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Farewell, Providence Phoenix

By PHILIP EIL  |  October 17, 2014

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“What will Rhode Island be missing without the Providence Phoenix?”

That’s a question I’ve been asked over and over by reporters in the last week. So let’s answer it.

First, Rhode Island is losing an employer for two writer/editors, four salespeople, two designers, a finance manager, an HR manager, a circulation director, a chief operating officer, and other office staffers. The Phoenix had 14 full-time employees, plus more than a dozen freelance writers and delivery drivers.

Rhode Island is losing what has been its most thorough and thoughtful chronicler, critic, and champion of local arts and culture for the last three decades. Period. (Yes, we’re still boasting from our deathbed.)

Rhode Island is losing a vigorous advocate for free speech and transparency. Even after the March 2013 closing of the Boston Phoenix, we continued to give our annual Muzzle Awards on July 4, calling out various power players who, in ways large and small, infringed the First Amendment rights of others. Lincoln Chafee received a 2014 Muzzle, for example, for signing a bill into law that diminished citizens’ ability to access and assess the safety plans of Rhode Island public schools. On the transparency and accountability side, the final months of the Providence Phoenix brought cover stories informing readers of the latest developments in the ongoing 38 Studios meltdown (including the schedule of multimillion dollar bond payments notched into state budgets through 2021); calling out the uber-dominant Rhode Island Democratic Party for being the only state Democratic party in New England not to post a party platform online, then chiding them when the platform they eventually posted referred to “the Clinton Administration” in the present tense; and delivering a “Public Information 101” tutorial from journalists and good-government advocates in our third-to-last issue.

Rhode Island is losing a dedicated voice for the voiceless. In 1988 and ’89 (to pick just two years), the paper delivered pieces on AIDS activists, teen moms, the exploding Southeast Asian refugee population in South Providence, the under-reported homelessness and poverty in Newport, the underpayment and generally shitty treatment of Providence Journal delivery workers, and sexual assault on RI’s college campuses. Rhode Island’s under-privileged and victimized got one hell of a better shake in these pages than they did in the ProJo’s opinion pages.

Speaking of the Journal, Rhode Island is losing the unofficial ombudsman for its most important news organization — and the other players in our crowded media market. After hearing news of the Phoenix’s closing, Woonsocket Call/Pawtucket Times managing editor David Pepin wrote on Facebook that this paper’s media criticism and coverage is “perhaps its greatest legacy.” “For a long time, the Phoenix had the only media coverage in this town,” he wrote. “God forbid the ProJo or any of the TV or radio stations cover each other (or themselves) as power institutions in Providence. The Phoenix created the media beat here, and may it live on.”

Rhode Island is losing two iconic political commentators, in Phillipe and Jorge (Chip Young and Rudy Cheeks) who, in decades’ worth of weekly columns, straddled the line between righteous indignation and juvenile banter. A state where judges are photographed zipping their flies while walking out of motels and governors dive into dumpsters for bags of cash deserves more than a simple AP Stylebook-abiding play-by-play. P&J brought the color commentary, right up through their August 2014 description of “manchild David [Caprio] embroiled in the Beach Blanket Bozo affair that involves state Rep. Peter Palumbo (D-Cranston) and their alleged collusion on food concession contracts for the Misquamicut, ‘Scah-Bro,’ and Roger Wheeler state beaches.”

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Rhode Island is losing a teacher who broke down complicated, yet important, subjects without being boring or didactic. Former news editor David Scharfenberg’s pieces on pensions (March 2011’s “Rhode Island’s Ticking Time Bomb”) and the unexpected passage of a voter ID law in deep-blue Rhode Island (May 2012’s “Who Passed Voter ID?”) are classic examples of this. More recently, we offered a similarly down-to-earth guide to what makes the Rhode Island House Speaker the “most powerful politician in the state,” following the hectic Smith Hill power-grab after Speaker Gordon Fox’s resignation in March of 2014.

Rhode Island is losing a vital training ground for journalists and writers. What the PawSox are to the Red Sox, the NewPaper/Phoenix was to local and national journalism. You’ll find this little ol’ paper on the resumes of contributors to GQ, the Boston Globe, New York Times, Rolling Stone,Rhode Island Public Radio, Providence Journal, Esquire, CBS Sunday Morning, PBS, MTV Networks,Village Voice, Vanity Fair, and elsewhere.

Rhode Island is losing a highly functional object that was replenished in stacks weekly in the corners of wiener joints, coffee shops, liquor stores, supermarkets, libraries, and college hallways. The Phoenix didn’t require a wifi signal or a charged battery. It didn’t cost anything. It didn’t judge you if you just wanted to do the crossword, or look up a movie listing, or use the paper to light your grill in the summertime. Though, if you wanted to, it could have a serious discussion about, say, the dearth of women in the latest RISD Museum exhibition. There were 68,000 copies of the paper distributed each week. According to recently published circulation stats, the Journal sells an average of 72,023 copies on weekdays. Translation: even in its final hours, the Phoenix was on its way toward becoming the largest paper in the state on the Thursdays it was distributed.

And, finally, Rhode Island is losing a preeminent giver of farewells. From Rocky Point Park to former Secretary of State Susan Farmer, people and institutions received gilded send-offs in these pulpy pages. One of my proudest moments as an editor was seeing the response to Phoenix freelancer (and former Acme Video clerk) Zach Green’s obituary for the Providence video store, “Adieu, Acme Video,” in our January 22, 2014 issue. That week’s newsletter from Acme’s Brook Street neighbor, Campus Fine Wines, linked to the story and wrote, “then someone comes along and writes the best ever homage to our neighbor, Acme Video, and this person positively nails what it is to simply be in and of a place, and the entire reason for us being in this business, but more importantly: in this store, in this city. . . It’s an ode to brick and mortar, an ode to the humble and illustrious masses, and seriously, an ode to humanity (Oh, the humanity!) that flourishes in the little places like Acme, the places that make a city a home."

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Bruce Allen is 60 years old. He was 24 in 1978 when, after studying creative writing at Roger Williams College, then cleaning cages at a pet store in Seekonk, he took a job selling subscriptions at the Providence Journal. He lasted three hours.

When he walked out of the building, he found two things on the windshield of his Volkswagen Beetle: a parking ticket and that first “Rutlemania!!” issue of the NewPaper. Grabbing the paper, he walked over to the NewPaper’s office on Washington Street, took the rickety elevator up to the second floor, and inquired about a job.

Bruce is the longest-tenured employee at the NewPaper/Phoenix, having started at the paper just a few weeks later. (His friend from Roger Williams, Lou Papineau, joined the paper shortly after and has also been here ever since.) He’s seen the paper transition from its origins as “a funky rock and roll paper managed and run by a bunch of ne’er-do-wells” to the late-’80s, wear-a-tie-to-work “culture shock” of the NewPaper/Phoenix transition, to the recent months after the Boston Phoenix closed down, when the office in Providence reminded him of the scrappy, small-town paper where he was first hired.

Bruce won’t underplay the loss of the Phoenix. “I don’t know anything else,” he says. The paper “formed me. It’s part of my personality. It’s part of my being.”

But he isn’t totally despondent over its closing. Bruce handles the Phoenix’s longest-running advertising accounts — the Ocean Mist, the RISD Museum, Trinity Rep, AS220, Olneyville New York System, Cellar Stories Used Books, Nick-a-Nee’s, the Avon, and the Cable Car — and in his final email pitch to advertisers for this “one last kickass issue,” he included a Dr. Suess quote: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

“I’ve never worked here for the money,” he told me in a recent conversation in the paper’s conference room. “I’m not a business guy; I just fell into this. And when I’m selling ads, I was never thinking about my wallet. I was thinking about my friend Lou getting paid. I was thinking about the culture. I was thinking about getting excited [by] being associated with AS220 and. . . with the bands and the colorful people I would encounter every day.” He calls the experience a “Jackson Pollock-y kind of tapestry of life here in Rhode Island from 1978 to 2014.

“We had a ball,” he says. “And I all can say is that I was lucky enough to catch the wave.”

Philip Eil can be reached atphilip.edward.eil@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @phileil.

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