Farewell, Tom Heslin

The Providence Journal posted news on its web site yesterday afternoon that executive editor Tom Heslin will retire April 25 after 41 years in journalism.

The paper noted all the essential elements of his impressive CV: he oversaw the investigative team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for its work on corruption in the state's judiciary; he guided the paper's remarkable coverage of the Station night club fire; he helped found the New England First Amendment Coalition and ACCESS/RI, which have pushed for greater transparency in government.

But my clearest memory of Heslin is my own job interview.

It was early 2007. I'd been a regular freelancer for the New York Times for a few years, but I'd grown tired of working from my crappy Brooklyn apartment. The ProJo interview meant a chance to land my first full-time reporting job at a sizable metro paper. So I read up on Heslin. I prepared.

I wasn't quite ready for what came, though. When I sat down in Heslin's office and he asked me to tell him about my background, I made quick mention of where I went to high school and was prepared to make quick work of college, too. But he stopped me. Nudged me back. He wanted to know more about my high school experience. Wanted to know more about where I was from, what I'd learned.

I told my sister about that moment later and she said, "well, he's a reporter." She was right. Heslin didn't just want the topline. He wanted the detail. He wanted the texture. He wanted the story.

We spent hours together that day, talking about what I'd done and what a job at the ProJo might look like. This was a place I wanted to be.

Later, when I was covering the city of Cranston for the paper, a wrenching bit of violence struck in my territory. On a trim, suburban street, a former police officer gunned down his neighbor, a firefighter, in a dispute over a child's stray tennis ball. The story gripped the state. We needed to tell it well.

I still remember Heslin's advice. There was a birthday party at the family's house that day. Find out which bakery the cake came from, he said, how many candles were on the cake, who was sitting at the table. This wasn't about prurient interest; I remember Heslin saying people shouldn't feel that journalism had been done to them. It was about doing the story justice, feeling its emotional weight.

I don't want to convey a false sense of intimacy here. I don't know Heslin all that well. There are many others more qualified to write about his contribution to the Journal and to Rhode Island journalism than me.

And as anyone who's visited this space frequently knows, I've been plenty critical of the paper's direction under Heslin.

But I'll say this: the Heslin I know is a whipsmart guy with a wry wit who is deeply committed to the story, to the news, and to the value of the daily newspaper. One newspaper in particular.


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