How does one say farewell to a job that has meant so much, and to the people who have made that job so meaningful? I don’t really know, to be honest, so my hope is that this column will serve some of that purpose as I formally announce my departure from the Beacon, effective tomorrow.
I came to the Beacon in June of 2017 as a jaded journalist. One shouldn’t be able to become jaded within such a short span, only about three years, but my experience at my prior newspaper job – a Gatehouse Media gig on the North Shore of Massachusetts that, while it had its moments of excitement and joy, left me overall feeling beaten and pessimistic about the future of newspapers in general.
I could rant about my distaste for the Gatehouse Media model – a model that left me feeling disillusioned about the profession, and left me in a dark place mentally that affected my personal relationships and my own health – but that is not what this column is for.
This column is about how an appropriately-named local newspaper in Warwick provided me with a shining opportunity to start over again, and rebuild my love for the profession in a way that I wouldn’t have thought possible. The Beacon not only saved my professional life, it saved me personally at a crucial point in my life where I really didn’t know what the next step should be.
Tangibly, this job opened a door into Rhode Island – a state where my then-girlfriend, now-fiancée, grew up, not even a two-minute drive from the Beacon office – a state where I now own a home. As a Massachusetts native, this too was something I could not have imagined when I graduated from college just over five and a half years ago. The Beacon enabled me to have the life that I now cherish.
But there is something less tangible, perhaps more magical about this modest office at 1944 Warwick Avenue.
The spirit of community journalism is alive and well here. It is alive in the people who work here, who sell ad space here, who deal with the books – and it is alive in the people that wander in off the street asking if someone can cover their child’s Eagle Scout project, or their mother’s 100th birthday party. It is alive in John Howell – the most hardworking, kind, lead-by-example boss I have ever had the pleasure to work for.
No journalism job is perfect, but all any journalist can hope for – after the many hours they put in researching various topics, endless time spent at municipal meetings that often persist late into the night (after working a full day in the office) and often-laborious time spent writing articles – is that people actually read your work and find some value in it. Whether they agree or disagree or find fault in it, all that matters is that you didn’t do that work for no reason.
I have never felt a lack of purpose while writing for the Warwick Beacon. I have been amazed at the level of community engagement with this publication. Whether it be interest from competing journalists, from the politicians that I have covered or from the residents who graciously subscribe to our service, I quickly learned that putting in less than 100 percent effort will be noticed. If I didn’t reach out for that alternative perspective, if I didn’t follow up on that other lead, people would call me out for it.
That is amazing to me, and it is rock solid proof that local, community journalism still has a healthy pulse in Rhode Island. People love reading about the big news that gets widespread coverage, for sure, but the majority of stories I have felt had the most impact were the stories that covered something seemingly small – something that may not mean much to lots of people in the world, but that meant the world to the small number of people involved.
Those stories resonate with readers because they make life relatable. We can all relate to feeling proud of someone who finishes an amazing accomplishment, or celebrates a major life milestone, or does something truly unique. When we read these stories about people who live in our own community, it reinforces the notion that good things can – and do – happen to people everywhere, every day. These stories inspire hope and kindness in people that transcend age, economic status or any other type of social barriers that normally divide us. They make us feel human, and proud of it.
And then there is the flip side – covering the hard news. Certainly, there is priceless value to having a reporter covering your local government officials and proceedings. We act as watchdogs and ask uncomfortable questions that need to be asked. We force issues that may be hidden from the public to be brought into light for examination. Without local reporters, democracy suffers and is left vulnerable to those who may benefit from undermining its values.
But such a responsibility, when put on top of other responsibilities that are asked of modern journalists today, can become burdensome. My job has involved a little bit of everything imaginable. Researching, interviewing, transcribing (lots of transcribing), writing, editing, running social media pages, tweaking our website to be optimized for digital content, physically putting together the print paper, taking and editing photographs, editing videos for our Facebook page and, of course, dedicating the many hours required each month to attend or stream municipal meetings.
To say that this job is demanding is an understatement. Not only is it difficult to try and learn enough about seven or eight different topics in any given week to be able to write knowledgeably about them, there is no guarantee that your work won’t have to include time spent on weekends, on holidays that your family and friends have off, and at odd hours that make planning things ahead of time difficult.
On top of the work burden, journalists have the added stress of being subject to public ridicule for everything they put on the page. This is something we implicitly understand as being part of the job, but it is something that any good journalist knows all too well can result in high anxiety, especially when covering a topic of importance or controversy. This job, in just five and a half years, has already left me with a rapidly graying head of hair.
I have tried my very best in my short time here to provide value to this community. I have listened, I have learned, I have tried to clarify and simplify complex topics so they may be more accessible to the people affected by those topics. I have tried to be thorough, honest and fair in my work – always striving to be as objective as humanly possible. I have shared your stories of triumph, loss, hardships and achievement in ways that I hope with all of my soul have moved you.
I leave the Beacon with a heavy heart. I leave it understanding that there is much important work left to be done here, and therefore it is not my intention to completely separate from the paper. I plan on working behind the scenes in a freelance, investigative capacity to try and continue to root out issues of importance in this city and bring them into the public eye. I don’t believe this will be my final byline.
The truth of the matter regarding my departure comes down to a matter of economic reality. I was staring at a life in which I would need to work three jobs, one of which would take up both days of my weekends, to be able to save what I consider a responsible amount of money for my family and I. Come spring time, I will be getting married to that girl from Warwick who I also bought a house with, and I hope one day to have children. The sad fact is that such a life cannot be supported on a local journalist’s salary – even with the combined income of my other half, even with two other side gigs to try and make ends meet.
I did not seek out the job I now embark for, rather I was sought for it. Truthfully, I looked for any reason to turn it down, as it is a departure from what I’ve known and done my whole professional life. And yet as the process developed, I realized it was an exciting and necessary step for my personal and professional growth. I look forward to the challenges it will undoubtedly hold, and am deeply thankful for the opportunity and for those who made it possible.
I meant to keep this column somewhat brief, but as I looked back on my short professional journalism career – just over half a decade – I came to find that I have formed so many fond memories and forged so many nice relationships with people that I felt inclined to give you a little piece of myself, as so many of you have given me little pieces of yourself; as so many of you have shared your stories with me.
As for any departing words of wisdom I can offer, I would implore people to recognize the importance of journalism, especially local journalism. Pay for a subscription to your favorite news sources, ingest more news than just the channels that tell you what you want to believe – demand quality, and reward it when you receive it. Never fall victim to the poisonous lie that ignorance is somehow better than the truth.
Despite what certain political propaganda will try to make you believe, most of us are on your side – the people. Good journalists cover negative things and try to expose bad people behaving badly because we want to see the world get better – because journalists are the world’s storytellers, and while great stories don’t always get them, they deserve happy endings.
I know my own story is still in its beginning chapters, but the chapter that has been written at the Beacon is one I will never to take for granted or forget.
Thanks, from the bottom of my heart, for reading.