For more than 40 years, Bob Kerr worked at the Providence Journal, where he was beloved by many readers for his columns about the people and the issues that animate Rhode Island. Recently, he’s been thinking back on his time at the ProJo.
Hilary Horton was my editor when I wrote the local column in the Providence Journal 20 years ago. We would get together in the late afternoon, looking for the better word, cleaning up the clutter, finding what the heck I was trying to say. The column was always the better for it.
For Hilary, the language was a personal preserve which she tended without compromise. She once called me at home about a semi-colon.
I recall her now because she was such a vital part of that wonderful newspaper mix - that wildly improbable gathering of people who went their separate ways in search of the story but came together to create the miracle of the morning paper.
There can’t be a better place to go to work than a real newspaper newsroom. I think those of us who spent most of our professional lives at the Journal know how lucky we are to have worked at a place where every day meant starting all over with a fresh helping of the things people do.
We have seen the best and the worst - incredible kindness and incredible cruelty and things funny and absurd and downright crazy. We have been trusted with often very personal details of people’s lives because we were from “the paper.” And we hauled it all back to Fountain Street so people like Hilary Horton could make it work for the next edition.
But Hilary left the Journal too soon. Perhaps she knew what was coming. For on a now infamous day 18 years ago, the sale of the Journal to the A.H. Belo Corporation of Dallas was announced in the Journal newsroom.
Seven months ago, I walked down the stairs at the Journal with Mike McKinney, who loves Jimi Hendrix and soccer and is a fine writer. In the best of times he would be the future, a writer and reporter who would just get better and help carry on a rich local newspaper tradition. But on that day in September, we were walking down from the human resources office after being told we had lost our jobs - Mike after a few years and I after 43.
We were told it was a “GateHouse decision.” GateHouse had just bought the Journal from Belo. But there was no one from GateHouse there.
And we left, quickly, the first of 22 that day and dozens more since. I had a great run and have few regrets. I have known the best of times in this business. My friend Bill Reynolds, the superb Journal sports columnist, and I often talk about our great timing that has allowed us a lot of good years at a good paper. We have known it in all its raffish, intense, smart ass glory.
But in recent years, Reynolds and I have had morning conversations during which we have looked out on the newsroom and seen not another living soul.
The losses are obvious to anyone who reads the paper. The local news bureaus and the local editions they created are gone, and with them a major share of a vital local connection.
What has changed too is the spirit of the place, that sense there was room in that stately downtown building for just about anybody to tell a story or write one. The Journal once spilled out all over the place, and, in turn, people came through the door to tell of things that we funny and tragic and sometimes criminal. It was a place for people desperate for someone to listen to find that someone with notebook in hand.
Fewer people come through the door now. And fewer go out.
And space for the zany and unpredictable has been gradually reduced. We used to have a tradition called the Shot Train, which meant a stroll over to the bar Mike 17, for a shot of something off the lower shelf. It was silly and stupid and reassuring that the Journal had room for that, but the last shot train left decades ago.
There is an eerie silence in the Journal newsroom now. First time visitors often comment on it. They might be expecting Lou Grant –that tough talking editor of 70’s TV fame, but they get the mute button instead.
The loss of character and characters at the Journal is one a reader will perhaps not notice. But it is a loss that infects the soul of the place. It gradually wears away at the sense of possibility, of being able to do the damnedest things at a minute’s notice.
It is a terrible time for newspapers. That is not news. There are too many alternatives for information, credible and otherwise, and way too many people who don’t much care what’s going on.
But the Providence Journal could have been a glorious exception. It could have held on to its local news franchise and continued to give its readers what they had come to expect for decades.
Except it got sold, and sold again. It was a surprise, at least that first time. It seemed the Rhode Island families who owned it would always hold on to it as a matter of public trust and steady return.
But the sale was announced in the Journal newsroom that day, and the change began. It was almost imperceptible at first, but one thing was clear. Local ownership had been forfeited and never again would the people who actually run the paper come face to face with readers over lunch or cocktails or in the stands on an autumn Saturday.
It is a loss that will be felt for a very long time in a state that desperately needs a strong and independent newspaper to keep an eye on things.