NEWPORT, R.I. — The governor of Rhode Island is a polished, accomplished woman with a gold-plated résumé that makes clear she is an academic triple-crown winner: Harvard, Yale, Oxford.
So it’s a wonder then that Gina Raimondo, the state’s first female governor – a Rhodes Scholar who is the daughter of a Smithfield factory worker – failed to heed the famous aphorism attributed to a beloved American writer and humorist.
“Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel,” Mark Twain once advised.
That’s what Raimondo did at the end of an otherwise vanilla discussion early this month at Brown University at which she was asked about the relationship between politicians and those who cover them.
Her answer was not vanilla.
“Six years ago, when I started this, our local paper, The Providence Journal, was something that many or most Rhode Islanders read,’’ she said. “Certainly all influencers read. It’s a shadow of its former self. . . . I think they’re down to 16 reporters. So you can’t rely on that.’’
Cue the outrage.
Some Journal reporters felt sucker-punched. Talk radio was aflame. The Capitol was abuzz.
Alan Rosenberg, the Journal’s executive editor, learned of Raimondo’s remarks when an Associated Press reporter called, seeking his reaction.
He did what any editor worth his salt would do. He stood up for his troops and took aim at the Democratic governor for relying on a battalion of highly paid press secretaries to stage-manage the news.
“There are a lot of ceremonial bill signings,’’ Rosenberg told me. “I think when she talks about that she can’t get the news out, it’s the kind of news we are most resistant to because we don’t have the staff that we had in the past. We’re being more judicious when someone sends out a press release.’’
Raimondo almost immediately apologized, but when I sat down with her at a high school here the other evening, it was clear her contrition had more to do with how her message was received than the underlying message itself.
“I didn’t want to hurt their feelings because I’m with them every day,’’ she told me. “They’re really hard-working and they put out a good product. But I’m simply saying the media’s changed. The Internet’s changed the game. It’s so fragmented.’’
In many ways, observing that once-thriving metropolitan newspapers aren’t what they used to be is like observing that the sun rises in the East.
“She’s right,’’ said Mike Stanton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the Journal for 28 years and now a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut. “The people at the Journal would admit they’re a shell of themselves. On the other hand, the Journal is capable of doing some really in-depth reporting.’’
Stanton did that kind of work for the Journal and covered Raimondo when she was state treasurer and won accolades for restructuring the Rhode Island pension system in 2011. She raised the retirement age. She suspended cost-of-living increases for retirees. And, Stanton said, she was willing to dive in with reporters seeking answers.
“That was a huge undertaking and she spent a lot of time really working it and really cultivated the media in that endeavor,’’ Stanton said. “She made it a fact-based, let’s-look-at-the-numbers endeavor. I spent a lot of time with her and she was impressed that the paper would put that much effort into it.’’
That’s what Raimondo, 46, says she wants again. And, if she’s serious, she’s begging for the kind of scrutiny that would make many politicians tremble.
“I did not always get favorable press,’’ Raimondo said of her efforts toward pension reform. “But it allowed me to make the case to the people. And engage people. I think there’s a huge role for public journalism. I really do.’’
I do, too.
As a young reporter, I led the league in fruitless job interviews at The Providence Journal, a newspaper with a storied tradition of ground-breaking, award-winning journalism. When I was a journalism student at the University of Rhode Island in the 1970s, I inhaled the Journal and its afternoon edition, the Evening Bulletin.
One of the editors I begged for a job back then was Carol Young, who worked there for 45 years and retired in 2010 as its deputy executive editor.
She was there when the Journal was brimming with talent, when its bureaus throughout the nation’s smallest state were humming and fully staffed, when newspapers seemed capable of printing money.
“The paper is down to the movers and shakers and, unfortunately, we’ve lost the average Rhode Islander,’’ Young said. “Certainly, we’re a shadow of what we were in the heyday. But we’re still quite influential. When the Journal decides to focus on an issue, there’s no question that it sets the agenda in Rhode Island.’’
Young is a fan of Raimondo, crediting her with tackling tough issues head-on despite political risk.
Like pensions? “Yes. That went amazingly well for her and she did it with great authority,’’ Young said. “She’s never going to be loved by state workers, but she got it done and it needed to be done.’’
Wendy J. Schiller, a political science professor who leads the political science department at Brown University, said Raimondo doesn’t get enough credit for steady stewardship, for cleaning up her predecessors’ mistakes.
Yet, at times, she said, the governor can be tone deaf.
“She’s not the type of person who wants to engage the media,’’ Schiller said. “She’s basically saying: ‘I’m really busy trying to get Rhode Island back on track and I don’t want to spend much time explaining myself in the media because of their failure to present both sides.’ She doesn’t want to spend the time filling in those gaps. But that is the reality for the 2017 politician.’’
When I asked Raimondo about that critique, she ticked off a menu of venues in which she makes herself available to the media.
“Put yourself in my shoes,’’ she said. “I want to educate people. School construction — it’s a huge problem in Rhode Island. Huge problem. If all I did was rely on The Providence Journal, I would be leaving out so many young parents who have a huge vested interest in getting engaged on this issue.
“So I’ve got to do social media. I’ve got to do the Newport Daily News. I’ve got to do radio. I’ve got to do the ProJo. I’ve got to do it all to try to reach the Rhode Islanders who are affected by this major decision.’’
Scott MacKay, a 25-year veteran of the Journal and now a commentator for Rhode Island Public Radio, said that when it comes to news coverage, the governor — like most politicians — “wants things her way.’’
“I think she’s doing a decent job,’’ MacKay said. “But she should lighten up a little bit. She can be sharp. And it wasn’t worth picking a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. The problem these days is they’re buying it by the pint.’’
Some of those pints have been replaced by key strokes and page views. The Journal says it has 1.3 million unique visitors to its website each month. When you count features and sports writers, producers, photographers, and others contributing to the newspaper and its website, the number of journalists stands at 33.
“To say that nobody reads us is clearly not true,’’ Rosenberg said. “And the notion that the influencers don’t read us is also untrue. If we don’t matter, why do they complain when we don’t show up?
“We’re going to stand up for ourselves. The Providence Journal for most of its 188-year history was led by shy Yankees, who believed in the Yankee tradition that you never explain and never complain. We let other people tell our story. We’re done doing that. We’re not as far down as she thinks.’’
Those sound like fighting words.
Wouldn’t it be great if Gina Raimondo has awakened a sleeping tiger? Wouldn’t it be great if she got what she is asking for? Vigorous coverage. Hard-fought journalism. A worthy adversary.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
That’s what the Rhode Island governor says she wants. That’s what the editor of its biggest newspaper says he remains determined to deliver.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.