Local heroes of 2012

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 11, 2012

In fewer than two months, Plain has beefed up the site's core of writers, doubled its (still modest) traffic, and nudged the public debate a bit to the left.

Plain points, for instance, to recent posts suggesting that big cuts in state aid, rather than unfunded pensions for public employees, are driving Rhode Island's cities and towns to the brink of insolvency.

It is, he says, the sort of intelligent, progressive perspective that is too absent from the local mediascape. "Instead of appealing to base emotions," Plain says, sitting at the Small Point Café in downtown Providence where he does much of his writing, "we want to make nuanced, well-thought out points."

But reviving progressive commentary and analysis — long the bread-and-butter of rifuture.org — is not his only aim.

Plain is a veteran journalist — having worked as a reporter at small newspapers in Vermont, Wyoming, and Oregon, at a local news site in his hometown of East Greenwich, and most recently, at WPRO, which laid him off in November.

He's visited organic farms, bent the ear of a mayor or two, and slogged through his share of planning hearings. Daily journalism is in his blood and he has pressed to make it a central feature of the site.

To date, he's been a sort of one-man bureau: walking the halls of the State House and filing left-leaning missives on legislation that would rein in the excesses of payday lenders or improve access to public records.

But he has plans for something more. David Pepin — a veteran Rhode Island newspaper reporter recently laid off by the East Greenwich Pendulum — is set to begin reporting on state politics for the site, with an emphasis on the municipal crisis, while he searches for full-time work.

The push has made rifuture part of an emerging, alternate daily press corps that also includes Rhode Island Public Radio, golocalprov, and WPRI blogger Ted Nesi — a youthful, digital-savvy crew that has taken on increased importance since the Providence Journal put most of its reporting behind a paywall in February.

Plain entered the fray with a full head of steam. At WPRO, he had been reporting on the Occupy movement. And then, ironically, he was felled by the same corporatist forces Occupy was decrying — WPRO's new owner, Atlanta-based Cumulus Media, dropping him and a handful of other staffers last fall to cut costs.

Plain, who has diagnosed himself with "a severe case of wanderlust," promptly bought a 45-day Amtrak ticket and set out on what he called his "Occutour," a coast-to-coast exploration of a movement that had built what Plain calls "the narrative in America" at the time.

He hit Detroit, visiting bombed out, "literally empty neighborhoods," where Occupy's collection of homeless and neo-hippie crusaders were holding abandoned houses in a bid to stave off decay.

In New Orleans' Seventh Ward, which still reeked of sewage seven years after Katrina, he saw the birth of an Occupy community garden. And he witnessed the no-holds barred approach of the Oakland wing of the movement — "every bit as radical as the media portrays it."

Plain interviewed the activists. He shot footage. He worked 20-hour days, at times — writing on the train about a city he'd just visited as he called Occupyers in the next town on his tour tro set up appointments.

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  Topics: News Features , Brown University, AS220, Jeremy Radtke
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