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Corporate owners have hollowed out the once-formidable Providence Journal

The Providence Journal was an award-winning newspaper. But slowly, over the years, it has been hollowed out by corporate owners.

The Providence Journal.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

When The New York Times first called to recruit her, Cornelia Dean said no.

Why would she leave her job at The Providence Journal, covering a city so rife with crooked politicians and unscrupulous judges that it sometimes seemed like a theme park for reporters?

She considered it a privilege to work at a newspaper whose uncommon commitment to storytelling and deep-dive investigations would earn armloads of awards, including four Pulitzer Prizes.

“We sent reporters all over. I sent someone to Honduras when the civil war was raging there,” said Dean, who started in one of the Journal’s many local bureaus in the 1970s before becoming an editor. “The ProJo was just an excellent newspaper.”

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The Providence Journal building in downtown Providence. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

But times have changed. Over the past two decades, the venerable broadsheet, first published in 1829, has been gutted. The reductions in staffing, gradual at first, have been dramatic since 2014, when the Journal was bought by GateHouse Media, which later merged with Gannett to become the country’s largest newspaper publisher, accounting for about a quarter of all daily print circulation in the United States. The Journal used to have a dozen reporters in its Warwick bureau alone; now it has barely a dozen reporters total, and its top editor, David Ng, was dismissed in the latest round of layoffs. Readers have taken notice: The newspaper’s circulation, which once eclipsed 220,000 on Sundays, has shrunk to just 33,000 on the weekend — print and digital combined — and even less on weekdays.

Gannett remains knives out. In the last year, it’s undertaken three rounds of company-wide layoffs, in addition to hiring freezes, suspension of company contributions to 401(k) accounts, and mandatory unpaid leaves. The voracious cost-cutting is a response to Gannett’s massive debt, estimated at more than $1 billion, and poor financial performance. (The publicly traded company reported $54 million in losses during the second and third quarters of 2022.)

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“They’ve essentially said their No. 1 priority is paying off the debt,” said news industry analyst Ken Doctor. “So their products, like the ProJo, are losing circulation and advertisers more quickly and basically spiraling down.”

While the cuts affect all Gannett papers — in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, it owns the Taunton Daily Gazette, the Cape Cod Times, The Patriot Ledger, The Herald News in Fall River, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, The Standard-Times in New Bedford, and The Newport Daily News, among others — the tradition of excellence at The Providence Journal makes its dismantling especially alarming. Former staffers and longtime subscribers who remember when the paper, colloquially known as the ProJo, was thick with local news, long-form narratives, and prize-winning investigative projects are heartbroken.

“I don’t know whether to cry or tear my hair out,” said M. Charles Bakst, a veteran political reporter and columnist at the Journal who took a buyout in 2008. “It’s just been a decades-long slide.”

The oldest continuously published daily newspaper in the United States, the Journal has a proud history. In its heyday, from the 1970s through the mid-1990s, the paper maintained a dozen bureaus across Rhode Island, each with a team of reporters who scrutinized city and school budgets, hung around courthouses, and generally made a nuisance of themselves to movers and shakers — politicians, businesspeople, and influence peddlers — who preferred to conduct business behind closed doors.

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“We used to say, ‘If it hasn’t been in the Journal, it hasn’t happened,’” said Bakst.

On April 1, 1994, James V. Wyman, executive editor of The Providence Journal, announces to newsroom staff that the newspaper had won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Ruben Perez/Providence Journal-USA TODAY NETWORK

The list of Journal alums is illustrious: Legendary critic A.J. Liebling worked there in the 1930s; Ben Bagdikian, a Washington Post editor famous for his role in publishing the Pentagon Papers, won a Pulitzer in Providence in 1953; Dean Starkman, later an award-winning investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal, and Dan Barry, the celebrated scribe at The New York Times, were part of a team that won a Pulitzer at the Journal in 1994; current Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger interned at the Journal for two years in the 2000s; and before taking their talents to The New York Times, Helene Cooper, Sheryl Stolberg, and C.J. Chivers all had A1 bylines at the Journal.

Dean, who at first rejected the Times’ entreaties, accepted a job there in 1984, eventually becoming science editor.

“In the Times newsroom, when something would happen, I’d say, ‘Well, what we’d do at The Providence Journal...,’” Dean recalled. “People at the Times weren’t used to hearing someone hold up another newspaper as an example of how to do things.”

In the pre-Internet era, the Journal, like most US newspapers, made a mountain of money from advertising — grossing as much as $1 million a day, according to some old-timers. (That figure includes revenue generated by the TV stations and cable systems the paper’s former owner, The Providence Journal Co., also operated.) But unlike some newspapers, the Journal spent lavishly, too. It had a bureau in Washington and routinely sent reporters far beyond its circulation area to cover the news. For example, during the America’s Cup in 1987, the paper dispatched reporters to Australia for a month.

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The Providence Journal building at 75 Fountain St., in Providence. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“Seemed like a good thing to do because Newport’s a sailing capital,” said Gerry Goldstein, who worked in the paper’s South County bureau for 25 years before taking a buyout in 2001. “If it was a journalistically sound idea, you could be damn sure they were going to give it serious consideration.”

That was still true in the early 1990s, when an influx of refugees from Cambodia arrived in Rhode Island. Curious about the newcomers and the conditions in their home country, the paper’s immigration reporter Karen Ziner proposed going to Cambodia. Her editor said yes.

“It was meaningful to the Cambodians living here, and also to the greater population of Rhode Island who had all these refugees in their midst but no cultural connection,” said Ziner, a reporter at the paper for 38 years before taking a buyout in 2017.

Tracy Breton, a former reporter at The Providence Journal, went on to teach journalism at Brown University for several years. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Coverage of this sort is unimaginable today, said Tracy Breton, who worked at the Journal for four decades, much of it as an investigative reporter. With Starkman, Barry, and others, she shared the 1994 Pulitzer for a series that revealed pervasive corruption in the Rhode Island court system and led to the disbarment and conviction of the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

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Never mind what’s happening half a world away, Breton said, the Journal is so short-staffed now it barely covers its own backyard.

“I live in the city of Cranston — the second largest city in Rhode Island — and I have no idea from reading The Providence Journal what’s going on in my city,” said Breton, who taught at Brown University for 25 years before retiring in June. “Nobody knows if people are stealing money from city recreation funds, or if there’s corruption going on. It’s sad.”

“I’m very concerned about how many people are not informed,” said Neil Steinberg, president of the Rhode Island Foundation, which works with nonprofits, philanthropists, and civic leaders to find solutions to community concerns. “I’ll say to somebody, ‘What do you think of that bond issue?’ or ‘What do you think of that new legislation?’ And I get a blank look.”

Over time, the Journal closed all its state bureaus and its office in D.C. The paper has stopped publishing its Sunday magazine and ended all editorials, which means it no longer weighs in on important issues facing the state or endorses political candidates, and the Journal’s deadlines are so early that sports scores are more than a day old by the time they appear in print.

The effect over time has been a decline in circulation. The Journal’s formerly robust readership has dwindled precipitously. In September — the most recent figures available — the paper had barely 28,000 weekday subscribers, which includes print and digital.

“The Providence Journal used to be a powerful force in Rhode Island. They’d inform public opinion with their reporting,” said former Providence mayor Joseph Paolino Jr. “I’m a believer in the fourth estate — when you see things that are wrong, you should report it.

“But (Gannett) is a corporation,” Paolino said. “They’re trying to make money for shareholders. They’re certainly not giving the community what they once had.”

In 2019, recognizing an opportunity for regional expansion, The Boston Globe opened a bureau in Rhode Island with three reporters, two of whom previously worked at the Journal. Digital subscriptions have since tripled in the Ocean State, prompting the Globe to add five more editorial positions in the bureau. The paper is planning to open a New Hampshire office in 2023.

Most Journal employees who left or were laid off in the past few years declined to talk because they signed a nondisclosure agreement as part of their severance from Gannett. John Hill, a former reporter who was president of the Providence Newspaper Guild for 16 years before taking a buyout in 2019, said everything changed in the mid-1990s when the local families who owned the Journal for generations abruptly sold the paper to the Dallas-based A. H. Belo Corp., which, 18 years later, sold to GateHouse. The priority was those companies’ stock price, Hill said, not what the Pawtucket planning board was up to.

“At one of the (union) meetings, I said, ‘Guys, The Providence Journal that hired you doesn’t exist anymore,’” he said. “I told them, ‘There is this new Journal, and this is what we’ve got to deal with.’”

Gannett has been mute about its plans for the Journal or any of the other 400 or so weeklies and dailies it owns in 46 states. In response to an interview request, a company spokesperson responded with a one-sentence e-mail: “While incredibly difficult, we have implemented efficiencies across the company and are responding decisively to the ongoing macroeconomic volatility to continue propelling Gannett’s future.”

Gerald Carbone, a former reporter for The Providence Journal, still writes in his home office and saved some of the papers with his favorite stories, including one he wrote about the fire department and 911. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

There are still smart, hardworking reporters and editors at the Journal, but former staffer Gerald Carbone, whose long, detailed narratives about news events — a hiker lost in the White Mountains, a lobsterman forced to sever his own arm at sea, the emergency surgery performed on a state trooper shot in the line of duty — were a popular feature of the Sunday paper, said he’s glad he got out when he did.

“I could see what was happening and I didn’t want to weaken a strong institution,” said Carbone, who left the Journal in 2006 and has since written two books about American industrial history. “It took them a while to turn the ship into the iceberg, but they succeeded.”

On the day he quit, Carbone said he printed a copy of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird,” and left it on his desk in the newsroom. The poem, a lament about the passage of time, concludes: “The question that he frames in all but words/Is what to make of a diminished thing.”


Mark Shanahan can be reached at mark.shanahan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.