, are important because they make people stop and look at what’s happening. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the news. Sometimes you need someone to make sense of it.

I covered Washington. I covered the Massachusetts State House. I covered local governments. I think that experience helps me explain better to readers what is important.

I think it’s very important for The Journal, as an institution, to stand up and fight for the people of Rhode Island.

(The Journal also laid off a 30-year sports writer as well as newsroom legend Janet Butler, who had worked there for 50 years.)

Last year, we wrote about The Boston Globe’s efforts to invade Rhode Island — stationing reporters there and adding more coverage. Here’s how Globe editor Brian McGrory put it then, diplomatically: “We saw opportunity in Rhode Island, where quite honestly great newspapers like the Providence Journal were seeing significant cuts and that market is particularly engaged in news.”

The Globe has only three reporters stationed in Rhode Island. But who knows — a few more rounds of Gannett cuts and the Journal may get close to that coming from the other direction. As of January, it reportedly had fewer than 15 news reporters left.

Photo of downtown Providence by JJBers used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 12, 2020, 4:42 p.m.
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