Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Newspapering the hard way

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG | November 4, 2009

Tom Heslin, executive editor of the Providence Journal, does not say much in public about the broadsheet. And little surprise. The ProJo, which demands transparency elsewhere, has issued a long string of “no comments” about its own affairs.

So Heslin’s keynote address at the annual meeting of Common Cause Rhode Island last week arrived with an air of anticipation. What sort of vision would he lay out for the state’s paper of record? What kind of strategy would he outline for an industry in freefall?

Heslin started his speech with an amusing anecdote from his first reporting job at the York County Coast Star in Maine — a tale of a harbor master who told him a bit too much about a spill during a telephone interview, believing he was from the York County Coast Guard.

Then he turned to a small inscription that appeared in the paper: THWTB, an abbreviation for “The Hard Way’s the Best” — a motto, Heslin suggested, that has guided his ca-reer in journalism. Make the extra phone call, the credo demands. Dig a little deeper. Do it the hard way.

It is an admonition from another era — a muscular charge that the ProJo aims to bring into the digital age, Heslin said.

But putting the executive editor’s vision into practice will be no small task. Doing it the hard way in an era of diminished resources is, well, hard. And placing an emphasis on the instantaneous, on-line update — a central project of Heslin’s ProJo — means less time for the rigorous reportage of the past.

That’s not to say anyone has a better idea for how to operate in an uncertain era.

The steady migration of advertising from print to the web, heavy layoffs, and the primacy of the 24-hour news cycle have papers across the country going shorter and shallower in their coverage, even as they try to keep up some semblance of the depth and perspective that separates the broadsheet from other media.

But the formula, however ubiquitous, does not appear to be working. Average weekday circulation at American newspapers for the six months ending September 30 was down 10.6 percent from last year, according to recently released data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. At the ProJo, the drop was nearly 19 percent.

And the paper’s parent company, Dallas-based A.H Belo, just reported that it lost $5.8 million for the third quarter — better than last year’s losses, but losses nonetheless. In-deed, the “hard way” is an apt description of the path forward for a newspaper industry in dire financial condition.

But Heslin seems remarkably upbeat about the future of the ProJo. In his speech at Common Cause, and in a question-and-answer period afterward, he had few answers to ques-tions about the long-term survival of the newspaper.

But he voiced confidence that the “journalism of verification” — the straight-news kind — would find a market, just as the “journalism of assertion” would. That an industry in crisis would find some equilibrium.

Here’s hoping.