By: George Garneau
Providence Journal Co. to merge Evening Bulletin with
morning Journal in a plan designed to save $4 million a year and
to reverse circulation declines by reinvesting in local news sp.
ANOTHER AFTERNOON edition will bite the dust June 5 when the Providence, R.I., Evening Bulletin, founded in 1863 to provide late-breaking Civil War news, merges with the morning Providence Journal.
Providence Journal Co., which has considered a merger off and on for decades, is trying not only to cut costs but to win back readers by providing more local news, executives said.
Soaring newsprint prices were not a significant factor in the decision, but will sweeten the savings, company executives added.
This is a lot more than a merger, however. The creation of the Providence Journal-Bulletin represents a major makeover, affecting everything from what’s in the paper ? the new emphasis on community news ? to how it is organized, produced and distributed, and when.
The closely held company expects to save about $6 million a year on materials and labor, but the new and improved Journal-Bulletin is pumping a lot of the savings ? over $2 million a year ? into local news, in an effort to satisfy what market research has identified as a strong demand from potential readers.
The merged paper will boost the local news staff to 50, from 32, a 56% increase. It is more than doubling the local news hole and expanding zoned local sections, which appear Thursday now, to every weekday.
Plans call for gradually cutting 84 positions, mostly in circulation ? through attrition and buyouts, not layoffs ? at a price of $4 million to $5 million in severance costs. The creation of 24 editorial positions, mostly intern reporters, brings the net job loss to 60, leaving about 1,150 on the payroll.
Another $1-million investment in inserting equipment and desktop publishing systems will allow the statewide metro daily to carry the local sections that are envisioned to be the equivalent of seven community papers.
The Providence Journal-Bulletin is the largest of Rhode Island’s five dailies. Officially an all-day paper since 1988, the current two editions have a combined circulation of 182,000 daily. That includes about 70,000 Bulletins, down from 126,000 in 1985. About 300 journalists generate content for both editions, which are the same except for cosmetic changes and the occasional breaking story in the Bulletin.
The company’s board approved the plan in March, capping a year of planning by a 100-person task force.
Projections for zoned advertising in the local sections are “undefined,” said Howard Sutton, vice president and general manager. “We think the potential is there, but the entire process is driven by what we need to do to stop the decline in circulation.”
Local news is at the heart of the merger plan, executives said. They said research indicated that readers were more interested in strong community coverage than in what time the paper arrives. Interest in local news provided an opportunity to reverse a slow circulation erosion in which afternoon losses were not matched by morning gains.
After several years in which soft advertising shackled news coverage, the challenge was figuring how to finance a revamped local news product, said deputy executive editor Joel Rawson, who spearheaded editorial planning.
“We can do [local coverage] a lot better than we used to do it, but we had to find the money, and the money was in afternoon distribution,” he said. After thorough study and planning, he said, the company opted to “go out of the afternoon distribution business, in order to build up the product.”
The demand for local news was firm.
“They [readers] won’t cut any slack for us because we are a good metro. That’s not good enough. You’ve got to get in and cover the towns,” Rawson said. “They want news about schools, local government financing, development. They don’t want personality features.”
The plan for local coverage includes hiring 18 intern reporters working on two-year contracts, four photographers and two editors.
Meanwhile, the newspaper is geographically reconfiguring its seven zones to better align them by community interests and expanding zoned sections to every weekday, from Thursday currently.
Executives say the new local focus is a return to a tradition the company started in the 1920s by establishing local news bureaus and zoning. The latest incarnation was modeled largely on changes the Hartford Courant in Connecticut has made, with some success, in the past few years, Rawson said.
To highlight local reporting, the Journal-Bulletin will split its state and local news section into two sections. Editors in seven regional bureaus will have the autonomy to tailor their sections to meet the needs of readers, whether urban, suburban or rural.
Local news will jump from about a page a day now to anywhere from three to eight pages, with a color front. Within 18 months, Rawson said, editors will edit and electronically compose their sections in the bureaus on new Macintosh-based equipment.
A new production scheme pushes the copy deadline for the first editions to 12:20 a.m., from 11:30 p.m., a move expected to improve coverage of late sports events and local government meetings.
At the same time, a network of 11 local bureaus, including outposts in the state’s biggest cities, will be consolidated into the seven regional bureaus. Statehouse and Washington, D.C., bureaus are not affected.
“As an editor, I am really encouraged,” Rawson said. “We have more people and more news hole, and we are going to be covering our communities better.”
Under contract with the Newspaper Guild local, the interns, dubbed “Bics” for their limited tenure, will earn about $40 a week below the Guild scale of about $480 a week.
“There will be some disruption of jobs because of shift changes, and we are concerned that with the new employees in local news, and their inexperience as reporters, that the quality of the news will deteriorate,” said union president Frank Santafede, whose unit represents 500 white-collar workers at the paper.
When the presses roll for the first editions of the combined Providence Journal-Bulletin, they will start an hour later, at 1:30 a.m., thanks to added press units and online inserting of sections printed earlier in the day.
The Ferag inserting system allows classified, business and feature sections to be printed, starting at 8 p.m., and to be wound onto huge disks for storage.
Because they are printing smaller papers in two runs, the paper’s flexo presses will run in straight mode, meaning they will produce twice as many papers an hour as they do now, running full papers collect.
When main news sections come off the press early in the morning, advance sections are unwound and inserted at press speed to create papers for single-copy sales. Independent contractors who deliver to home subscribers will assemble the two parts before delivery.
A portion of the expected newsprint savings stems from the fact that the old way often required pages to be added to sections to balance them for the sake of press configuration. Printing in two runs will eliminate such unnecessary newsprint consumption.
Eliminating an afternoon paper always carries risks of alienating die-hard evening readers. So the newspaper is phasing out afternoon delivery over three months. Bulletin subscribers will continue to get the paper in the afternoon, even after the Journal-Bulletin debuts in June. Zone by zone, they will be converted to morning delivery.
The two editions now have little duplicate circulation, executives said. Even so, managers expect daily circulation of the combined paper to decline by up to 5,000 over the summer before heading upward. Rawson said the paper hopes to add 15,000 to the rolls within a couple of years by going after a potential market of 42,000 homes.
“Research indicates that content is more important than the time of delivery, and we are confident that, with the new content, our afternoon readers will follow us to the morning,” said general manager Sutton. “There was very little distinction in the [afternoon] paper, and our readers realized it.”
The merger will cost several hundred carriers, mostly youths, their routes. Plans call for the 1,750-member carrier force ? 1,400 adults and 350 youths ? to drop to about 1,350. Most of the youth carriers deliver the Bulletin but will be allowed to continue their Sunday routes.
The company, which has been shifting to a system of adult carriers and regional distribution centers, plans to terminate and rewrite all carrier contracts. Any available morning routes will be awarded based on seniority. But to all intents and purposes, youths will be eliminated, since they will have to drive to regional circulation centers early in the morning to pick up papers.
?(The Evening Bulletin merges with the Providence Journal on June 5.) [Photo & Caption]
?(A prototype of the new Providence Journal-Bulletin, featuring a lot more local news) [Photo & Caption]