Saying adieu after 42 years of deadlines
In the mid-1970s I was an average student attending Rhode Island College in my hometown of Providence. I could afford it and RIC had accepted me.
I was a political science major. Politics fascinated me from a young age, still does. The strategy, the deal making, the hypocrisy, the money, the patronage, the idealism and the cynicism — it is the most intriguing of games played for the highest stakes.
The first politician I remember is John F. Kennedy. I was four when he was elected president. He was a Catholic, like my family. And the Kennedys were from Massachusetts, practically next door. I was seven when he was assassinated. The nuns cried at my parochial school.
Anyway, what I was going to do with this political-science degree, if I managed it, I hadn’t a clue. An English professor, who sat me down to talk about my writing — “You’re a good writer” — asked me the same thing. What’s your plan?
“Have you thought about journalism?”
That’s how it started. I transferred to the journalism program at the University of Rhode Island. I learned the fundamentals of the craft in class, but the real-world training came by way of reporting for the student newspaper, The Good 5 Cent Cigar, which coincidentally celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Graduating in 1979, I immediately took a job at the Caledonian Record in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. After a year there it was several years at the Norwich Bulletin before arriving at this destination, The Day, back in 1987.
I reflect on how it started, because now it is ending. I turn 65 on Sept. 26 and I am retiring.
It has been a great career and was seldom dull (well, maybe a few of those zoning meetings way back when). It still amazes me that this kid with working-class roots, who had to work his way through a state university to get the only college degree in our immediate family, can sit down across from powerful people in business and politics, folks with Ivy League pedigrees and multiple degrees — and they answer my questions! It is so American.
A few days into my first job in Vermont the editor informed me, with about an hour’s notice, that Gov. Richard A. Snelling was stopping by, and I was to interview him. Aside from being famous for its maple syrup, I had yet to learn a thing about Vermont.
They sat us at a table and Snelling, looking at this inexperienced, young reporter, pulled out a bulky cassette tape record and plunked it down. I had pen and paper.
“Best get it straight, I’m recording,” he said, pushing the record button.
I proceeded to ask such probing questions as, “What are the biggest challenges facing the state?” and “What do you see as your most important policy achievements so far?”
But the editor was happy with the “exclusive” and Snelling never challenged the quotes.
The Day may be a small newspaper, but it is a good one, and southeastern Connecticut never seemed to be lacking for interesting stories. I’ve had the chance to do investigative reporting that exposed the harassment of employees who raised safety concerns at Millstone Nuclear Power Station in the 1990s, dug deep into the emotional manipulation and exploitation practices of a local cult, and exposed the checkered past of hucksters seeking ownership of the formal Norwich Hospital property in Preston, promising a “Utopia” theme park and studios.
I aspired, however, to move to the opinion section. The challenges that confront local, state and federal governments, the disagreements, turmoil and anger — and the politics — it all filters through the opinion pages.
In 2007 I fulfilled that aspiration when then Publisher Gary Farrugia named me editorial page editor. Joining me as associate editorial page editor was Ann Baldelli, a native New Londoner with an even longer career at the Day. Between us, we had covered and seen most everything in our long stints as reporters and editors and, in my case, a bureau chief.
I consider it vital to a functioning democracy to have places where differing ideas can clash, where new proposals can be floated, where you can present a point and then give someone a chance to counter it, but with all of it based on facts. The Day opinion pages had long been such a place and I have looked to keep it so.
I have worked with the editorial board in trying to steer a centrist course, promoting in our editorials pragmatic solutions rather than trying to fit our opinions into an ideological box. Those on the right will dismiss this as nonsense and contend that we tact hard left.
Don’t tell that to the many upset Bernie Sanders’ supporters who called and emailed me in 2016. That was the year we endorsed Hillary Clinton over Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary, rejecting his tax-the-rich, distribute the wealth manifesto and opting instead for her “incremental approach to governance.” We noted it, “may not be as exciting, but it’s more realistic.”
Our core values are transparency in governance, free speech, equal treatment of all people, access to the ballot, and zero tolerance for corruption.
It has been challenging. In 2012, Ann returned to the newsroom after a budgetary decision that The Day, its business model buffeted by loss of advertising dollars to the internet, could only afford one editor — one person — to manage content and produce editorials for the opinion section. Needless to say, I disagreed.
And the political discourse has grown nastier, with the knee-jerk tendency by many to villainize those with whom they disagree.
I’ve been asked if the criticism that comes with the job bothers me. It doesn’t. Oh, I may be angered by a criticism I consider ungrounded or unfair. But I never dwell on it. I have always respected reader input, whether it was to praise or criticize. Because, in either case, it meant you cared and that was the highest compliment.
Overall, it has been a blast. But then so is spending more time with grandkids — my wife Kathy and I have two of them, so far — doing some traveling, and many other things it has been hard to do. I have been facing deadlines and feeding the beast that is a daily newspaper for 42 years. It’s time.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.
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