Different time, different place
Even in its thinner state, the ProJo continues to play a vital role, exposing wrongdoing and covering the big stories of the day. The Journal, in part due to multiple rounds of buyouts, has been spared the layoffs seen at many other papers. If recapturing the profitability of bygone days remains a challenge, the paper is hardly alone.
Still, it’s hard not to be more than a little nostalgic about the bygone time when local ownership and the kind of moxie embodied by Rawson took Rhode Island journalism to a higher level.
Phoenix contributor Brian C. Jones, who spent more than 30 years at the Journal before taking a 2001 buyout, praises Rawson for “a sort of spectral ability to sense a news story before anyone else could recognize it,” as well as an emotional connection to the news: “Stories got to him. He bellyached, cursed, choked-up and laughed about what he edited or read — just like readers do at their kitchen tables and in their living rooms, processing the stories not just in his brain, but in his gut. With Rawson, the news was not just ‘content’ or ‘product,’ it was personal.”
Via e-mail, Jones writes, “Rawson changed the way the Journal told its stories, weaning reporters from pedestrian, formulaic stories that read like every other story spilling out of the news assembly line. He introduced writers to narrative story-telling, borrowing techniques of filmmakers and novelists, bringing out the excitement, emotion and nuance that often bleached out in conventional news writing.
“He engineered the paper’s trademark: the really big story. I mean big, literally, as in enormous, in-depth, page-after page stories; Stories that reporters worked on for months, even years; stories that when they finally were written ran day after day, sometimes week after week. And he did this at a time when most other papers, led by USA Today, declared that readers have short attentions and small brains, crying to be fed their news in tiny bits and crumbs.
“Rawson-style marathons explored the state’s jewelry industry, the inner workings of its international toy company, the mind of a serial killer, joblessness, the dying days of a man fighting to his right to die, the work of a bishop, the perilous lives of illegal immigrants, the tragedy of the Station nightclub fire. He once gave me a year to interview five families to chart the changing nature of American households, and another year to do a series about how men’s roles where evolving with a changing economy.”
Rawson’s “sixth sense about the next story,” Jones says, was evident when he once let a clipping — about an accident in which a car had tumbled down an embankment in Warwick, and the driver landed near the wreck, dead — flutter onto his desk.
“ ‘No seatbelt,’ Rawson said, although the story didn’t. Now, I got it. He wanted a big story about what happens when people don’t wear seatbelts. But it seemed a stretch: who says this guy wasn’t wearing, or even if he was, whether the belt had failed.”
The ensuing story showed that the driver probably would have lived, had he been belted in when he apparently fell asleep after working a late shift. Readers wrote to Jones, indicating that they had started wearing their seat belts. When one guy expressed concern about not being able to unbuckle a seat belt, Jones did a story on that as well, talking with experts “about the odds of crashing on the highway, versus the odds of plunging into the Blackstone.”
“And that’s what mattered to Rawson. In the days when newspapers weren’t penny-pinching, he sent reporters to the side of the Interstate in Warwick, to mass-murder scenes in New Hampshire, to farms in the Midwest, war in the Middle East and jewelry shops in Olneyville. His only demand was that each story be good. Damn good.” ^