A journalism 'giant' sits for an exit interview

As the ' ProJo ' Turns
By PHILIP EIL  |  June 5, 2013

A MAN OF HONOR Whitcomb.

Robert Whitcomb set a ground rule before our interview about his retirement as longtime Providence Journal vice president and editorial page editor. He would talk about industry trends, he wrote in an email, but he would "NOT" talk about the paper's internal operations.

But this didn't mean I couldn't try. At one point during our meeting at his neighborhood East Side deli, I read a string of recent headlines from WPRI reporter Ted Nesi's blog: "Advertising sales down 15 percent at ProJo during first quarter," "ProJo's Sunday circulation slumps 10%; owner loses $8M," "ProJo revenue nearly steady in 2012, but ad sales are down 66%." Whitcomb didn't flinch. It would be "dishonorable" for him to delve into behind-the-scenes details from Fountain Street, he said.

He is a man of his word and a lover of words, too. At one point he half-jokingly described his approach to editing as "amoralist"; his primary concern with an opinion piece wasn't necessarily agreement with its ideas, but the quality of its writing.

He is also a fan of percentages. Roughly 80 percent of the "Letters to the Editor" he's read during his career have been angry and negative, he said. This might have to do with his calculation that only about five percent of the general population is actually interested in offering suggestions for making the world better.

We spoke at a table flanked by diners who munched sandwiches and flipped through the Journal's Saturday edition, in which an editorial called Whitcomb "a giant of Rhode Island journalism." And yet when it came to sizing up his legacy, he was self-effacing.

"I might have affected 0.15 percent of public policy around here," he said. Then he paused, before adding, "But that's 0.15 pecent that wasn't there before."

Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

YOU SAY YOU WORKED WELL WITHJOURNALPUBLISHER HOWARD SUTTON BECAUSE YOU "GENERALLY HAVE THE SAME VIEW OF THE WORLD." CAN YOU DESCRIBE THAT WORLDVIEW? Well, I don't want to speak for him, but my view of the world [is], politically, I'm somewhere between a Truman Democrat and an Eisenhower Republican, which is funny because they didn't particularly like each other. And I'm kind of a fatalist, an internationalist. I don't believe in exceptionalism, American or otherwise. I think life is a mystery. I think it's almost sacrilegious to say what God wants. It's a mystery; it's all a big weird, eerie mystery. I look at life in very surreal [terms]. Not quite . . . Salvador Dali, but approaching that.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF A PRINTED NEWSPAPER IN TODAY'S WORLD? If you put something on paper, on a physical object — not just backlit, but [with] reflected light — it has a dignity and a gravitas and a weight and, if it's done right, a credibility that stuff on a screen doesn't have. It's why you have a treaty, an international treaty, on [a] sheet of paper [of] good stock, signed, inked. The physicality of it makes you retain it differently; it raises your attention level and gives it a kind of seriousness, even if it's funny.

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