Everything in Rhode Island is small. Even the Internet.
So last year, when the Providence Journal put the bulk of its journalism behind a "pay wall" — accessible only to subscribers — it was a significant blow to the online ecosystem.
It wasn't just that the paper's stories on City Hall skullduggery and Federal Hill cuisine had disappeared from the web. It was that the media outlet best positioned to drive online innovation had all but given up on the project.
News junkies and, really, anyone who cares about the long-term health of the Ocean State press, were left with a big question: who would rescue the Rhode Island web?
Turns out a local television station, WPRI, was already on the case. And in the coming days, when it adds another web-based reporter, it will double down on an experiment like none other in the region.
Indeed, WPRI's grab for control of Rhode Island's screens — television, computer, and smart phone — may be the only one of its kind in the country.
THE VIRTUOUS CIRCLE
Local television stations have never been a font of innovation — unless you consider the "if-it-bleeds-it-leads" model a great leap forward.
And lately, they have trailed even metropolitan newspapers, that other old media relic, in embracing the Internet.
It's no surprise, really. TV news, if hardly the juggernaut it once was, still makes money; station mangers are not facing the existential threat that has forced newspaper publishers to act.
That is, most newspaper publishers.
The Journal's rigid paywall is just the most prominent example of a broader digital retreat — no iPhone app, a clunky web interface — designed to push readers back to the more profitable print-and-ink version of the paper.
Combine that business strategy with a journalism of shrunken ambition — the paper dropped its business section in 2009, has some significant blind spots in its political coverage, and appears allergic to analysis — and you've got a real opening for another media outlet, like WPRI.
Or, more precisely, WPRI blogger Ted Nesi.
Nesi (pronounced KNEE-see) started his journalism career at his hometown [Attleboro] Sun Chronicle before moving to the Providence Business News, where he served as a print reporter and website editor, covering energy, the environment, technology, and the media.
In the spring of 2010, he approached WPRI's then-general manager Jay Howell with the idea for his current job: a sort of local version of Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein, who turns out highly readable, deep-dive analyses of economics and public policy.
"I still have the email, it's really terrific: 'you should hire me, here's why,' " says Jay Howell, a voluble, ambitious figure who now serves as vice president-regional television for LIN Media, the Providence-based company that owns WPRI and 42 other television stations across the country.
Howell, at the time, was making a hard charge at longtime market leader WJAR — bulking up investigative reporter Tim White's team and, now, hiring Nesi.
The idea was to produce as much original, enterprising reporting as possible — not only to ratchet up ratings in the short term, but to compensate for local television's ever-loosening grip on the news of the day; by the time the 6 pm news rolls around, most people have already heard about the governor's press conference or the jump in the unemployment rate. They need something more, something new.