Saving the ProJo

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 28, 2012

It's the kind of piece I might have written at the paper's Cranston desk a few years back: a solid bit of incremental reporting on a city trying to come to terms with its pension problems. But it's drab, it's procedural, and it's of absolutely no interest to anyone outside Cranston. It is, in other words, a perfect symbol of everything that's wrong with the paper's journalism.

Of course, making the local news compelling on a daily — or even weekly — basis is a challenge. Lord knows the Phoenix falls short of that goal from time to time. But Rhode Island, with its world-class universities, hospitals, and crooks, provides ample material. And the ProJo knew how to exploit it, once.

For years, it had a reputation as a writer's paper — a daily that wasn't afraid of experimentation, narrative journalism, storytelling. That tradition had largely faded by the time I landed at the broadsheet. And the loss, in recent years, of lyrical scribes like Scott MacKay and Mark Arsenault makes a revival challenging.

But there are plenty of talented reporters left at the paper — writers who still spin a great yarn, from time to time. And the ProJo needs to make far greater use of their talents.

At least three days a week, there should be a profile of a big thinker, a walk through a devastating crime, or a scene from the delightful and absurd happenings that shape Rhode Island life.

In July, the New England Miniature Horse Society held its "summer sizzle" show at Journey's End Farm in Foster — tiny steeds, cowboy boots, "My Barn, My Rules" T-shirts. It had all the makings of a charming, winking front-page feature. Where was the ProJo?

The paper is also failing in its coverage of Rhode Island's great passion: politics. The ProJo's State House bureau turns out some fine reporting on the budget and other major legislation. Dogged bureau chief Kathy Gregg does some important accountability work, too — her series this year on the controversial Institute for International Sport at the University of Rhode Island leaps to mind.

And when crisis strikes — think the 38 Studios fiasco — the paper deploys Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Mike Stanton. But the paper needs at least one full-time reporter dedicated to writing the juicy and important political stories unfolding every day outside the General Assembly's chamber.

Where was the in-depth work, this year, on Congressman David Cicilline's comeback? How about Rhode Island's shifting views on gay marriage? We've yet to read the definitive piece on how Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, who favors the sort of data-based, charter-driven reform in fashion in Washington these days, is faring under Governor Lincoln Chafee, who is skeptical of the new approach.

And in politics, or on any other beat, the ProJo should be doing much more in the way of news analysis — putting issues in a regional and national context, giving them meaning, making a bit of an argument. The paper has a broader reach and a deeper memory than any news organization in the state. It should exploit that advantage.

Of course, local news consumers don't want to pore through overlong stories. But if a piece is interesting, they'll read it. And not every bit of news analysis or local color has to go on and on.

These changes I'm proposing, if broad and significant, are entirely doable even for a shrunken paper with fewer resources than the Globe. And that's what's so frustrating for this observer. I know plenty of editors and reporters at the ProJo. They're smart and funny and enterprising. Fully capable of turning out the kind of paper Rhode Island deserves.

Let 'em loose, I say.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at dscharfenberg@phx.com. Follow him on Twitter @d_scharfenberg.

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