Powered by Google
New This Week
8 days
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Hot links
News + Features
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Adult Personals
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Work for us

Losing the beat (Continued)


RAWSON’S TEMPER is the stuff of lore at the Journal. A 1989 Rhode Island Monthly story by former ProJo reporter Bruce DeSilva pegs him with the following description: " Some days, Joel Rawson came to work in his favorite t-shirt, the one with the two buzzards and the motto, ‘Patience, hell. I’m going to kill somebody.’ When he was pleased, he shook his fist in triumph. When he wanted to inspire, he stood on desks and hollered. When he was angry, he tipped over chairs and threw telephone books. Rawson could have been a mass murderer, but he decided to become a newspaper editor instead. "

For all his combativeness, Rawson is also known as a gifted editor when it comes to shaping stories. In recent years, though, Rawson’s managerial authority has been eclipsed by that of Mark T. Ryan, the Journal’s general manager and executive vice president, with less than salutary results, in the mind of many Guild members, for the newspaper’s journalistic tradition. (Ryan didn’t return a call seeking comment.) A case in point is how the Journal decided not to publish a story two years ago about academic problems in the University of Rhode Island’s basketball program. The news that former coach Jim Harrick has been accused of NCAA violations at URI didn’t hit the ProJo until March 8, and the Wall Street Journal published a fresh story very similar to the ProJo’s spiked 2001 account, sources say, albeit about a different player, on April 7.

Legal concerns were cited as an internal rationale for not publishing the story in 2001, but Tim Schick, administrator of the Providence Newspaper Guild, says newsroom sources have also cited constraints on confidential sources as a factor. " Procedurally what has developed is a practice of requiring that confidential sources be willing to come forward and testify on behalf of the paper if the paper is sued — which sort of undermines the whole concept of confidential sources, " Schick notes. Although the union administrator is unaware of other situations in which such constraints have precluded publication of a story, the practice he describes could obviously have harmful effects at a paper, like the ProJo, that has traditionally offered tough investigative coverage.

Meanwhile, although no one contends that a long-running dispute between Journal managers and the Providence Newspaper Guild — which took a decided turn for the worse shortly before the last Guild contract expired in early 2000 — was a factor in the ProJo’s coverage of the Station fire, it has done little to lift newsroom morale. " They’re sapping the spirit out of this place, " says metro columnist Bob Kerr, who is among those disappointed that months of off-the-record contract talks over the winter produced little apparent progress. " We’re falling farther and farther behind — this is our fourth year without a contract and a lot of people are being needlessly hurt. "

Noting that little seems to have changed, even after the National Labor Relations Board has found the Journal guilty of a series of unfair labor practice charges, Kerr adds, " The heart and the soul of the paper is what they’re [management] targeting. I hate this, because I like my job. I like my job a lot, but I hate the atmosphere they’ve created. For a good, talented young reporter, I think the only decision they really have is to look around, because management has made it pretty clear that this is not a place to build a career. "

Such grievances notwithstanding, the Journal remains a very good paper and it continues to play a valuable watchdog role just as the most pervasive monitor of state and local politics. And the Journal got off to a strong start in covering the Station fire, thanks in large measure to the fact that Karen Lee Ziner, a veteran, award-winning reporter, was working the night police shift on Thursday, February 20, and raced to the scene in West Warwick. (Then again, Rawson’s praise for Ziner’s reporting seems somewhat disingenuous, given how a NLRB judge recently ruled that her reassignment to night cops — after colleagues complained about the way in which Rawson and metro/managing editor Tom Heslin removed her from a story after one of the subjects complained — was illegal and punitive. See " NLRB judge scorns editor’s credibility in Ziner case, " This just in, April 17.)

As the Station story continued to unfold and the Globe, in particular, scored a string of scoops, Rawson became increasingly angry. One source of his concern was the paper’s access to Governor Donald Carcieri, who, a week after being teased by Jay Leno for being on a Florida vacation during a major snowstorm in Rhode Island, promptly returned home and earned universally high marks for his confident, yet understated coordination of the state’s response to the Station crisis. Rawson is also said to have been troubled by the way in which nonprofessionals with cameras were allowed better access to the fire scene and a victims’ assistance center at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick than journalists from the Journal.

One insider says the governor’s office didn’t trust the Journal to be sensitive with the tragedy and the pain of the hundreds of families directly affected by the West Warwick fire. " You can see the governor’s point when there were people from Japanese TV here, " the source says. " On the other hand, I think Joel’s point was that the Journal has done tragedies in this community before, " and it was Carcieri, a businessman-turned-politician who had assumed office only about a month before the fire, who was the newcomer.

Things took a turn for the worse when Carcieri’s press secretary, Jeff Neal, who had previously worked for US Senator Lincoln Chafee, didn’t recognize Rawson’s name during a call from the Journal editor and an unpleasant conversation ensued. (Neal declined to comment on the conversation or other specifics.) Nor did it help that M. Charles Bakst, the Journal’s political columnist, was able to get a return call from Carcieri at a time when Rawson couldn’t.

This was around the time when Bakst’s favorable column about the governor’s wife, headlined, " Fire aftermath: Sue Carcieri steps up front, " was held and published a day late, February 26. Many in the newsroom believe that the column never would have been published had it not, due to a lapse in communication, been posted February 25 on www.projo.com and seen by a Carcieri relative (a situation reminiscent of how a hard-hitting editorial about Lifespan’s subsidy of a Massachusetts hospital was accidentally published on the Web site in December 2001 after being spiked from print by publisher Howard Sutton). Bakst, who describes the Journal’s coverage of the Station fire as " excellent, " confirms that a Carcieri son in Cincinnati saw the column on the Web site. Regarding the delayed publication of the column, he says, " I’m not sure I understand it myself and I’m certainly not in a position to speak about it. "

Carcieri, who was seemingly ubiquitous in broadcasts on local television news in the week after the blaze, also had a surprisingly slight presence in the Journal over the same period, raising the question of whether he was being punished for the newspaper’s perceived lack of access. From February 22-28, the ProJo included two inside pictures of Carcieri and two headlines, both on inside pages, with his last name; another headline, part of a front-page banner, referred to him by his title.

Carcieri and Rawson got together around this time for a conversation that, although " uncomfortable, " brought some progress on their respective concerns. Some might question the wisdom or utility of feuding with the governor, but, as one source says, " I like that the editor is willing to fight to make sure that we have access. He’s not trying to sell papers. He’s trying to record history. " And by the time of the Gridiron Club’s annual dinner in Washington, DC, on March 8, things were sufficiently patched up that Carcieri accepted a pre-Station invitation to be the Journal’s guest at the banquet.

Elsewhere, after the Journal had some difficulty in getting patient information in the days after the fire from Rhode Island Hospital, the state’s trauma center, a young reporter was escorted from the emergency room after being dispatched to the hospital. Infuriated by the episode, Rawson had someone call Jane Bruno, the director of marketing and communications for Lifespan, the healthcare network that encompasses Rhode Island Hospital, and she was summoned to the Journal for a meeting. Rawson’s irritation with Lifespan may have been well deserved. " They view the media as the enemy, " says one PR professional. " In this business, the media’s our bread and butter. "

Sources familiar with the situation are nonetheless troubled by the way in which Rawson unleashed a series of angry accusations at Bruno during the meeting, and " he definitely threatened in some context " that Lifespan’s perceived lack of cooperation with the paper could affect its coverage. Bruno, who reportedly gave it back as good as she got, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Bruno was said to be so upset by the meeting that she described what happened to Dr. Joseph F. Amaral, the president of Rhode Island Hospital, and he shared the details with Lifespan CEO George Vecchione. During a subsequent meeting attended by Journal publisher Howard Sutton (who declined to comment), Rawson, Vecchione and Bruno, Rawson is said to have apologized only for not informing Bruno in advance of the purpose of the first meeting.

Some INSIDERS believe the ProJo has held its own in covering the Station fire, particularly in a situation where some of the competitors, like the Times’ Dan Barry, have covered such epic stories as the Flight 800 disaster and the September 11 attacks on New York City.

" I think we did very good, " says Lifebeat columnist Mark Patinkin, who rose to the challenge of using the Station disaster to introduce more gravitas and emotional power in his columns. " There’s no question there were moments when the Globe or the Times got something that we didn’t, but as a rule, I think we got more than any other paper. We were more thorough than any paper. With a story this big, with literally hundreds of reporters coming to Rhode Island, other media are bound to get things that the local media don’t get. "

Patinkin, a 20-plus-year veteran, dismisses talk of diminishing quality at the Journal. " I’ve been here more years than I want to count, and early on, when I’d see very talented reporters move on, I remember thinking the sun is starting to set on the Journal’s historic quality. But I think the record shows that there’s always another talented wave of reporters coming. " And even with the rise of the Internet and other broad changes in the media environment, Patinkin says, the Journal still compares favorably with similarly sized papers around the country.

A number of observers, though, see the relative quality of the Journal’s Station coverage as a telling indicator of how much the paper has changed since bureaus in West Warwick, Westerly, and Woonsocket were closed in the mid-’90s (followed by Newport in 2002), and a 2001 buyout depleted the number of editors, reporters, and photographers — representing thousands of years in combined experience — by 52. Although the depth of the Journal’s bench was once deep enough to compensate for muddled planning, the ranks — although they still include many talented reporters — are far thinner than once was the case. " I think this is it — where we’re seeing the result of paring down the staff and deciding we’re going to have Bic reporters, who are not always up to the task for no fault of their own, other than that they haven’t had the experience, " says one insider. (Bics is a slang reference for the ProJo’s two-year reporter-interns, a sobriquet bestowed because of their temporary nature.)

A media source familiar with the ProJo is even sharper in measuring the paper’s Station coverage. " They [ProJo reporters] were beat badly in the beginning, very badly, " the source says. " It was embarrassing, and it seemed that the Boston Globe and New York Times were spearheading the coverage, and they [ProJo reporters] were just mopping up and they weren’t doing a very good job of that. As the days wore on, the coverage got better, but by that time, it was too late — it wasn’t their story and it should have always been their story. "

This assessment may be overly harsh. As time went on, the Journal offered any number of excellent stories, including G. Wayne Miller’s March 2 Sunday story on how the nightclub fire took an emotional toll on people from around the state, and various reports by Jennifer Levitz, Tom Mooney, Felice Freyer, Edward Fitzpatrick, among many other reporters. There were still times, though, when the paper veered soft (as with a March 20 photo memorial section — composed entirely of photos of the fire victims, emergency responders, and medical staffers — seen by some as something more akin to a Triple-A baseball team), rather than trying to come up with something deep or more hard-hitting. And Boston Globe reporters were still able to return on occasion to find an utterly fresh and meaty angle.

On March 25, for example, Stephanie Ebbert offered the singularly most penetrating account of West Warwick, shining a light on some questionable small-town dealings. And a finely etched April 20 look-back piece by Ellen Barry astutely noted how " many of the survivors were in a category that has been growing quietly throughout New England — people in their 20s and 30s working for cash in service-sector jobs, one car accident or eviction notice away from zeroing out their life savings. "

It’s enough to make one wonder what else the Journal might be missing.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ phx.com

page 1  page 2  page 2 

Issue Date: May 2 - 8, 2003
Back to the Features table of contents

home | feedback | masthead | about the phoenix | find the phoenix | advertising info | privacy policy | work for us

 © 2000 - 2008 Phoenix Media Communications Group