Editorials, Opinions

Editorial: University should buy ProJo subscriptions

By
Tuesday, October 9, 2018

In mid-September, the Providence Journal laid off four staffers: Andy Smith, a reporter; Randy Edgar, deputy editorial page editor; Stephen Ide, an online producer; and Glenn Osmundson, a photographer. The Newport Daily News, owned by GateHouse Media, the newspaper conglomerate that also owns the Journal, concurrently announced three staff departures. Taken together, these staff reductions are merely the latest round in a series of personnel cuts carried out by GateHouse. This July, company executives told news employees across New England that it was considering more buyouts. A transformed media environment, which now relies on digital content and technology-oriented models for generating advertising revenue, has likely put a major dent in the Journal’s readership and its financial viability.

For all Rhode Islanders, the accelerating deterioration of the Journal is terrible news. A local newspaper, published in print every day, is the civic lifeblood of a community, the principal instrument for holding the powerful accountable, a historical archive of current events and culture and promoter of broad-based participation in local life. This is not hyperbole. Americans rely on local newspapers, oftentimes more than any other news source, to provide information about community issues like schools, social services, crime and municipal and city government. And it is these issues — not the heavily reported, televised dramas of Congress and the White House — that have the most significant and immediate effects on the lives of ordinary people.

For this reason, we urge the University to play its part in the defense of local news — and, by extension, the well-being of the Providence community — and buy individual subscriptions to the Journal for all students, faculty and staff. Purchasing such a subscription would, in one stroke, support the Journal’s reporting, advance the University’s educational mission and lend credence to its self-image as a benevolent force for local economic and civic good.

An influx of subscription revenue from the University, of course, will not magically eliminate the systemic challenges facing print media outlets, though it might help the Journal retain more reporters and editorial staff and reinvigorate the quality of its journalism. As the past few years have evinced, the contraction of the Journal’s newsroom has had severe ramifications for its editorial content and coverage. The Journal — the “oldest continuously published daily newspaper in the country,” the most prominent newspaper serving the Providence metropolitan area and the recipient of four Pulitzer Prizes — now has only one editorial writer, Ed Achorn, and 15 news reporters on staff. And, according to GoLocalProv, only a fraction of the news articles published in the Journal are written by the Journal’s own reporters; the rest are reports penned by freelancers or wire stories from services like the Associated Press. (For context, the Journal’s newsroom once employed 300 reporters and editors in the 1980s and 1990s; the editorial page board consisted of seven writers a decade ago.) The Journal’s woes cannot be rectified by any single move, but University subscriptions would be an excellent first step in helping the Journal develop a sustainable business plan going forward.

Just as importantly, University-supplied access to the Journal will be a significant benefit for young students, who are the least likely age group to read newspapers. The University already provides free access to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, both of which are invaluable sources for national news and opinion. But missing from these offerings is a robust platform for news and opinion oriented toward Providence and Rhode Island, communities that afford members of the Brown community countless opportunities for direct engagement, meaningful learning and committed service. In the guide to liberal learning distributed to new students, the Office of the Dean of the College specifically advises, “Real-world experiences anchor intellectual pursuits in practical knowledge and help you develop a sense of social and global responsibility.” This expectation to contextualize classroom-based learning and scholarship within our communities is a core principle of the Brown education — one that cannot be truly realized without unencumbered access to a local newspaper. How can students be asked to “develop a sense of global responsibility” if they are unaware of what’s going on downtown, in Providence City Hall or in the State House — all just a few blocks away from College Hill?

Finally, subscriptions to the Journal would constitute a long-term investment in the cohesion and integration of the Providence community. In its “Brown and the Innovation Economy” strategic plan, unveiled in June 2018, the University observes, “A region’s ability to generate, share and absorb new knowledge is central to its ability to support growing companies and create good jobs.” While there are clear distinctions between journalists reporting the news and academics pursuing scientific truth, scholars have long considered newspapers instruments of knowledge production — and supporting local news is a clear means of supporting local knowledge. When local newspapers shutter their doors, the consequences are staggering: Civic engagement and voter turnout almost immediately decline. And the costs of municipal borrowing soar — thanks to the corruption and self-dealing enabled by the closure of local papers — making it vastly more difficult for communities to make the investments needed to support local infrastructure, deliver social services and facilitate commercial activity. As Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York’s 12th congressional district said at a 2009 hearing of the Joint Economic Committee, “Without our newspapers, we lack a critical uniting feature, which fosters broad participation in our democracy and community.”

In this light, the creeping infirmity of the Providence Journal and other local newspapers is not an abstract or theoretical risk to democratic institutions and local life — it is a real and serious threat, with dismaying implications for the unity and well-being of American communities. But this moment also presents an opportunity for the University to step up, act on its economic and civic commitments, bolster the education it provides and support the Journal by purchasing subscriptions. After all, The Herald is used to calling itself Rhode Island’s second-largest print daily. We’d like to keep it that way.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19, Rhaime Kim ’20, Grace Layer ’20, Mark Liang ’19 and Krista Stapleford ’21. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

Clarification: A previous version of this editorial advocated that the University buy an institutional subscription to the Journal to make the Journal accessible to students, faculty and staff members. It pointed to the University’s arrangements with the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, which give individual Brown community members nearly unlimited access to online content on their respective websites, as models. 

In fact, the University provides access to the Journal for Brown community members through the library website, which links to the hosting sites ProQuest, which provides text-only access, and NewsBank, which provides scans of the print edition and searchable text. The editorial has been updated to replace the word institutional with individual when referring to subscriptions to eliminate ambiguity. The Herald regrets the error.