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How the Boston Globe is affecting local media

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“Meet the Brown professor who made a fascinating discovery about Jackson Pollock…”

“We asked, the stakeholders answered: How to address climate change in Rhode Island…”

“For decades, Buddy Cianci’s ex-wife stayed silent about their marriage. Now she’s speaking out…”

 

All these headlines recently graced the pages of the Boston Globe. Not the Providence Journal. Not the Newport Daily News. Not, well, East Side Monthly. To write them, the Globe didn’t send intrepid reporters across state lines to interview locals and spend the night in a Warwick motel. They didn’t even have to call long-distance. These stories were written about Rhode Island, by Rhode Island reporters, for Rhode Island readers. They were typed out on a computer in the Jewelry District. These headlines exist because of a startling new branch of the Globe’s media empire: a dedicated Providence bureau.

At first glance, this “bureau” is a modest affair. There are three reporters: Dan McGowan, Amanda Milkovits, and Ed Fitzpatrick. They occupy a single office in a busy Dyer Street low-rise, the Cambridge Innovation Center. The CIC building is brand new, and it smells that way. The bureau’s corner office is surrounded by consultants, marketers, wealth advisors, and software developers – a hodgepodge of unrelated businesses that share the same kitchen. There are no supervisors on the premises; two Globe editors read their drafts about 70 miles away, in a psychologically different universe. The whole operation looks like a brave little startup.

Size is deceptive, though. The Providence bureau signals a paradigm shift in local media – partly because Massachusetts has noticed us more and more, and they see a market for Rhode Island readers. But it’s more than that. The Globe is finding ways to report on a local level. As the newspaper industry continues to swoon, Boston Globe Media has seized a valuable opportunity. A powerful new voice has started to tell our story, not for semi-interested readers in another city, but for Rhode Islanders themselves. And like it or not, they’re telling that story well.

 

A Bold Move

Among journalists, the Boston Globe is a very big deal. J-school students dream of publishing a 1A story in the Globe. Even in these turbulent times, this is a newspaper that’s thriving.

To start, the Globe has won 26 Pulitzer Prizes since it was founded in 1872. The Globe’s journalistic reputation easily rivals the Times, Post, or Wall Street Journal. The Globe’s Spotlight team – which often spends months on investigative features – was already world-famous before the eponymous movie came out. Even its online videos have won two regional Emmy Awards. For the past three years, the Globe has been headquartered in Exchange Place, a glassy skyscraper in Boston’s financial district. Its daily circulation is about half a million, and Sunday readership is 769,000. More than 100,000 people pay for web access alone.

So, when the Globe calls and asks you to start a new bureau from scratch, you say yes.

That’s the call Dan McGowan received 13 months ago from Brian McGrory, editor-in-chief of the Globe. In theory, this was still a tough decision. McGowan has been a local journalist for about 10 years, and he already had full-time work, mostly as a reporter for TV network WPRI. “I had nothing to lose,” he recalls. “I had a good job at Channel 12. I was super happy.”

But the Globe was more than a strong brand; McGowan would have the chance to start a whole new office. Around the world, newspapers have cut back on satellite desks, relying on wire services to report beyond their own city limits. Few newspapers like the Globe are even retaining such bureaus, much less opening new ones.

“Very quickly, it was apparent that they were super serious about this,” McGowan recalls. “It wasn’t just ‘What do you think?’ My guess is that it was more than a cold call. I’m sure [McGrory] did a little bit of due diligence. But I probably was lucky that I was one of the first people to get a call.”

The Globe also approached Amanda Milkovits and Ed Fitzpatrick, two longtime Rhode Island reporters; they both started at the Providence Journal on the same day, 19 years ago, and depending on your interest in local affairs, they are household names. Milkovits specialized in crime and criminal justice, and she remained at the Journal until the Globe made their offer. Fitzpatrick spent 15 years at the Journal, serving as a political columnist and court reporter; he has also taught journalism at Roger Williams University, among other pursuits.

“I was really happy,” says Milkovits. She knows many former ProJo reporters who now work for the Globe, but she never considered applying herself. “I loved what I did. I knew everybody. I really like Rhode Island, and I didn’t want to commute to Boston.”

Yet, Milkovits caught the Globe’s attention with a single story – her report about a Boston police officer, Emanuel Brandao, who partied with exotic dancers in Pawtucket and had his sidearm stolen. She shared her copy of the police report with Globe staff, triggering a larger conversation about a job there. “Boston people, they can’t handle Providence,” says Milkovits with a knowing laugh. “We’re much wilder.”

“Rhode Island is nothing if not parochial,” says Fitzpatrick, who grew up in Greenville. “If you sent a bunch of people down from Boston, saying, ‘I went to HAH-VAHD, show me to your mayor,’ it just wouldn’t work. The strength of this team is that we’ve all been covering different aspects of the news for years and years, and we know what the issues are.”

Once they solidified the concept, things moved quickly. McGowan was offered the job in February, and operations began in late spring. Out of nowhere, readers could subscribe to Rhode Map, an email newsletter about local developments. A new Facebook page, “Dan McGowan’s Scoop on Providence Politics,” has attracted more than 7,000 members. And the Globe’s website now offers a separate page for Ocean State news. “We’re expanding our R.I. coverage,” a headline proclaimed. “Tell us what you want to see.”

 

A Whole New World

But let’s play devil’s advocate: Is the Globe’s new bureau a healthy addition? Like most newspapers, the Providence Journal has struggled with layoffs, income woes, and diminishing subscriptions. The Journal is owned by GateHouse Media, which is owned by New Media Investment Group, and it’s rare that such top-heavy ownership bodes well for beloved local papers.

So you’d be forgiven for thinking of the Globe as an intruder, a well-moneyed corporation muscling in on the Journal’s territory and preying on its readership. In an era of deep suspicion – about media, about who controls the headlines – an aggressive leviathan from another state might not seem like a welcome visitor, whether they’ve hired local reporters or not.

McGowan has heard such grumbling, and he understands the argument, but he also disagrees. “There is no evidence that that’s the case,” he rebuts. “If anything, we want to be a collaborator here. It’s really easy to say, ‘The Journal’s going through its stuff, so the Globe came in.’ But we’re doing something that’s completely different. We’re not the newspaper of record, and we’re not trying to be. And who in the world gets their news from one single source anymore?”

“Our mantra is to go in a different direction,” adds Milkovits, “and to find stuff that nobody else is covering. To run away from the mob – which is harder than it looks.”

“There are definitely fewer reporters covering the state of Rhode Island than there were a decade ago,” says Cynthia Needham, deputy editor at the Globe, who also spent seven years writing about politics for the Journal. “We wanted to help fill that gap and bring the substantial resources of the Boston Globe to help tell the stories that aren’t being told down there. Rhode Island is very unique, with a very rich sense of place, and I don’t think anybody in Rhode Island needed or wanted someone coming in from anywhere else, telling them what they should be reading or what matters. We aren’t looking to step on anyone’s toes, but we really see competition as a good thing. More attention on the issues out there is important.”

Many of those competitors would agree with Needham’s sentiment. Just ask Alan Rosenberg, executive editor of the Providence Journal.

“I recall being surprised that the Globe was launching a new effort in Rhode Island, because they’ve tried unsuccessfully in our territory in the past,” recalls Rosenberg. “Their efforts have encouraged us to focus on the depth of our Rhode Island report, which brings so many more talented reporters into play than the Globe has here. We have two reporters at the State House full-time – nobody else has even one – and full-time reporters on Rhode Island education, health, and the environment here, all of them excellent. We have a great food editor – again, the only one in Rhode Island – and we’re the only statewide source for news about high school sports. All of which, along with our other terrific writers, gives us a big
advantage.”

“Maybe the added competition to the state may have irked some of the established media presence in Rhode Island,” adds James Bessette, president of the Rhode Island Press Association. “But I feel that competition is a good thing. In an era in which media is under attack, more news, in my opinion, is good news.”

 

Trying to be Different

McGowan is now 33 years old, and over the past decade, he has found himself involved in several ambitious media experiments. He studied journalism at Boston University in the hopes of becoming a sports writer. He had little interest in politics until Providence’s contentious mayoral race in 2010, when he started a blog about the many campaigns.

“Twenty-ten was a very prime blogging time. Everybody had a blog.” But McGowan showed up for all of the debates, and candidates started to appreciate his dedication and pluck. “I would listen to what was happening, and I would write about it with a little bit of edge. I’d make fun of it a little bit. And then I became obsessed with it.”

Later, McGowan would write for the web-based media company GoLocal, where he was encouraged to write strong and fast. After that, he spent six years at WPRI, helping to win a New England Emmy Award. His reportage has appeared widely, including in the pages of this magazine on a regular basis. The Globe’s latest venture may have taken away the stability of television news, but the new bureau is rich with possibility. And in McGowan’s eyes, it’s just one of many intelligent voices in a state that needs them.

“We have a very robust media in Rhode Island,” says McGowan. “If you look at this market, you’ve got three television stations here. Go to Worcester, [which is] larger than Providence, and they don’t have three television stations. You’ve got a public radio station that’s really competitive. You’ve got AM radio that’s a dominant figure here. When you’re competing with everybody, it’s hard. But I’m energized every day – by that challenge of trying to be different.”