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Rawson's retirement ends an era at the ProJo

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In following up in this week's Phoenix on the news that ProJo executive editor Joel Rawson is retiring at the end of April, I use an anecdote from my first story, back in 2000, on the changing face of the Providence Journal. The delay in critical in-house coverage of the :CueCat, a tech boondoggle backed in part by the Belo Corporation, the ProJo's Dallas-based parent, had signaled how the Journal's commitment to self-scrutiny was withering. Yet considering how the paper had changed three years earlier, from a locally owned small jewel of journalism to a distant hub in Belo's sprawling corporate media empire, this wasn't much of a surprise.

As it turned out, that was one of the very few times in which Rawson talked with me during my ongoing coverage of the ProJo. This stance has been curious for an editor who has steadily pushed for the public's right to know (an irony not lost on some of the staffers on Fountain Street), but it can also be understood in the changed internal politics of Rhode Island's statewide daily (particularly with the bitter labor conflict that persisted from 1999 until 2003).

Yet Rawson is a distinguished newsman first and foremost, and he has played a huge role in Rhode Island journalism:

 “I think he cared about the newsroom in a way that not many people have,” says metro columnist Bob Kerr, who credits Rawson with handing him his assignment 14 years ago. “And I think he protected it for a long time during the decline, during the decline of the paper.” Kerr says it’s his sense that, as autonomy of the newsroom gradually eroded, “I think he tried to keep us able to do what we do without too many outside influences. I think that’s how many people will remember him.”
 
While Rawson would have been required to retire when he turns 65 next March, one reporter, who requested anonymity, says staffers were nonetheless surprised by the news of his impending departure, since “he has been so much a part of the paper for so many years.”

Phoenix contributor Brian C. Jones, who spent more than 30 years at the Journal, was particularly eloquent in assessing Rawson's impact:

Via e-mail, Jones writes, “Rawson changed the way the Journal told its stories, weaning reporters from pedestrian, formulaic stories that read like every other story spilling out of the news assembly line. He introduced writers to narrative story-telling, borrowing techniques of filmmakers and novelists, bringing out the excitement, emotion and nuance that often bleached out in conventional news writing.
 
“He engineered the paper’s trademark: the really big story. I mean big, literally, as in enormous, in-depth, page-after page stories; Stories that reporters worked on for months, even years; stories that when they finally were written ran day after day, sometimes week after week. And he did this at a time when most other papers, led by USA Today, declared that readers have short attentions and small brains, crying to be fed their news in tiny bits and crumbs.
 
“Rawson-style marathons explored the state’s jewelry industry, the inner workings of its international toy company, the mind of a serial killer, joblessness, the dying days of a man fighting to his right to die, the work of a bishop, the perilous lives of illegal immigrants, the tragedy of the Station nightclub fire. He once gave me a year to interview five families to chart the changing nature of American households, and another year to do a series about how men’s roles where evolving with a changing economy.”

As Rawson prepares to leaves, the newspaper industry continues its downward trend. The challenge facing his philosophical successors, industry-wide, is helping to create a future which provides a financial underpinning for the robust journalistic commitment marked by the bygone heyday of print.

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