What's Next for Investigative Reporting at the ProJo?

Aug 6, 2013

In The Prince of Providence, his gripping account of the life and times of Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci, Mike Stanton cited why FBI agent Dennis Aiken was so jazzed about being assigned to Rhode Island's capital: "In law enforcement parlance, Providence was 'a target-rich environment.' " Rhode Island has also been long known as a reporter's theme park, an apt description coined by former Providence Journal reporter Elliot Jaspin; or, as many of us reporters say, "The gift that keeps on giving."

Yet now, after more 20 years of detailing scoundrels and scams, investigating corruption and situational ethics, profiling the powerful and the commonplace, Stanton is leaving the ProJo for a teaching job at the University of Connecticut. It's a big loss for Rhode Island's daily and for the much-needed work of investigative reporting in the Ocean State.

"It's hard to imagine the Providence Journal without Mike Stanton and the institutional memory he brings to that newspaper," John Marion, the executive director of the good government group Common Cause of Rhode Island, says via email. "The Fourth Estate is such an important part of the fabric of our democratic system of government, because of the role it plays in holding government accountable, any time that fabric frays our democracy is weakened. There are still many talented writers at the Journal, but few who are given the time and resources to connect the dots about how our government works behind the scenes."

The concern expressed by Marion -- about diminished resources in a time of media retrenchment -- is exactly what some observers feared when newspapers began cutting their reporting staffs over the last 15 years.

Sure, a variety of new efforts have emerged, from the investigative site ProPublica to the way in which WPRI-TV has invested in young reporters like my friends Ted Nesi and Dan McGowan. There have been other additions to Rhode Island's news landscape, including a more robust level of staffing here at RI Public Radio. And Channel 12 and Channel 10 have maintained a commitment to investigative reporting. Yet the sweep of the Providence Journal has steadily diminished over time -- and that's not beneficial for civic culture.

"It's not good," reporter John Hill, who serves as president of the Providence Newspaper Guild, says in describing the impact of Stanton's departure. Hill echoes how Stanton will carry a ton of institutional knowledge out the door -- and he says it's unclear if the paper will do any hiring to make up for his absence.

Common Cause's Marion suggests the only way for the Journal to replace Stanton "is for the paper to cultivate existing writers and allow them to grow while at the same time replenishing the farm team. For the sake of our democracy, let's hope they are able and willing to do so."

In the past, ProJo reporters moved on to jobs at the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times. Yet newsroom hiring has long since come to a virtual halt on Fountain Street, and the reporter-intern program that once attracted rising prospects like the Times' C.J. Chivers is no more. As a result, the paper's staff tilts considerably older, with few news reporters under 40.

The Journal took a step in the right direction by recently adopting a metered pay wall that allows greater access to its most potent attraction -- its content. It still has a far larger number of reporters than any other news organization in the target-rich place that is Rhode Island. Any number of them, from the intrepid Kathy Gregg to the well-sourced Bill Malinowski, continue the paper's tradition of reporting in the public interest.

Yet without some injection of fresh energy, Mike Stanton's exit may signify just another marker between the ProJo's past and its future.

This post has been updated.