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Is the staffing glass half-full or half-empty?

The Providence Journal rolled into 2006 in dramatic form. Mike Stanton’s blockbuster December 31 Sunday story, which revealed serious expense-account abuse by Robert Urciuoli, president of the nonprofit Roger Williams Medical Center, foreshadowed Urciuoli’s indictment a few days later, and it illustrated why the ProJo remains Rhode Island’s preeminent news source.

Still, for all the time readers could spend savoring Stanton’s toothsome takeout, the Sunday Journal not uncommonly resembles a snack more than a meal. And as the paper implements a series of cost-cutting measures and personnel changes, insiders remain mixed about the impact.

The most dramatic move is the suspension of the ProJo’s two-year reporter-intern program, and the transformation of six of these positions into permanent reporters. The switch certainly represents good news for the young scribes — Talia Buford, Benjamin Gedan, Kia Hayes, Arthur Kimball-Stanley, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger (the son of New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.), and the newly hired Philip Marcelo — and it will help to build the paper’s institutional memory.

Although a number of talented hires have come out of the reporter-intern program, including C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, Michael Corkery of the Wall Street Journal, and Ariel Sabar and Jonathan Rockoff of the Baltimore Sun, it has perpetuated a steady degree of turnover at the ProJo since being introduced in the ’90s. Providence Newspaper Guild administrator Tim Schick says that "with the state of the economy, the company might have been having difficulty recruiting interns," since some candidates were more likely to take a post with more long-term job security at a smaller paper.

Plans also call for adding three production posts and at least one reporter for www.projo.com. Considering the paper’s traditionally slow pace in creating additional jobs, Guild president John Hill takes the new hires "as a serious sign that they’re beefing up the operation. I think we’re better served waiting to see what the final shape of things will be before trying to pass judgment on it."

At the same time, the departure of Jennifer Levitz, one of the ProJo’s most talented writers, for a job in the Wall Street Journal’s Boston bureau, appears to continue a trend in which vacancies created by departing staffers, including Corkery and former State House reporter Liz Anderson, are not being filled. Although Elizabeth Gudrais was recently dispatched to take Anderson’s State House slot, for example, the shift means that the night cops beat will rotate among various staffers, rather than being filled by a less experienced reporter, as has long been the case.

The hiring of the reporter-interns is good news, says medical reporter Felice J. Freyer, "but it doesn’t change anything. There are fewer people covering the local news out of the bureaus than ever before, and they’re not increasing it." Suspending the reporter-intern program — which once had about 16 participants — represents a loss in personnel. Meanwhile, the "bare-bones" staffing means that Freyer can only devote four days a week to her busy beat. "It makes it very hard for me to do my job as I perceive it," she says.

Readers are reportedly most upset about the ProJo’s recent inclusion of TV listings in the broadsheet newspaper, rather than as a separate book — part of a broader effort to cut costs through the use of less newsprint and other steps.

Through his assistant, executive editor Joel P. Rawson declined to comment.

Issue Date: January 13 - 19, 2006
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