1. How much is The Providence Journal worth? To many in Rhode Island it’s a priceless civic asset, but to a potential buyer it’s a business enterprise with an uncertain future. How do you estimate the valuation of an individual newspaper when the whole industry’s future is in doubt? Remember that A.H. Belo has kept The Journal quite profitable – cutting the staff in half will do that. While the paper’s annual revenue has dropped by 38% since 2007, its revenue per employee has stayed at more than $200,000; Ken Doctor estimates its current EBITDA at roughly $12 million a year. The concern for any buyer, then, won’t be huge losses but rather huge uncertainty. How much more room is there to cut expenses if sales keep declining? At what point have you done irreparable harm to the enterprise? And even if you invest in great journalism, as the Providence Newspaper Guild’s John Hill suggests, how confident can you be that a viable business model will be found? The Boston Globe and its Worcester sister paper went for $70 million a few months ago, but that deal included The Globe’s valuable property on Morrissey Boulevard; A.H. Belo is selling the Projo newspaper separately from its Fountain Street headquarters. Another key factor is how desperate CEO Jim Moroney is to sell The Journal. It’s possible some prestige-minded local group will cough up $40 million for the paper, but don’t be surprised if Moroney accepts far less than that.
2. Want to learn more about The Providence Journal’s situation? Nesi’s Notes has you covered. If you’re looking for a video, watch my appearance on Dan Yorke State of Mind from Thursday night or our Newsmakers roundtable with John Hill and Ian Donnis. For the written word, start with my WPRI.com story on the news and second-day update. On the business side, we have the latest circulation statistics (76,000 on weekdays) and the latest revenue numbers ($23 million in Q3). From the archive, there’s an overview of 2012 Projo revenue, a 2010 story on how much the paper might sell for, a post comparing the Projo and The Globe, and 2011 posts on the outlook for the paywall and the paper’s underfunded pension plan.
By Dan McGowan
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s capital city must recover or repay more than $1.3 million to cover 16 taxpayer-funded loans and grants that never should have been approved, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said Thursday.
All told, the city must come up with $1,337,180 to make good on three loans and 13 grants issued by the Providence Economic Development Partnership (PEDP), a quasi-public agency that oversees the city’s small business loan program. The city can recover the money from loan recipients or pay back its revolving loan fund using non-federal tax dollars, according to a letter issued by HUD.
By Ted Nesi
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Obama administration’s botched launch of the health law’s online marketplaces has created problems for Rhode Island even though the state’s own locally built system has been working well, HealthSource RI executive director Christine Ferguson acknowledged Thursday.
“For us what happened at the federal level has been somewhat devastating,” Ferguson said during a taping of Executive Suite. “If you think about marketing – anytime you have to do marketing or sales, if you’ve got some huge thing that’s affecting your ability to get your message out, it seriously dampens your ability to do it.”
• Watch: Executive Suite with HealthSource RI’s Christine Ferguson (Dec. 5)
This morning’s coverage of A.H. Belo’s plans to sell The Providence Journal contains a few new nuggets.
First, from Sheryl Jean’s story in A.H. Belo’s own Dallas Morning News (emphasis added):
Jim Moroney, chairman, president and chief executive of A. H. Belo, thinks Providence will attract “several interested parties.”
“The Providence Journal is a powerhouse brand in Rhode Island and will attract a lot of buyers,” he said. “I think you could see some other newspaper companies that have been more acquisitive … and you could see some local people who might be interested in having a stake in the Providence Journal.”
A. H. Belo is not in talks with any potential buyers yet, Moroney said. A. H. Belo plans to separately sell several pieces of property in Providence, including the Journal’s building, he said.
Analyst Barry L. Lucas said the Providence Journal might fetch a higher price than Riverside because it is larger, with better financial performance. Lucas estimates Providence’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization to be 5 percent to 9 percent of total EBITDA.
The big news in Rhode Island Wednesday is, of course, that A.H. Belo is putting the Projo up for sale.
The decision won’t surprise veteran Journal-watchers, particularly after Belo’s recent move to shed one of its other two papers – The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif. – for just $27.3 million. It didn’t make much sense for a Dallas-based company that now owns only two big newspapers to have one of them be in its hometown and the other, much smaller one halfway across the country.
Back in 2010, I published a WPRI.com feature story about how much The Journal might fetch these days. On Wednesday I asked two top media analysts to weigh in about the question now, and here’s what they told me, from my updated WPRI.com story:
“I’m not surprised,” Ken Doctor, a media analyst at the research firm Outsell and the author of “Newsonomics,” told WPRI.com. “It’s clear that A.H. Belo is circling the wagons around its home base, Dallas. The Morning News has outperformed Projo and Riverside and has always been a more dominant player there.” …
By Ted Nesi
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A.H. Belo, the Dallas-based company that has owned The Providence Journal since 1997, announced Wednesday morning it has begun seeking a buyer to purchase Rhode Island’s statewide daily, but cautioned that it might not find a suitable purchaser.
Maybe it’s time for Rhode Island to take a deep breath about those Tax Foundation rankings.
A recent analysis by Governing magazine “shows no correlation between states rated higher and those with better employment indicators. In fact, some of the lowest-ranked states weathered the recession quite well.”
Rhode Island, of course, is a notoriously poor performer on those and other annual rankings. The state ranked 46th on The Tax Foundation’s 2014 State Business Tax Climate Index, ahead of only Minnesota, California, New Jersey and New York. But as Slate’s Matt Yglesias notes, those last four states actually contain quite a few businesses – Apple and Google are based in #48 California, not #1 Wyoming.
Governing also notes there are other ways to measure taxes on firms. The Council on State Taxation’s 2012 study found Rhode Island’s business tax burden ranked 39th (50th being worst), with an effective business tax rate of 5.15% of state GDP. Annual wages, household incomes, labor force participation and employment-to-population are all higher in Rhode Island than in the median state (but so is the cost of living).
The Providence Journal’s advertising sales continued to decline by double-digits this past summer amid industry upheaval, but the impact was largely offset by a growing number of printing and distribution contracts.
The Journal’s ad revenue was down 10% between July 1 and Sept. 30 compared with the same period in 2012, parent company A.H. Belo disclosed in an SEC filing. Quarterly ad sales fell to $9.4 million, a decrease of $1.1 million.
Total third-quarter revenue at The Journal from all sources was down just 1% from 2012, falling to $22.7 million. Circulation revenue fell 0.5% to $8.8 million. Printing and distribution contracts surged 25% to $3.6 million thanks to new distribution contracts for various other papers and magazines obtained in July from a settlement with another distributor.
The Journal’s average weekday circulation fell from 83,733 to 76,447 during the six-month period ended Sept. 30, according to the most recent report by the Alliance for Audited Media. The paper’s Monday-to-Friday circulation has dropped 47% over the last six years as Rhode Island’s economy struggled.
By Dan McGowan
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – After seven years playing a behind-the-scenes role in Rhode Island politics, Brett Smiley stepped out on his own Tuesday, formally launching his campaign to become the 38th mayor of Providence.
Here’s a statistic that won’t surprise regular Nesi’s Notes readers but may surprise others.
A new study by the libertarian-leaning Mercatus Center at George Mason University shows Rhode Island has the largest percentage of real private-sector jobs in the country: 85.7% of total employment. The study defines “true” private-sector jobs as those that aren’t financed by the federal government, whether the individual is employed directly or through a contractor.
“Direct government employment fails to capture the full impact of government spending on state labor markets,” the authors write. “Using federal contract data obtained from USAspending.gov, we estimated the percentage of private sector jobs actually financed by federal contract dollars in each state.”
Here’s the map:
Just 1.4% of private-sector jobs in Rhode Island are funded by federal contracts, compared with 5% in Connecticut and 3.5% in Massachusetts. The share ranges from 10.7% in Virgina to 0.7% in Oregon.
Another Mercatus map includes the depressing statistic that Rhode Island lost 5.4% of its real private-sector jobs between 2007 and 2012, one of the larger decreases in the country:
This is just the latest evidence that Rhode Island’s active public payroll isn’t as enormous as some seem to think. A recent New York Times analysis found Rhode Island has the second-fewest government workers among the 50 states after moving aggressively to cut jobs during the recession. Government employment in Rhode Island as a share of the population is now at the lowest level since at least 1990.
But government employment and government spending aren’t always the same thing. These analyses don’t show the size of Rhode Island’s retired public payroll (pensioners) or the level of spending by the public sector. Much of the state’s $2 billion in Medicaid spending, for example, doesn’t employ state workers directly.
• Related: RI has 2nd-lowest level of government employment in the US (Oct. 7)
There will be no Christmas tree brouhaha in 2013. Gov. Lincoln Chafee issued a statement Monday morning saying in part, “Because I do not think how we address the State House tree affects our ‘lively experiment,’ this year’s invitation calls the tree a Christmas tree.”
The State House tree will be lit Thursday at 5:30 p.m. – by Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, not Chafee.
As noted before in this space, Chafee was not the first to call the Smith Hill spruce a “holiday tree” – Don Carcieri and Lincoln Almond both did so in some years, too. Meanwhile, take this opportunity to watch last year’s Executive Suite interview with the head of the Rhode Island Christmas Tree Growers Association.
1. Even the most glass-half-full Rhode Islander probably would admit the state hasn’t seen a huge economic recovery since 2009. So why has the amount of food donated to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank plunged by 22%, from 8.2 million pounds in 2008-09 to 6.4 million pounds in 2012-13? One of the biggest reasons: digital inventory systems are making the food sector much more efficient. ”Food banks were founded on the idea that there was lots of excess food in the system, and that all we had to do was get supermarkets and the food industry to donate it – it was a win-win for everybody,” Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff said on this week’s Newsmakers. “When I first began in this work, 10 or 12 years ago, there was lots of extra, surplus food available to food banks. And that’s just not true anymore.” Yet even as donations have decreased, demand has grown. The latest federal data shows 17% of Rhode Island’s population – 180,294 residents – are on food stamps, and the monthly payment to a family of four was cut by $36 on Nov. 1. “The economy just hasn’t improved enough for the people we serve,” Schiff said. “Folks are back to work, but at low-wage jobs that don’t give enough earned income to afford enough adequate food for their families.” But he rejects the idea the food-stamp program is creating dependency: “Folks would much rather have an increase in their wages or a better job and get off the benefit completely, to be able to afford food themselves.”
2. I hope you and your family had a safe and happy Thanksgiving, and that you’re continuing to enjoy the festivities if you’re celebrating Hannukah. Like all of you, I’m thankful for the love and support of family and friends, and the blessing of a good job in a great country. I’m also deeply grateful to all the loyal readers who’ve made The Saturday Morning Post and Nesi’s Notes a success over the last three years. Thank you.
By Dan McGowan & Tim White
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Leaders from the Rhode Island State Police and the Providence Police Department are discussing an arrangement that would provide the city with a “semi-permanent” state trooper detail to assist with crime prevention.
In a memo obtained by WPRI.com, State Police Deputy Superintendent Lt. Col. Michael Winquist wrote that approximately six troopers would assist with the city’s Neighborhood Response Team, an eight-year-old joint taskforce between state and Providence Police that has traditionally been used during the summer months and on holiday weekends.
Here’s a fun blast from the past via YouTube for your Black Friday – Perry Como and Lena Horne singing a medley of songs about New England. The show, hosted by Como, aired live on March 4, 1965, from the then-new War Memorial Auditorium in Boston, forerunner of the Hynes Convention Center. It was quite a production, with more than $60,000 spent to equip the new facility for TV, according to The Boston Globe.
While Como and Horne didn’t sing “Rhode Island is Famous for You,” Massachusetts was well-represented:
… are there any famous songs about Maine or New Hampshire?
And if you’re looking for some more enjoyable television to watch on this day off, dip into the Executive Suite archive and watch our episodes about iconic local retailer Benny’s and Rhode Island Christmas tree farmers.
A version of this post originally ran in 2012.
The November feast, with turkeys and cranberries, is a creation myth, starring Miles Standish, William Bradford, and the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit. But the figure who most powerfully created American consciousness, coming a little later, was one who risked everything to rebel against what was begun in Plymouth. What we celebrate on Thanksgiving isn’t the theocracy of Massachusetts, but the ideas of Roger Williams, a Puritan who defended the right, one could say, to be religiously impure.
That would make Roger Williams just one more part of Rhode Island’s history with this most American of holidays.
For starters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe that famously helped the Pilgrims lived not only in Massachusetts but also in what is now eastern Rhode Island; the Narragansett Tribe had a harvest feast of their own known as Nickommoh.
Thanksgiving didn’t really take locally at first, according to a 1904 article in The New England Magazine:
The earliest mention of Thanksgiving in the records of Rhode Island Plantation is 1687. But attempts to create Thanksgiving Day in Rhode Island did not prove very successful. Whether the people were ungrateful or only stubborn is not known, but it is said that when Governor [Edmund] Andros ordered them to appear, to celebrate certain days, which he set apart as days of thanksgiving, the order was so contemptuously carried out that several persons were arrested for disobedience of the King’s ordinances.
Rhode Island has given Thanksgiving headaches to other leaders, too.
In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson remarked that he “regretted very much the late conduct of the legislature of Rhode Island,” which hadn’t joined the rest of New England in proclaiming a day of thanksgiving. And in 1939 Rhode Island’s Republican governor, William Vanderbilt III, was among those who refused to go along with FDR when he tried to move Thanksgiving up a week.
Rhode Island’s most famous contribution to Thanksgiving, though, has probably been its turkeys – most notably thanks to a Westerly farmer by the name of Horace Vose (1840-1913), “the poultry king.”
Vose was “known all over the United States as the man who has furnished the Thanksgiving Turkey to every President from Grant to Roosevelt,” The New York Times reported in 1906. The White House Historical Association has more details:
Vose began raising turkeys with his uncle in the mid-1850s and in 1873 sent a splendid Meleagris gallopavo to President Ulysses S. Grant, beginning a tradition that would last for over four decades as presidents, their families and guests enjoyed Vose’s Thanksgiving and Christmas largess.
After looking over the best flocks in Rhode Island and Connecticut, Vose, a major poultry supplier to the New York market, selected the presidential bird with great care. Vose’s chosen turkeys never weighed fewer than 30 pounds and sometimes topped the scales at 50 pounds.
Vose always slaughtered and dressed the birds and then shipped them express in a box addressed to the president at the White House. Occasionally Vose had competition. In 1913, former congressman South Trimble of Kentucky, then Clerk of the House of Representatives, sent a turkey to President Wilson; Trimble’s turkey weighed 30 pounds in contrast to Vose’s 37, but Trimble claimed his bird, which had been fed a diet that included red peppers, was much more flavorsome. It is not known which bird won the “honor” of gracing the Wilson table that Thanksgiving Day.
When Vose passed away in December 1913 (just a few weeks after Thanksgiving) it made the front page of the old Providence Evening News, which eulogized Vose as being “known throughout the land as the purveyors of turkeys for White House Thanksgiving dinners since the time of President Grant.”
As for me? I’m thankful for you, dear readers. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!
(clippings: Hedges Herald of Hedgesville, Montana, Nov. 18, 1913; New York Tribune, Nov. 23, 1902)
A version of this post originally ran in 2012.
By Tim White
NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi said he was “distraught” that he had to sign a check for unused sick and vacation time to a firefighter who missed nearly half his career out injured and is now collecting a disability pension.
• Related: Mollis hired 52-year-old as rookie North Providence firefighter (Nov. 26)
By Dan McGowan
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Law enforcement officials in Rhode Island’s capital city say they plan to begin cracking down on hookah bars and other establishments that have managed to dodge the statewide indoor smoking ban that took effect in 2005.
In a letter sent to all of the city’s liquor license holders Nov. 1, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare warned that that the city would be ramping up enforcement of the law beginning in December. A similar letter was sent to bar and restaurant owners in April.
By Dan McGowan
The Democratic political consulting firm founded by former Angel Taveras campaign-finance director Peter Baptista and lobbyist Nicholas Hemond is staffing up and has added a major new client.
The Hamilton Group, a year-old outfit that made a name for itself running House Speaker Gordon Fox’s successful 2012 re-election campaign, has signed on with City Council president and Providence mayoral candidate Michael Solomon, Baptista told WPRI.com.
Baptista said the firm will provide “strategic consulting that will include fundraising” for Solomon, an Elmhurst Democrat who has served on the council since 2007. Solomon is expected to formally enter the mayor’s race in January, but has been stockpiling campaign funds while preparing his candidacy for more than a year.
Take West Warwick out of the penalty box.
After last week’s Target 12 investigation on cities’ and towns’ pension investments, West Warwick Town Manager Frederick Presley reached out to dispute the idea that the community was unable to provide data on its pension investments and the fees it pays to manage them.
Presley forwarded two Oct. 10 email messages sent in response to Target 12′s June 4 request for information. The documents show the town’s locally-run pension fund posted a negative 0.59% return in the year ended June 30, 2012, but acknowledge there is no data for its investment performance over the last five or 10 years.
The documents also show West Warwick’s pension-fund fees totaled $182,502 in 2011-12; $228,066 in 2010-11; and $228,845 in 2009-10.
By Tim White
NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The hiring of a 52-year-old as a North Providence firefighter nine years ago has proved to be an expensive liability for taxpayers in the town and the state, Mayor Charles Lombardi told Target 12.
Stephen Campbell was sworn in as a frontline firefighter in 2003 under former Mayor Ralph Mollis, who is now Rhode Island’s secretary of state. Under the terms of his union contract, Campbell would have had to fight fires until the age of 72 to be eligible for a pension.
By Dan McGowan
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence Mayor Angel Taveras on Tuesday unveiled a sweeping proposal to offer universal pre-kindergarten across Rhode Island, a plan that would require a massive expansion of state-funded early childhood education programs.
Taveras, a first-term Democrat who has already declared his candidacy for governor next year, said his goal would be to enroll 76% of Rhode Island children in pre-K by 2018, a plan he believes would cost the state approximately $24.6 million annually.
Lawyers briefed the judge overseeing a union lawsuit challenging Rhode Island’s 2011 pension overhaul once again last week about the progress of their court-ordered mediation to settle the case.
Attorneys on both sides of the suit met last Thursday morning with R.I. Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter, court spokesman Craig Berke said. Last December she ordered the state and the unions into a formal, closed-door mediation process overseen by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
The “status quo” in the pension talks continues, Berke said after conferring with Taft-Carter.
Thursday’s status conference took place less than two weeks after the previous one as the time frame between meetings shrinks, which has fueled rising speculation that the two sides are nearing an agreement. The next status conference will be Dec. 9 at 9 a.m., almost a year after Taft-Carter ordered talks to begin.
A union leader revealed in August that a subcommittee has been formed to communicate with workers and retirees about the terms of a settlement, which Gov. Lincoln Chafee has repeatedly said he hopes will work out. Some state lawmakers, however, have expressed concerns about what that would mean.
Thursday’s status conference was the 11th one the two sides have held since last winter. The previous ones were on Nov. 12, Oct. 28, Sept. 30, Sept. 5, Aug. 6, May 17, April 22, March 25, Feb. 28 and Feb. 1.
By Dan McGowan
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Graduation rates in Rhode Island’s poorest communities are on the rise, but one in three students still aren’t completing high school on time, according to a policy brief released Monday by Rhode Island Kids Count, the state’s leading child advocacy group.
By Ted Nesi
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Islanders will be able to sign up for health insurance coverage until Dec. 23 and still have it take effect on New Year’s Day, HealthSource RI spokeswoman Dara Chadwick told WPRI.com on Sunday. HealthSource RI is the state’s Obamacare marketplace.
1. I know you’re expecting me to lead with the poll, but first let’s revisit the Target 12 investigation Tim White and I put out Monday examining how cities and towns invest their independent local pension plans. (Investment returns play a crucial role in determining a plan’s financial health.) While you can play with our interactive chart to see how your city fares, my biggest takeaways from the story were that (a) there’s little rhyme or reason to the different ways each municipality handles millions in investments and (b) many municipal officials aren’t keeping close tabs on them in the first place. It wasn’t easy to track down this information: individual requests had to be made with each of the 24 cities and towns, and in many cases it took weeks or months of back-and-forth to get answers. More than one community sent us seemingly random pension-related PDFs that didn’t actually answer our quite specific questions. And sometimes obtaining the correct data just raised new questions. For instance, Warwick has its municipal side manage four of its five local pension plans, but the school department manages the fifth – and the school one gets markedly lower returns on its investments. Do Warwick taxpayers, who are on the hook for all five, actually think it’s best to manage the school plan separately? Still, at least Warwick could provide all the data we sought – some places could not even say how their investments performed over the last 10 years, let alone a longer time horizon. Some enterprising state rep or senator should pass a law mandating regular, thorough financial reporting by municipalities about their investment track records, so that taxpayers and other officials can see whether they’re getting bang for their buck.
2. And while they’re at it, lawmakers should force all those special districts to file annual audits, too.