Steve Brown retiring as publisher of Providence Phoenix

Mar 4, 2014

Stephen L. Brown, longtime associate publisher of the Providence Phoenix, is leaving the alternative newspaper after a career of nearly four decades as a leader in New England’s alternative newspaper landscape.

Brown, of Jamestown, turns 60 next month. Steve started in newspapering at the University of Vermont, where he began working on the student newspaper, `The Vermont Cynic’ as an undergraduate in the 1970s.

After graduation he migrated to Boston, where in 1976 he started his career as an advertising salesman at the Boston Phoenix. Brown soon took charge of harvesting advertising from retailers  on tony Newbury Street at a time when the Phoenix was locked in serious competition with the Real Paper, the other alternative weekly in the Hub.

The Phoenix was an incubator for some great journalists who would become among the nation’s best writers, including Dave O’Brian, Caroline Knapp, David Denby and sports guru George Kimball. One of Brown’s first tasks was to make an ad trade with a shoe store for a pair of boots that Kimball coveted.

Brown inhaled the heady atmosphere of the Phoenix, spent evenings among the brilliant, raffish denizens of the Eliot Lounge and learned the business side of journalism from such Phoenix icons as Barry Morris and publisher Steven Mindich, a Brown mentor.

Then, at the tender age of 23, he returned to Burlington, Vt., and with several refugees from the Phoenix started his own alternative newspaper, The Vermont Vanguard Press.

During that era, Burlington was still a dozy college town that was slowly evolving into the multicultural, diverse small city it is today. In the early 1970s, there was town and gown and the twain rarely met. Students left the campus on the hill mainly for cheap beers at such gritty North Street bars as the Redwood and Tut’s, where the legal drinking age was roundly winked at. City politics were run by a combination of wealthy Yankees who lived on the hill near the university and a local Democratic machine of French-Canadian and Irish-American immigrant families. It wasn’t unusual to hear the local pols refer to UVM as `Jew-veeem’; the last politician yours truly (full disclosure: I started my career in newspapering at the Vermont Cynic along with Brown) heard use that term was then-Mayor Gordon H. Paquette.

A big night out at a restaurant meant heading for Bove’s, a hole-in-the-wall run by a local right-wing crank who served generous portions of mediocre Italian fare. The local media was controlled by WCAX,  a television station whose owners were conservative Republicans; a conservative newspaper, the Burlington Free Press that had just been sold to the Gannett chain;  and the Vermont Sunday News, the Green Mountain state’s subsidiary of arch right-winger William Loeb’s Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader.

In contrast was a demographic change that slowly suffused Vermont’s largest city. Students from UVM, many of them from Boston and New York suburbs, were staying in Vermont. The drinking age dropped to 18, as did the voting age. These new arrivals were infused with the political and social ferment of the late 60s and early 70s that was to move Vermont politics sharply left within two decades.

The Vanguard chronicled these changes and launched the careers of a new generation of Vermont journalists and photojournalists, including Ron MacNeil, Rob Swanson, Jeff Polman , Rick Kisonak, and most notably, John Dillon, who is now news director at Vermont Public Radio, the state’s NPR affiliate.

The Vanguard covered politics, environmental issues and the arts and culture in a way that mirrored the alternative news organizations in much larger cities, especially the Boston Phoenix model. In 1981, Burlington politics was upended when Bernard Sanders, a lefty gadfly who had never been elected to anything, won a four-way race for mayor running as an independent by a handful of votes.

``I really think we had a lot to do with Bernie Sanders being elected mayor that year,’’ Brown recalled in a recent interview. ``There really was a new Burlington out there and we were speaking to that.’’

Well, there was also the fact that the local Democratic machine had gotten so rusty that it couldn’t steal a 10 vote election.

Brown and his partner Nat Winthop, who also was a  fine writer, ran the Vanguard for about a decade. Then Brown won a fellowship to The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. After he earned his master’s degree from Harvard in 1988, his old Phoenix bosses approached him about running their alternative newspaper in Rhode Island, the Providence Phoenix.

The Phoenix was losing money. Brown successfully turned around the finances and increased advertising revenue. As was the case in Burlington, the Providence outlet covered politics, culture and arts from a perspective different than the Providence Journal, then a locally-owned mainstay that was one of the nation’s top mid-market dailies.

The Providence Phoenix nurtured fine journalistic talent, including Lou Papineau, longtime editor, Lisa Prevost, Jody Ericson, Kathleen Hughes, and especially, says Brown, Ian Donnis, now political reporter for RI Public Radio, and David Scharfenberg, now covering Boston politics for WBUR.

The Phoenix also had such local features as the satirical Phillipe & Jorge column and good restaurant, theater and film reviews. Sharing content with the Boston Phoenix brought even more insightful coverage to Rhode Island’s alternative media scene.

``I was really lucky in that I got to work with really talented, smart people who really gave a damn about delivering a different point of view on stories in the mainstream press and on covering stories that were being ignored in other media,’’ says Brown.

As the years went by, Brown put down roots in Rhode Island, settling in Jamestown and marrying Jean MacGregor, a local television reporter who was the daughter of a New York Times foreign correspondent. The couple have a daughter, Jessica, who is a standout student at the University of Rhode Island.

Competition from the Internet for classified advertising and the decline of national ads doomed the Boston Phoenix, which was shuttered last year. The Providence Phoenix has hung on, mostly because of the loyalty of local advertisers and readers, who continue to pick up the free newspaper every Thursday.

``People pick up the paper not just for the content but to see the Lupo’s ad, the Nick-a-Nees ad,  the adult entertainment ads, the restaurant and club ads,’’ says Brown.

At the end of his run, Brown says he takes pride mostly in the people he has worked with. ``I see the faces of people I was with over the years and it is truly remarkable.’’

He also learned a universal truism. ``It’s really hard to run a small business. You know you have 20 people working for you and their lives, their families, their health care….all depend on how well you do.’’

As for the future of print journalism, Brown laments recent trends and acknowledged that he doesn’t know what the future holds. ``You want to be part of a sunrise industry,’’ he says. ``It’s hard to deny that newspapers are now a sunset industry.’’