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The need for news
Notes from an ex-ProJo writer

There is so much to complain about the media these days: itís too liberal, itís too conservative; reporters make up stories; the national media "filters" out the good news about Iraq, concentrating only on the negatives, like the deaths of American soldiers. Ultimately unimportant but sensational stories, such as a basketball playerís rape charge, always trump the dull but critical ones, like what the power companies did to wreck Californiaís economy. News stories are too long. News stories are too short. They are too boring, too serious, too frivolous, too obsessed with death.

But I can tell you the mostly terrifying thing about the news is to have no news.

I got a bad taste of that during the last few of my 35 years as a reporter and editor for the Providence Journal, when I was active in the newspaperís biggest union, which at the time was ó and still is ó locked in a life-and-death struggle with management.

The newspaper had the union outgunned in a lot of ways. It had more money, more technology, and a better strategic position than the union. In the computer age, itís hard for reporters, ad salespeople, janitors, and other newspaper workers to go on strike, since high technology and the availability of replacement workers makes it easy for a paper to publish while strikers are outside picketing.

But one of the most fearsome weapons the Journal used against the Providence Newspaper Guild was simply to not cover us. Day after day, month after month, and year after year, the Journal froze us out of its news pages or, at best, brushed off our rallies with a paragraph or two on page 3. It ignored our informational picket lines, discarded our press releases, and skipped the public hearings which led to a judgeís finding that the Journal in numerous instances had broken federal labor laws.

Enter the Providence Phoenix. During the four years that the Journal labor dispute has been ongoing, the Phoenixís news editor, Ian Donnis, has made coverage of the Guildís contract problems ó and the evolution of the Journal under its "new" Texas owner, the Belo Corporation ó a continuing saga (dubbed "As the ProJo Turns").

You can find a thick file of Donnisís stories on the unionís Web site, www.riguild.org. The stories are archived there not so much because the Guild likes everything that the Phoenix has had to say about the labor dispute ó after all, the stories chronicle the struggles of a union thatís been without a regular raise and unable to win a new contract since 2000 ó but because Donnisís reporting is honest and comprehensive and, most of all, they ended the Journalís abuse of the Journalís information monopoly by hiding the story.

Thatís the classic role of an "alternative" newspaper like the Phoenix ó to provide a forum for all sorts of stories and points-of-view that otherwise would not make it to public notice.

At first blush, you wouldnít think youíd need one more newspaper. If many newspapers have disappeared over the years, there are still lots of them. There are five other daily newspapers in Rhode Island in addition to the Journal, a bunch of weeklies, four TV network affiliates with news shows, some pretty hefty radio teams, and the Internet. And thatís just the home crew. With all-news cable TV, with great newspapers available for free on the Web, with news powerhouses like National Public Radio and C-SPAN, you could spend all of your waking hours wallowing in media and never make it to work, eat a meal, walk the dog, attend your kidsí birthday parties, or take a shower.

But a lot of what passes for news leaves a lot of important stories by the wayside. There are a couple of reasons. One is that thereís a lot of copycat journalism these days. The mainstream papers tend to cover the same stories, and they just hate it, letís say, when they break a story and none of the other papers pick it up. They mirror public opinion polls, rather than lead public thinking. Local TV news departments loathe serious coverage of government because they think the public considers it boring, unless it has to do with scams or sexcapades. Further, because most newspapers and TV and radio stations are owned by big corporations, they instinctively reflect the interests of their owners and tend to shed more tears for businessmen faced with big tax bills than welfare mothers whose heat gets shut off in the winter. (The business guys are advertisers and the welfare mothers canít afford either the paper or what the ads are selling.)

So if we are buried in an avalanche of news, we also wander a kind of news desert, thirsting for the untold, undiscovered, and hidden story.

Thatís part of the reason why it was a big deal for me when I got a chance to write for the Phoenix two years ago.

At the time, the Journal was offering employees over the age of 55 "buyouts" in lieu of layoffs being used by most big companies to "downsize" and thus protect their ownersí and stockholdersí profits. About 100 of us got paid bonuses to leave, and as soon as I got my little sack of money, I phoned up Donnis and asked about work at the Phoenix.

Now, it wasnít an obvious career move. First of all, weekly papers like the Phoenix usually donít pay anywhere near what union outfits like the Journal do. I was earning more than $60,000 at the time, and the Providence Phoenix not only had zero openings for full-timers, it was paying freelancers $500 for a long feature that might take three to four weeks to report and write. Iíll let you do the math, although it should be noted that my wife has a decent job with medical benefits.

Whatís more, the Phoenix was a weekly, meaning the Journal could beat you on a story six days out of seven. The Phoenix reached a lot fewer readers because it had a lower circulation than the Journal and, although free, the paper had to be picked up at stores, restaurants, nightclubs, and other places ó there was no home delivery guy to toss a copy into a readerís bacon and eggs every morning.

But like a lot of reporters who work for mainline papers, Iíd always daydreamed about the small scrappy ones. There are a number of reasons.

One was that if you fucking work for an alternative paper, and feel like you need to use special words, you fucking can.

Iíve only had to do that once so far, in a quote attributed to former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, for a story about the book The Prince of Providence by the Journalís Mike Stanton. The point is that if itís the kind of story that needs the actual words, you can use the actual words. Things like this help with credibility.

Secondly, I had looked longingly at the Phoenix because the paper did long stories.

Thereís been a big debate as long as Iíve been a reporter about the right length of a story, and the betting at the big papers is that long stories are circulation killers: readers donít have time, and the papers donít have the space. I think the real reason papers donít like long stories is that the corporate pinheads who run them arenít serious readers, donít really like newspapers, and would rather be working for operations like Tom Ryanís CVS drugstores.

The correct answer, of course, is that most stories canít be told in short takes. Thereís a critical mass that you need to explain whatís going on, and that if you summarize too much, leave too much out, and take too many shortcuts, a reader really canít understand whatever you are trying to tell her.

But most importantly, I longed to be able to dive into the kind of stories that Big Media like the Journal habitually ignored.

Let me give you two examples. Several weeks ago, my Phoenix colleague Steve Stycos wrote a piece about Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. I donít know why the Journal has been ignoring Blue Cross, but I suspect that it simply may be that the downsized paper doesnít have the horses to tackle something as complex and dense as the medical insurance company that insures a majority of the stateís residents.

Stycos explained just what an economic hold Blue Cross has on Rhode Island, how its continued premium increases are impacting businesses, how those premium increases have taken place since its competitors have failed, how itís built up big reserves that some observers think could scare off new competitors, how it seems to be expanding its role beyond paying medical bills to influencing how the stateís health care system is run (as opposed to the Health Department overseeing the stateís health care policy), how its top executive gets a big salary and may be the recipient of a big loan that he might never have to pay back. Thereís no more important economic story in Rhode Island ó or the nation ó than medical insurance, and Stycos did the definitive piece clearly, factually, and forcefully.

Another story ignored by the Journal landed in my lap last year, about the apparently weak financial footings of the proposed Heritage Harbor museum. Like a lot of Rhode Islanders, Iíve been a fan of the project as itís struggled to get off the ground over the past decade ó a mammoth museum that would tell the story of the waves of immigrants who have made the state the place it is today, along with Rhode Islandís remarkable role in the early stages of the American Industrial Revolution. Encased in the cavernous former Narragansett Electric plant on the Providence waterfront, it would have huge theme park displays and high-tech exhibits, and bring in squadrons of school kids, to say nothing of out-of-state tourists. But the sources who talked to the Phoenix were skeptical that it would be able to draw the number of visitors, or to charge the kind of admission fees, needed to pay the bills. Months after the Phoenix laid this out, along with some more follow-up stories, the museum announced it was laying off a big part of its staff, including its executive director and, because it was an "official" announcement, the Journal did that story (beating me and the Phoenix). Why did the Journal ignore the story for so long? My guess is that because the newspaper and its parent company are big contributors to Heritage Harbor ó theyíve put up $1 million, according to Heritage Harbor records ó they didnít like bad news about the project. But thatís just speculation. The important thing is that however inspiring Heritage Harbor is, its financial issues are vital in part because millions of public dollars are involved, the Journal ignored the story, and the Phoenix got it out where it needed to be.

In the two years that Iíve been freelancing for the Phoenix, where Iím called a "contributing writer," Iíve been able to write a whole bunch of stories that I donít think I would have gotten to do had I been at the Journal.

Iíve written a number of stories about taxes, for example. Youíd think people would want to read about taxes because they hate them so much, but the Journal doesnít cover the territory in-depth. My guess is that the editors are bored by them.

But I think people ought to have a chance to know some of the details about taxes, who the winners and losers are. In some years, lower- and middle-class taxpayers have gotten gouged, for instance, by rising cigarette taxes, which take a bigger proportional chunk out of their incomes than those of rich smokers. In other years, income tax breaks have benefited the wealthy much more than other taxpayers.

I wrote a story that I thought shed important light on last springís budget debate as Governor Donald L. Carcieri and the General Assembly desperately looked for sources of revenue. I asked a liberal Washington think tank, the Institute on Taxation and Tax Policy, to figure out what it would cost Rhode Islanders if the state reversed the income tax cut that had been phased in during the 1990s. It turned out that a 10 percent hike in the income tax now would cost 61 percent of taxpayers an average of $35 dollars a year more than they pay now, and 88 percent of all taxpayers an average of $186. And yet Republican Carcieri and many legislative Democrats said that hiking the income tax would be a disaster, because wealthier people would pay the lionís share and be inclined to shun Rhode Island. It may well be that Rhode Island wants to keep wealthy peopleís taxes in check. But the majority of Rhode Islanders ought to know that a state income tax hike would not necessarily empty their pocketbooks in a way that tax opponents contend.

Other stories Iíve done have been about progress in the prevention of domestic violence, the status of the stateís welfare reform program, the continuing terror of homelessness, whether state workers have it too cushy, and the workings of the USA Patriot Act. One of my favorite stories discussed whether former Republican Governor Lincoln Almond had a better record than his image as a hulking do-nothing would indicate. (Not only did the Journal skip that kind of analysis, one of its reporters bawled me out for my piece.)

This brings me to a final point about alternative papers ó which is that with their role as gadflies and outsiders and rabble-rousers ó they give themselves a lot of latitude ó most of their stories are written from a point of view, often a liberal point of view.

If youíve gotten this far in a long story, youíve figured out that I myself am a fucking liberal. I was raised by a Vermont preacher who was married to an early Richard M. Nixon hater ó Depression-era parents who revered FDR and the New Deal, and whose radical beliefs, like the labor union I joined at the Journal, postulated that all people should have enough to eat, get a good education, have a roof over their heads, receive medical care, hold a decent job, be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and not be judged on the color of their skin, the configuration of their sex organs, or the size of their paychecks. Crazy, Looney Tunes, ultra-wacko.

In fact, I worry a lot whether my point of view gets in the way of the stories that Iíve been doing in the Phoenix. I donít want to be a shill for organized labor or the Democratic Party. But I do have personal beliefs. What I try to do is use those points of view as the jumping off place when deciding what stories to propose to the Phoenix, subjects that need to be discussed and are important to democracy and the human condition.

What I hope is that, regardless of what I suspect when I begin a story, that I will tell it honestly, that I will be fair to both the people I write about and to the readers of the paper, and that I will let the facts ó as Iím able to discover and understand them ó take the story to its own conclusion.

What worries me more than being "too liberal" is whether I will let down the great tradition of the Phoenix and the alternative papers like them.

The alternative papers promise their readers that they will have the smarts, the courage, and the curiosity to look into stories not just because they are ignored by the mainstream papers and the other Big Media, but because they really need telling.

Papers like the Phoenix give their writers a lot of latitude, a lot of leeway. The challenge for people like me is to figure out how to use this freedom to pick out the best stories, tell them fairly, and try as best we can to make a gosh darn difference.

Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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