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It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s the Phoenix

In the midst of an emerging innovation economy, can a local weekly be reborn from the ashes of its alternative past?

PHOTO BY Scott Kingsley

Phil Eil, the news editor at the Providence Phoenix, with the skyline of Providence at sunset behind him. Eil discusses his views about the conversation that Rhode Island needs to engage in.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/10/14
The Providence Phoenix has been, for the last 35 years, an alternative voice covering the news from a youthful perspective. Now, with the world of digital media, they are a lone survivor of the former Boston Phoenix empire of weekly alternative newspapers.
Phil Eil, the 28-year-old news editor, has jumped into the fray, trying to reshape the conversation and capture the ear of the young professionals who are driving the emerging knowledge economy and innovation ecosystem.

If not for the Phoenix, who would hold the Providence Journal accountable for its editorial opinions and stances? What other publication would name Brown University to its Thanksgiving turkey list for failing to divest from coal? Where else would you find a weekly dose of the calculated irreverence of Phillipe and Jorge? That said, the vast library of foreign films and documentaries and hard-to-find films could not save Acme Video. What is the value of institutional memory in the digital world?
Why not make the clash of disparate views in the media more transparent? What would it take to have a no-holds-barred debate – or public “conversation” – between say, the ProJo's Ed Achorn and Phil Eil? And, invite a few more players from the Rhode Island news media to join in the fray. ConvergenceRI would be happy to moderate it.

Violence against women, sexual abuse of women and children, the trafficking of young women, and the increase in sexual assaults and rapes on campuses are trends that need better news coverage – and not just in the immediate aftermath of horrific tragedies. The Phoenix – as well as the rest of Rhode Island’s media – need to do a better job of covering the issue, talking about it, making it visible, particularly on our college and high school campuses. Some stories are more important that a TV news reporter performing gymnastics on a city street.

PROVIDENCE – When Acme Video recently closed its doors on Brook Street, the owner explained that the store’s closing was a sign that the 1990s were over – and that the technologies that once drove home viewing had become passé.

Here it is 2014, and The Providence Phoenix is still alive and kicking. The weekly alternative newspaper, which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, is struggling to find a sustainable niche with a younger audience, having successfully traversed the late 1970s, the 1980s, 1990s, and the 2000s. Two of its venerable columnists, Phillipe and Jorge, are now nearing Social Security age.

When publisher Stephen Mindich shut down most of the other properties connected to The Boston Phoenix, the Providence Phoenix somehow managed to stay afloat financially. Perhaps, it was because of the steady ad revenue stream from the Creative Capital’s live music scene and those sketchy, sleazy adult entertainment inserts.

The current news face of The Phoenix is Phil Eil, an engaging, sometimes brash, outspoken 28-year-old newshound – channeling more Jimmy Olson than Clark Kent – for whom the alternative weekly is his first full-time reporting gig.

Eil has become a constant, go-to presence on Twitter, often hammering The Providence Journal (his criticism is out of a desire to see them improve, he says) for what he says are its tired old editorial stances.

ConvergenceRI sat down with Eil recently to talk about his view of the emerging landscape and how he envisions The Phoenix’s role in helping to redefine and to shape that conversation. Our conversation took place at one of the “corner offices” at Olga’s Cup & Saucer.

Before the interview that morning, Eil had retweeted ConvergenceRI’s story, “For want of a bus voucher, future workforce gets frozen out,” saying “It's unconscionable that many #PVD students have to walk 2+ mi. to get to/from school. @ConvergenceRI covers it well.” It attracted a gaggle of responses, including tweets from WPRI's Ted Nesi and Swipely's Angus Davis.

ConvergenceRI: How do you define your target audience today?
EIL:
Our target audience is anyone with an interest in Providence and Rhode Island – who wants their news curated and delivered in a voice that is not unlike [the conversation] you and I are having right now. News that is not constrained by the inverted pyramid, or AP Style Book, where I can say shit if I want to, not for effect, but because that’s the way real people talk.

There’s also [the fact that] The Providence Journal doesn’t speak to younger people, in my opinion.

WPRO certainly doesn’t; other news outlets may or may not, [such as public radio].

But people around my age [28], 10 years above, 10 years below, not that I’m excluding the people outside of that [age range], I think they’re looking for a take on what’s happening [that reflects their lives].

For example, The Providence Journal, just last week, published a piece that I could only describe as a think piece, about owning a smart phone. Here it is, 2014, and a writer is marveling at a computer you can carry in your pocket, and I just thought: who’s this for?

It’s nothing personal against the writer, but why on Earth would you embarrass yourself by writing [such a piece]? For me, it was one among many examples of how out of touch that newspaper is. And I try and produce a newspaper that it is not out of touch.

ConvergenceRI: Some of your columnists are approaching Social Security age. So, it’s not just about age, per se, but the way you look at the world: worldview, rather than age. Is that correct?
EIL:
I assume you’re talking about Phillipe and Jorge. Absolutely, they are an institution. I think it is about finding a balance between the amazing tradition that they are and their vast wealth of institutional memory. There’s 30 years between them and me, it’s a nice balance there. We’re not trying to alienate the older readers, but I’m certainly trying to invite a new crop of readers in [to The Phoenix].

ConvergenceRI: I wrote for alternative weeklies in Philadelphia, Boston and Amherst in the 1970s, when the major audience was college students. Do college students read The Phoenix today, or are they more likely to use social media?
EIL:
One of the things I want to do is more analytics and find out who is really reading the newspaper. Unfortunately, I can only provide you with anecdotal evidence. No numbers right now, but it’s something we’re working on. We had put out a readership survey in 2009, and we’re looking to do that again.

We publish a few student survival guides every year, so those are certainly geared to college students. By definition, I would like to think that college students are picking up the paper, it’s right there at the library at RISD, [for example], when you walk in.

I don’t think they are picking up The Providence Phoenix before they search Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or whatever else. I would like to think that they do pick it up somewhere along their way, at the coffee shop, wherever.

ConvergenceRI: You’ve excoriated The Providence Journal on their coverage of marijuana….
EIL:
Not so much their coverage of marijuana but on the opinions of the columnists and the editorials. Bill Malinowski has been great on covering medical marijuana.

ConvergenceRI: Why?
EIL:
Because Rhode Islanders deserve better than what they’re getting from that paper.

I grew up reading The Providence Journal. I’m a subscriber now to The Providence Journal. I can remember, as a kid, doing word searches in the comics.

I grew up in a household where The New York Times and The Providence Journal were on the table every morning.

But they are tumbling down at a fast pace, with falling circulation and ad revenues. The Providence Journal seems to be very slow to adapt, they seem to be doubling down and playing to an older audience, with op-eds that make fun of Twitter.

They recently ran an op-ed by the president of the Newspaper Association of America, I think that was the name, defending print journalism. Well, that’s a big surprise.

I recently got on Mark Patinkin’s case for [writing a column], like many graying Baby Boomers, looking back on a time when he smoked and thinks better of it now, a la David Brooks. The “I smoked and I got over it” angle.

The e-wave series is a step in the right direction, but frankly, looking at the way that technology is affecting our lives in 2013 is a little late.

They don’t seem to be doing what I think they need to be doing to save the newspaper.

ConvergenceRI: Are you trying to get them to respond? Are you daring them?
EIL:
I’m not going to lie. It’s fun. I should say that the ProJo is the start, the middle and the end of my day. It’s invaluable to me. And I admire a lot of the writers who work there – Kathy Gregg, Phil Marcelo, Ed Fitzpatrick – people who I think are doing essential work.

But, as an institution, they seem slow to adapt, they don’t seem to have a sense of urgency that everyone else feels, in terms of being more digitally nimble, in terms of hiring young reporters. I know that they’re hamstrung by resource issues, and by absentee management. But that’s not my problem; it’s their problem.

ConvergenceRI: Why focus on The ProJo?
EIL:
There’s a tradition at the Providence Phoenix, upheld at least by my two predecessors, going back 15 some odd years, keeping a very close eye on the Journal, and writing about it. I may be adding a new spin on it.

We have a category of article, “As the ProJo turns,” that I didn’t come up with, it goes back to Ian Donnis. I’m very conscious of upholding the tradition that people look to the Phoenix for. Commentary on the Journal is one of those things.

ConvergenceRI: What do you see as their future?
EIL:
This may sound disingenuous, but part of why I’m so hard on the Projo is because I want them to survive so badly. Will they survive? I sure as hell hope so.

Who is going to buy them? Probably not John Henry. But they can use someone who is civically minded, with a lot of money, hopefully local, that is going to step back and say, I’m not going to meddle in editorial affairs. Hopefully that person is around, waiting in the wings.

If you look at their graphs, their projections, they’re not sustainable for very long. I’m not a smart-enough business analyst to put a number on it, but they’re going straight down in terms of circulation, ad revenues and staff size. They can’t sustain what they’re doing.

ConvergenceRI: Many of the ads in the Phoenix seem to offer services to help people overcome addiction, but I haven’t seen any articles that have focused on the problems of prescription painkillers and addiction in the newspaper. Is that something you think the Phoenix should cover?
EIL:
It’s tough to know how to answer that, because I had a book project that I didn’t complete, that I poured years into, that was about, among other things, opiates, addictions and overdoses.

A guy that my dad went to college and medical school with, a classmate of his for 10 years, he is currently serving four consecutive life terms in Indiana.

I was entering a graduate writing program at the time, and I sent him a letter to see if I could interview him, he said yes, and away I went.

So, admittedly, I have wondered how to pick up that thread in Rhode Island. The story was really about pill mills, the pain management clinics that operate under a guise. We haven’t seen that yet in Rhode Island, to my knowledge. It’s certainly on my radar, but I haven’t dug into it yet.

ConvergenceRI: Another story that I haven’t seen written about in The Phoenix is the fact that there appears to be a huge increase in violence against women on campus and reported rapes. Even President Obama recently spoke out about it….
EIL:
If the approach is, let’s talk about all the things we haven’t covered, well….

ConvergenceRI: No need to be defensive here. If the Phoenix doesn’t write about it, who will?
EIL:
I haven’t seen the numbers. I’d be interested to look into it. I try to keep a close eye on the campuses. My resources are incredibly limited in terms of time, in terms of budget. My door is always open to tips.

ConvergenceRI: You’ve created a consistent presence on Twitter, with a distinctive voice. Do you see a difference in your voice between what you tweet and what you write?
EIL:
Twitter and the media are so vastly different. Twitter is instantaneous, you can share links, talk to other people. In the Phoenix, depending on what article I’m writing, 500 to 1,500 words, if it’s a feature, it could be upward of 3,000 words.

As an example, I tweeted at Gordon Fox [Speaker of the R.I. House], why he didn’t understand a complicated form, as his lawyer said he didn’t, which led to his most recent ethics violation.

That may be something I will look into for a longer piece, but I tweet that off and go about my day.

Is there a difference in my persona? Not a conscious one. It just happens. Twitter is a kind of thing I’m at all day long. I can fire something off quickly. It has been a way for me to sharpen my voice, certainly. I’ve gotten pretty inventive on Twitter. I think my writing in the paper is catching up, and that’s been fun.

I’m only 28; I haven’t been a full-time reporter before, this is my first regular salaried job for a publication, so there’s certainly going to be some learning going on.

For me, I’d be lying if I said that I figured out the right balance in social media and reporting and my life, hanging out with my girl friend, going to the gym, and sleeping. I’m figuring all that out. It’s not easy.

ConvergenceRI: Is a career in journalism conducive to long-term relationships and a long, happy and healthy life?
EIL:
I think it’s really premature for me to comment on that. Am I a healthier person for taking this job? Absolutely not; I’ll leave it at that.

ConvergenceRI: What’s the most fun you’ve had in this job?
EIL:
That’s the amazing part of this job, something I’m incredibly grateful for, is how much fun it is. There is very little work I do for this job that I don’t want to be doing. Whatever happens after this job, I’m sure I won’t ever be able to match that again.

Covering anti-Westboro Baptist Church protests at five different locations in Rhode Island; attending a foam party at the Dunkin Donuts Center, that Providence Public Safety had put a warning out about; interviewing mayoral and gubernatorial candidates in an election year of great importance to the state, to putting together an article about Valentines Day, saying what I really felt about it, that it is a “monstrous orgy of commodified emotion” [in his journalistic box of chocolates]. I could go on and on.

It’s all fun, maybe that’s a lame response, this job is so much fun, that’s why I do it. But I care deeply, deeply about Rhode Island.

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