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Losing the beat
The ability of out-of-town papers to offer better early coverage of the Station fire shows how the Providence Journal has become a less surefooted institution

ON FRIDAY, February 28, some 1200 guests settled into the Venus de Milo, a rococo function hall in Swansea, Massachusetts, for the 30th rendition of the Providence Newspaper Guild’s annual Follies, a food-and-drink-suffused satirical send-up of the year in news. Coming just eight days after the disastrous fire at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, which killed 99 people and injured almost 200, the event — or more specifically, the notion of Rhode Islanders trying to guffaw after such a horrific calamity — had genuine news value. But when it came to reporting the story, the Providence Journal took a pass.

Instead, it was Dan Barry of the New York Times who skillfully captured the tangle of emotions, the closeness of the loss, and the soul-searching prompted by the event’s timing. Barry’s March 2 story in the Sunday Times cited the doubts that ProJo political reporter Scott MacKay, who emcees the Follies, had about going on with the show. But the message that he came away with after listening to a sermon at his church, MacKay told Barry, was how, "In the face of tragedy, we need to do things that connect with our humanity, and one way is to laugh and be with our friends."

In years past, the Journal has typically offered a perfunctory account of the Follies, which began as an attempt to heal the rifts of a bitter 1973 strike at the newspaper. This time, though, the paper seemed so mired in the internal politics of a long-running Guild-management standoff that it couldn’t recognize the significance of a story in its midst. The emotional freight of the event wasn’t lost on Barry, who became a star at the ProJo, once managing the paper’s since-shuttered West Warwick bureau, before moving on to the Times. His story described how the crowd cheered the announcement that proceeds from the sale of Follies posters would go to the Station Nightclub Fire Relief Fund. "And," Barry wrote, "when the first joke of the night rang through the Venus de Milo — a gag at the expense of [Providence mayor-turned-federal inmate] Buddy Cianci, some people from Rhode Island actually smiled."

The Journal has offered the most comprehensive and sustained coverage of the Station fire, from a terrific first-day story that captured the terrible implications of the late-breaking event, to ongoing narratives about the painstaking recovery process for survivors and what the night of the fire was like for a few cops working a detail at the nightclub. The paper’s steady attention to the story, replete with 9/11-style profiles of the victims and updates on benefits, has constituted an undeniable public service. Still, the decision not to report on this year’s Follies reflects the kind of debilitated decision-making that weakened the ProJo’s early coverage of the biggest story in recent Rhode Island history.

Particularly in the days immediately after the fire, reporters from the Times, Boston Globe and, to a lesser extent, Boston Herald, wrote stories that were newsier, more incisive, and better focused — a view held by many, but not all, Journal insiders. The other papers, particularly the Globe, scored steady scoops on such topics as previous pyrotechnic use at the Station; a past warning by the club’s stage manager about pyro; the deep-pocketed corporate defendants being targeted in litigation; and the Nixon-like way in which a tape recording of a June 2000 West Warwick Town Council meeting lacks a reference to the highly flammable foam insulation seen as one of the key factors in the lethality of the fire.

The Journal made a good decision in devoting a special section to the disaster on February 22, but the section, like some of the paper’s other coverage, lost impact through disorganized presentation. The ProJo turned its back on its strength — print stories — and instead tried to compete with television, which had already blanketed the fire aftermath with wall-to-wall coverage, by emphasizing prominent play of photos. There was a lot of print content inside the special section, but it lacked the clear presentation and searing writing of the Times. Barry also scored a coup by emphasizing such natural focal points as Rhode Island’s resemblance to one big neighborhood and how Station co-owner Jeff Derderian — who escaped the fire, had recently returned to Providence as a reporter for WPRI-TV (Channel 12), and whose cameraman caught the eerie, nationally broadcast videotape of the incipient blaze — epitomized a state "where everything is local, only more so now."

Some of this might be expected. The Station disaster, the fourth-worst nightclub fire in US history, brought a horde of media from as far as Japan, and the Times and Globe are larger, better-staffed papers with more far-flung operations and greater institutional experience in covering large-scale calamities. Still, the way in which the Journal repeatedly got beat on its own turf marks, in the view of many insiders, a far cry from the not-so-distant time when the strength and depth of the paper’s statewide coverage was a particular point of pride. The trend over the last decade — diminishing institutional capacity by closing bureaus, reducing staff, and cutting other costs, sometimes in curious ways (see "Cheapskates") — has been in the opposite direction. (And by the time of the February 20 fire, some of the ProJo’s best one-time West Warwick reporters, like the Times’ Barry and the Globe’s Chris Rowland, whose main colleague in covering the story, Jonathan Saltzman, is also a former Journal scribe — just happened to be working for the competition.)

The story of the Journal’s early coverage — seen by some as the struggle of one of the nation’s better medium-sized dailies to maintain its traditional journalistic quality since the Dallas-based Belo Corporation bought it in 1997 — represents more, however, than just corporate-influenced cost-cutting or the relative might of larger, more powerful institutions like the Globe and Times. It also indicates the way that Journal executive editor Joel Rawson’s anger over access issues during the first week of the story, although perhaps justified, appears to have influenced the paper’s coverage in unusual ways. In particular, the ProJo delayed publication of a favorable column by political columnist M. Charles Bakst about Sue Carcieri, the wife of Governor Don Carcieri, and seemingly downplayed Carcieri’s presence in the paper during his decisive handling at the forefront of a major crisis.

Rawson, who has chosen not to talk with the Phoenix for almost two years, declined a request for an interview. But after I sent him an e-mail with a detailed list of the topics to be discussed in this story, including the delayed publication of the Bakst column and the impact of conflicts over access with Carcieri and Jane Bruno, director of marketing and communications for Lifespan, Rhode Island’s largest hospital network, he e-mailed the following response (printed here in its entirety):

"I am extraordinarily proud of the work that the Journal staff did on the Station fire. From the first night when we had a full, illustrated account written by Karen Ziner and Zachary Mider in the final three editions of Friday, Feb. 21, to this day they have done outstanding journalism. From the most experienced reporters such as Wayne Miller and Felice Freyer writing on medical issues to the state staff bureau reporters such as Jennifer Jordan and S.I. Rosenbaum who handled with great compassion and skill interviewing victims’ families, we have given our readers news, background and the human face of this tragedy.

"The entire paper supported the news department. We had unlimited newshole to publish our reports and full backing for an extensive legal effort to open the records of West Warwick’s town hall and fire department. We are far from finished. There are now about 20 reporters continuing to cover the story. We plan to keep on it for as long as the job takes. They are a great staff. They knocked the ball out of the park. It is an honor to be their editor."

On some level, it’s understandable that Rawson would want to duck a more detailed discussion of the ProJo’s coverage of the Station fire. The past differences in coverage by different papers probably went unnoticed, after all, by the vast majority of the Journal’s readers. And even if the ProJo got beat in the early going on some important stories, it was quick to pick up the details. The Journal has regained its bearings, staying on the case with consistency and variety while the out-of-state scribes have, for the most part, melted away. Echoing the view of some other reporters, one insider says that after losing some earlier battles because of the unusual degree of journalistic competition, "I think we’re wining the war."

Still, it’s more than a little ironic that Rawson, whose paper sued to get access to municipal documents in West Warwick, adopts a fortress posture when it comes to discussing the Journal. (By way of comparison, it’s worth noting how Bob Mong, editor of Belo’s flagship Dallas Morning News, recently offered broad access to a writer for the Dallas Observer.) And while the paternalistic approach might be less worrisome if the flaws of the Station coverage were a one-time situation, this can also be seen — as with the decision not to cover the Follies and other lapses — as an indicator of how the Journal has become less surefooted as an institution.

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Issue Date: May 2 - 8, 2003
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