Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Journal editor underscores market for accurate news, suggests fee for online service

by John Howell

Nov 03, 2009

The day could soon come when the Providence Journal Company will charge readers for its online news.

Thomas E. Heslin, senior vice president and executive editor of the daily newspaper, suggested that possibility as he addressed the annual meeting of Common Cause Thursday at Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet.

Heslin’s touched on the cost of providing accurate, timely and dependable information on the Internet during a presentation where he outlined recent changes in the newspaper and the Journal’s commitment to covering local Rhode Island news.

“We’re at a birth of a new era,” Heslin said emphasizing that the Journal is “holding on to values of accuracy, fairness and balance” in its 24-hour coverage on its Web site. Yet, he added, “the financial landscape of the news industry is very complex” and the company is looking at ways “to effectively and fairly charge for news content on the Web.”

And in a question-and-answer session following his prepared remarks he was asked directly if the Journal would charge for news on the Web.

Heslin said he is confident the business will transform itself and the Journal as well as newspapers across the country will find a way of providing content on the Kindle and e-readers.

“We want to be a multi-platform organization,” he said “We’ve just started. It hasn’t been invented yet.”

Heslin did not elaborate on how or when the Journal might start charging for content on its Web site.

Yet in his talk Heslin underscored the importance of the Web and how Journal reporters are reporting breaking news minutes after it has happened and with updates thereafter. He said standards of accuracy are in place and that “there is a market for verification.” As for the newspaper he used last Wednesday’s edition to illustrate the reach of the Journal’s 80 reporters and photographers in providing Rhode Islanders a picture of the community. In particular he cited coverage of the General Assembly and developments concerning the H1N1 or swine flu pandemic.

Of the company he said, “We aspire to be the news organization to set the agenda…this is the mirror…this is the big picture.”

In response to a question from Peter Von Stein, Heslin defended A.H. Belo, the parent company of the Journal, as “a pretty good newspaper publisher.”

Von Stein expressed concern over the Journal’s future, observing that the newspaper’s circulation dropped by 19 percent in the past year; that Belo has trimmed Journal operations and that Belo faces its own financial problems.

“How do you plan for a future in Rhode Island with absentee ownership,” asked Von Stein. “I’m troubled with people that have no interest in Rhode Island.”

“Most big complex media problems are not as simple as they seem on the face,” Heslin responded.

He said the Journal “run independently” and it is the “stewardship” of the newspaper that is important.

Heslin didn’t have an answer for the man who lamented the Journal’s reduction in local news coverage and his question who would be keeping an eye on municipal officials. But when former Representative Nick Gorham surmised people are more disenchanted with the General Assembly than ever Heslin said, “we are committed to covering the General Assembly.” He noted that in addition to coverage through the Journal’s Web site readers are able to biographies of legislators and votes on particular bills.

That was of interest to John Marion, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island. Marion would like to see a listing of all votes taken by legislators accessible on line.

Marion highlighted the organization’s mission “to hold our leaders accountable” adding “and that’s what we’re going to do.”

He said that Common Cause is “trying to rein in the money that taints our politics” and is moving forward with its agenda to see that when redistricting occurs, which will happen following the 2010 Census, that those districts are more representative of the community rather than designed to keep the incumbent in power.

Common Cause recognized Warren Galkin with the excellence in public service award and attorney Thomas Bender with the distinguished service award.

A longtime supporter of Common Cause, Galkin served as a member of the organization’s executive director and assistant director search committee.

In comments after receipt of the award from Common Cause President Kevin McAllister, Galkin spoke about the importance of good government adding, “for a state that’s in dire need of good government.”

As for the award Galkin said, “in this stage of life I’m not going to turn anything down and it doesn’t come much better than this.”

A member of the Common Cause Governing Board, Bender was recognized for his pro bono work and in particular two recent briefs filed with the Rhode Island Supreme Court in the cases of Irons v. The Rhode Island Ethics Commission, and In re Request for Advisory Opinion from the House of Representatives (Coastal Resources Management Council).

In the Irons case, Bender argued that members of the General Assembly are not immune from the State Ethics Code while engaged in their legislative activities, and are not entitled to a jury trial when “probable cause” allegations of Ethics Code violations were found to exist. The Advisory Opinion sought by the Rhode Island House of Representatives sought the opinion of the Rhode Island Supreme Court on four issues involving the 2004 Separation of Powers Amendments to the Rhode Island Constitution, including whether those amendments were self-executing.

In his acceptance, Bender said it was a “privilege to do this kind of work.”