Farewell, Providence Phoenix

The Ocean State loses its voice
By PHILIP EIL  |  October 17, 2014

[Photo by Richard McCaffrey | 10.15.14]

I am the last person to interview for a job at the Boston Phoenix’s office.

That’s what outgoing Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis told me on the morning of March 25, 2013 as he walked me past enormous trash bins, empty desks, and stacks of old issues on our way out of the now-abandoned office space at 126 Brookline Ave, down the street from Fenway Park. The announcement of the Boston Phoenix’s closing had come a week and a half earlier, triggering a flood of elegies and love letters from across the country.

“We never got paid much, but we did get paid, and we were able to write about what we wanted to write the way we wanted to write it,” Charles Pierce wrote for Grantland.com. “I was thrilled every minute of my time there. No hyperbole: every minute,” added New York magazine film critic David Edelstein, in a blog post of his own. In “Memories of the Phoenix” on newyorker.com, longtime New Yorker staffer Susan Orlean wrote, “I attended the University of Michigan, but I got my real education at alternative newsweeklies. That’s where I learned to write, to report, and to think of myself as a journalist; that’s where I grew up.”

I read these testimonials to prep for my Phoenix interview and, apparently, said a few of the right things during my conversation with Kadzis. A few days later, I got a call offering me the news editor job in Providence. I accepted immediately, and with a somewhat muddled mood — spooked by the funereal vibe of my interview, yet ecstatic to have my first full-time writing/editing job, and bolstered by the Phoenix-inspired words of some of my writing heroes — I went to work. The job lasted 18 months.

Now, before we go any further, I want to state my limitations. Eighteen months is just a tiny fraction — literally, about 1/24th — of the total lifespan of the Providence Phoenix. And, since I was born in 1985, this paper is seven years older than I am. So I’m not the guy who was there when this all began. (For that, I suggest heading to our collection of testimonials.)

That said, for the next 24 hours or so, I’m still the guy getting paid for this giddy and gritty, heart swelling and heartbreaking, sublime and stressful job of news editor at the Providence Phoenix. So it falls on me to say something.

It’s an honor to have the opportunity.

*   *   *

I recently visited a journalism class at RISD and, before we began, I asked, “Does everyone know what the Providence Phoenix is?” Only about three of 15 students raised their hand. This was better than the zero hands raised when I asked a similar question about Gawker.com, but it was still striking. So, perhaps it’s wise to offer some history.

The NewPaper (predecessor to the Phoenix) was a free, biweekly newspaper born on March 8, 1978. That first 12-page “preview” issue featured a cover story on the Beatles parody band, the Rutles, plus articles on Warren Zevon, the reggae-soundtracked film The Harder They Come, and notable upcoming events like “the J. Geils Band, still celebrating their first decade together, perform[ing] with Roomful of Blues at 8 in Walsh Gym on the Rhode Island College campus” on March 17.

The issue also included a brief manifesto. “We believe that, whether you’re discussing music or arguing politics, there’s a lot more going on in Rhode Island than many people realize,” read an introductory note. “This modest preview issue represents the first step towards establishing a new, major weekly offering both the most comprehensive entertainment information possible, and a fresh perspective on what’s going on in the state. Unlike Boston, which has two fat weeklies and two large dailies, Rhode Island has never had a major statewide weekly. One daily newspaper company more-or-less determines most of the information Rhode Islanders receive from local news sources. We don’t believe this is a healthy situation.”

And so it began. Within a few months, the NewPaper shifted to weekly distribution, and Providence — following New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland [OR], and various other cities — became an alt-weekly town. Now, in addition (or in opposition) to the Providence Journal, readers could pick up a free paper featuring first-person accounts of abortions and nuclear power plant protests, and interviews with Talking Heads front man David Byrne about his time working at the New York System on Smith Street. “One of the guys who worked there insulted one of the customers one night so the customer picked up a big pot of mustard and poured it on his head,” Byrne told writer Rudy Cheeks in a November 1978 interview. Cheeks would soon embark with fellow NewPaper writer Chip Young on a gonzo, riotous, decades-long political/cultural conversation about “Vo Dilun” called “Phillipe & Jorge’s Cool, Cool World.”

Over time, that column — and the paper, in general — worked its way into the fabric of the Ocean State. In 1979, Jean Rawson told of the difficulties the 8000 domestic violence victims in Rhode Island faced when seeking help. A woman named Ann told her, “At one point I went to Welfare to ask for help when I was 17, and they said, ‘You’re either the property of your parents or the property of your husband until you’re 18 years old, and we’re not going to do anything.’ ”

In 1987 Bill Flanagan bade farewell to the Schemers, which had been dubbed by many “the best rock ’n’ roll band Rhode Island ever produced.” He didn’t disagree. “They articulated exactly what it felt like to be living hungry in New England in the 1980s. And it was not affected, it was real,” he wrote. “The Schemers reached more people, moved and inspired and made sense for more people, than a lot of big stars ever will.”

In 1994 — six years after the 1988 purchase of the NewPaper by the Boston Phoenix — the now-Providence Phoenix (after a few awkward years as the Phoenix’s NewPaper) endorsed Myrth York as the Democratic nominee for governor with a list of 94 reasons why incumbent Bruce Sundlun was the wrong choice: “14. He used the analogy of a housewife spending twice as much as her husband gives her to explain the state budget deficit ‘for the ladies in the audience.’ 15. He said of Elizabeth Leonard, his Republican opponent in 1992: ‘I’ve been chasing blondes all my life but it’s going to get turned around. There’s going to be a blonde chasing me.” The article ran with an illustration of Sundlun sporting a pig’s snout for a nose.

In 1999 the paper collected testimonials from Rick Moody, Jeffrey Eugenides, John Barth, former New York State poet laureate Robert Creeley, and others, for a tribute to John Hawkes, the iconoclastic novelist/poet/playwright and Brown University creative writing guru.

In 2002, on the eve of Mayor Buddy Cianci’s “Plunder Dome” trial, news editor Ian Donnis wrote profiles of the lead lawyers on both sides of the case: Assistant US Attorney and the second black federal prosecutor in Rhode Island history, Richard W. Rose; and the $525-an-hour, Boston-based defense wizard, Richard Egbert.

These are just a few stories from the nearly 1900 issues that, at times, averaged 72 pages. The 1993 Providence Phoenix Summer Guide had six sections, 216 pages, and weighed over a pound.

In contrast, the Phoenix I inherited in the spring of 2013 was slightly enfeebled. The paper sometimes flopped over in your hands at a mere 20 pages. The equipment around the office had a tendency to — how do I say this? — not work. Our web site was. . . quaint.

But the attitude was still there. And I freely admit to stealing and paraphrasing Charlie Pierce’s line about being paid to “write about what I want in the way I want to write it” when describing how much I loved this job.

In my time at the Phoenix, we called the Westboro Baptist Church — which sent a contingent to RI to decry the legalization of same sex marriage on August 1, 2013 — “a flaring rash on the ass of humanity that itches too much to be completely ignored.” We called the Providence Journal’s climate change-denying op-eds and political cartoons “horseshit.” We reminded readers that, in 2010, former Governor Donald Carcieri told a reporter in regards to taxpayer-backed loans to Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios that “there is only a risk if everything goes wrong.” We trumpeted the legalization of gay marriage, lambasted Brown University’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels, and ran a story officially retiring the media practice of publishing sensational law enforcement photos from marijuana busts. Referring to a recent Patch.com photo from a seizure of 13.5 pounds of weed in central Rhode Island, we asked, “Will the guys busted for possessing banned plants in Coventry and Scituate do more time in prison than Charles Moreau, the corrupt former mayor of Central Falls recently released from prison after 13 months?”

All the while, our coverage of music, theater, dance, food, and visual art hummed along. You could spend hours digging through the riches of our final “Fall Arts Preview” issue from September 12.

In other words, we were still fulfilling that inaugural 1978 promise to provide “both the most comprehensive entertainment information possible, and a fresh perspective on what’s going on in the state” on Wednesday, October 8, when the staff received an email about a meeting in the conference room at 4:30 pm.

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