ProPublica editor: Economics biggest threat to free press

ProPublica editor: Economics biggest threat to free press

Edward Fitzpatrick, RWU director of media and public relations, a New England First Amendment Coalition and Common Cause Rhode Island board member, and a former Providence Journal columnist:

BOSTON – ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Stephen Engelberg wrote a grand total of two news stories during his college career, yet he somehow managed to land an internship right after graduation at The Providence Journal-Bulletin.

Engelberg also wrote a bunch of sports stories in college, so when his beat-up old car chugged into Providence in 1978, he told the intern coordinator: I guess I’m here to work in the sports department. In a thick Rhode Island accent, the intern chief told him: Sports? Sports is for stars. You’re going to the West Warwick bureau.

On his third day on the job, Engelberg was assigned to cover a school board meeting. An editor told him to call in the story at 9 p.m. He asked: Well, when do I write it? The editor said: You don’t write it – you go to a phone booth and you tell a typist what to write.

“This was terrifying,” Engelberg said. “Remember, this was my third news story. I went to the phone booth at the appointed hour, uttered a sentence – a lead – and it went on a little bit. In fact, it went on so long that the typist said: No, no, no – I’m not going to type that, that’s too long. So let the record reflect that my first important news story for the Journal was rejected by the dictationist – and she was right.”

Engelberg, who founded The New York Times’ investigative unit and served as managing editor of The Oregonian, recounted his Rhode Island days while accepting the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award from the New England First Amendment Coalition in Boston on Feb. 15. Named after the late publisher of The Providence Journal, the Hamblett Award is given each year to those who have promoted, defended or advocated for the First Amendment during their careers.

The audience included journalism students from Roger Williams University and other New England colleges, and Engelberg told the students not to assume that writing is easier for the veteran reporters in the room. “I feel like I am a better writer than I was when I was standing in that phone booth at the Coventry school board, but I don’t believe personally that writing gets easier,” he said. “If it were easy, a lot more people would do it well.”

Engelberg identified what he sees as the most significant threat to press freedom in America right now. “No, it’s not Donald Trump, although he certainly is not helping things,” he said. “What I see as the biggest threat is the economics. We all know that across the country local papers are slashing staffs, slashing coverage.”

While a few newspapers are bucking the trend, Engelberg said, “In 1998, there were more than 400,000 people employed by newspapers across the country. Today, we are at 140,000 and dropping.”

He noted that a recent academic paper identified the growing prevalence of “news deserts” – places that no longer have a viable news outlet. “They found that people there are more likely to vote a straight partisan line,” he said. “Lacking information, readers voters seem to fall back on what they feel they can rely on, which tribe they belong to – Republican/Democrat, red/blue.”

ProPublica, “an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force,” has created a Local Reporting Network, supporting investigative journalism by reporters at local and regional news organizations, Engelberg noted. This year’s group includes Lynn Arditi, a former Providence Journal reporter now working at The Public’s Radio.

Engelberg said ProPublica provided support to Christian Sheckler, a reporter at the South Bend Tribune who wanted to investigate the police in neighboring Elkhart, Indiana. The local paper, the Elkhart Truth, had been sold and whittled down to a single reporter, but ProPublica and Sheckler produced a story with the headline: “Nearly All the Officers in Charge of an Indiana Police Department Have Been Disciplined — Including the Chief Who Keeps Promoting Them.”

They kept digging and unearthed a video showing officers punching a handcuffed man in the police station’s detention area, he said. Before long, the police chief resigned and the mayor announced he would not run again, he said.

“Now the sad part about all this is that if Christian Sheckler had not been suspicious of what was going on 45 minutes away from his newsroom, and we hadn’t been able to provide some help, it’s entirely possible that none of this would have come to light,” Engelberg said. “And that was a very serious problem. The question I find myself haunted by is: How many other Elkharts are there?”