Cover Story | ESM 40

The Birth of East Side Monthly

How the little paper that could, actually did

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It started with a handshake among three friends. And until very recently, very little was ever committed to legal documents. Beginning back on October 7, 1976, after many late night meetings in a small third floor apartment on Cady Street, the paper that was to become East Side Monthly was born. It has since evolved into what is now Providence Media, a conglomerate (with a very small “c” mind you) that continues to grow and now includes five other papers, an assortment of websites, and most recently an advertising promotion company. We were also part of a group that came quite close to buying the Providence Journal last year in an attempt to keep it local. But let’s go back to the beginning.

A Modest Start
John Howell, one of the current partners, and Tony Ritacco started Southern RI Publications in 1969. It owned and printed weekly newspapers in Warwick, Seekonk, Coventry and Cranston and thought perhaps the East Side of Providence might be a good fit for them. Unfortunately after two years, the new paper had stalled out and was about to close. Ever the persuasive salesman and still determined that it could work, John convinced his general manager Richard Fleischer (who at that time devoted most of his time to either John’s papers or vintage cares) and myself (a part owner of Fain’s Carpet but with five years of New York advertising experience and a love of writing) that being newspaper publishers might be an exciting way for two East Side bachelors to spend their spare time. Turns out he was right.

I quickly learned what publishers actually do. An example from those first years: back then we had local high school kids delivering papers all over the East Side, usually in the family station wagon, to earn extra bucks. Then a major snowstorm hit. Guess who got called to pack their cars with soggy papers, negotiate the icy streets and then try to find where our 100-plus drop off points actually were? John at least remembers being invited into Allery’s, the jazz bar on North Main Street, by the owner to warm up. I just remember what seemed like a near death experience.

There was another even more memorable “publisher’s moment” a few years later. We were still using hundreds of store drops to circulate our paper. The two lead stories were both film related. Jenny Klein, a revered former teacher and administrator at Temple Emanu-el, had arranged a special showing of the powerful holocaust film Shoah. A second, lighter story featured a review of a remake of the classic ‘60s sci-fi movie The Fly starring Jeff Goldblum. Somehow the photos and headlines got switched. The photo of the beloved Mrs. Klein ran under a headline “The Ultimate Summer Pest” and bore the caption “Jeff Goldblum in his pre-fly state.” And in the Shoah story, there was a photo of a barely clad Goldblum about to go insect under the byline “Jenny Klein.” Several frantic hours later all the misprinted papers had been picked up and replaced with corrected copies. At least there was no snow.

The Original Team
When the paper first started, our initial full-time team was, to say the least, modest in size. Karen Goldberg was the art director, though she knew very little about newspapers. Joyce Starr was hired to be our sales manager, though she had never sold anything in her life. And the editor was an ex-Providence Journal reporter named Marty Kohn, who was described by one of his journalist friends as “someone who changes jobs the way most people change shirts.” And while Rich and I were working full-time jobs, we also had a lot of friends who were underemployed and willing to pitch in.

The office, perched above Tortilla Flats on Hope Street, always reeked of the pungent smells of old Mexico, but at least it meant though underpaid, no one ever would go hungry during those all too frequent late night panics.

The first month was insane. Karen decided after four weeks of deadlines and chaos that being on a newspaper was no longer part of her life’s to-do list and quit. Marilyn Bloom, the sister of one of Rich’s friends, took over. Joyce Starr, who later went on found her own very successful East Side real estate firm, turned out to be a superstar. And as Marty’s irreverent sense of wry humor kicked in, the paper began to get scooped up everywhere.

The Early Stories
One of our best early features when we were weekly turned out to be something called “The Pothole of the Week.” Then, as now, Providence did not deal well with potholes. Our solution was to encourage our readers to take photos of the worst of the lot and then send them to the mayor’s office. Soon City Hall was being flooded with photos. Buddy was not happy, but guess what? It worked and we had a following. Soon our cadre of grossly underpaid but loyal freelancers mushroomed and included up-and-coming talents like Bill and Polly Reynolds, G. Wayne Miller, Dave Layman from Channel 6, Irwin Becker, Mary Murphy, Linda Lotridge Levin and John Pantelone, the latter two of whom both later became head of the URI journalism program.

Marty’s wit attracted its well-deserved attention and after less than a year, he was offered what he described as “a wonderful opportunity at an obscene amount of money” working as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. We contacted him in Detroit for this story and he reports he ended up working 30 years for the paper as their theatre reviewer and assistant editor. Always good with the guitar, he is now on the folk singing circuit with six CD’s to his credit. Old friends can check out his music at www.cdbaby.com/artist/martykohn.

His successor was the often irascible but talented John Pantalone. He was what they call a journalistic bomb thrower and never held back from doing battle against anything he deemed an injustice. Under his four-year leadership, we decided to go citywide, changing our name to East Side-West Side. We became a full-fledged alternative weekly mixing it up with the likes of Vinny Suprenowitz’s Providence Eagle and Ty Davis’ The NewPaper. Later, when The NewPaper was bought by the Boston Phoenix, the old sales force left and formed the Nice Paper. We covered things like the faculty strikes at RISD, unfair working conditions at Electric Boat and of course local hardball politics with Polly Reynolds (Bill’s sister) as the paper’s “take no prisoners” leader in this regard. John added fellow travelers like Charlie Drago, Irwin Becker, Norman Jacques and others who saw our paper as an opportunity to take on the world one article at a time. We were fortunate at that time to have Bob Dahm as our illustrator/art director who later went national with his punchy political line drawings.

Going Monthly
By now it was 1983 and we still hadn’t found a financial model that would ensure the survival of the paper. We had tried everything: Free. Paid. Local. Statewide. Alternative. Community. Store drop offs. Direct mail. Quite frankly we were running out of options.

That’s when the current East Side Monthly took shape. As a monthly, I took on the role as editor while keeping my full-time job at Fain’s. We decided to return to mailing the paper free of charge to everyone in the 02906 zip code (plus throw in a little 02903 and 02904). Joining me was Steve Triedman, a close friend, the younger brother I never had and, like me, an East Side lifer.

We refocused our attention back to the East Side, but made sure to embrace all of our neighborhoods: Blackstone, College Hill, Fox Point, Wayland, Summit, Mount Hope. While there are obvious differences among the neighborhoods, there are significant issues that unite us: crime, taxes, snow removal, who best should represent our interests politically, how our children are being educated and still, of course, potholes. Whether it’s the latest changes coming to Blackstone Boulevard, late night activities on Thayer Street, a discussion of Brown’s next building project, development issues on the India Point waterfront, traffic problems at the Square, a new building being planned for Miriam or the latest goings on in Billy Taylor Park or the Mount Hope Learning Center, we’ve always tried to be there for the entire community.

Tackling Neighborhood Issues
We often have taken leadership positions on issues we felt strongly about – the danger of a NewBay power plant across the Seekonk in East Providence, for example, or the inappropriateness of Brown’s decision to put an oversized Life Sciences Building on Thayer Street when, to us, building it in the Knowledge District nearer to the hospitals made more sense. We rallied the troops when a local physician decided to arbitrarily cut down a 100-year-old tree to expand his parking lot without discussing it with the City or his neighbors. We’re happy to report the City now has an ordinance protecting historic trees. And when there was a controversial decision that was being proposed – to put a new bike path on Blackstone Boulevard for example – we made plenty of space available for both sides of the issue.

Looking back on our 40 years, perhaps the most amazing aspect of our longevity is not just that we’re still here, but rather that our East Side, all of approximately one-mile by two-miles, has been able to furnish us so many fascinating things to write about. There has never been a shortage of interesting people to profile, town and gown issues to debate, historic traditions to share with newer East Side arrivals, politicians to meet or irate letters to the editor and op-eds to publish.

It explains how we’ve attracted so many writers who have helped us so much by identifying and then reporting on our rich and diverse community over the years. Bob Cipriano on movies, Sam Coale and Molly Lederer on theatre, Ed Dalton and his taxicab chronicles, Jim Anderson with his annual East Side Halloween stories, Nancy Kirsch and her East Sider profiles, Jill Davidson and Sam Zurier on education, Brown professors over the years going way back to contributors like Jim Schevill, Bill Wyatt and Jacob Neusner for their glimpses into academia, Liz Rau on all sorts of subjects, and so many more.

Looking Ahead
So where are we now? Our little Hope Street office, after stops on Angell Street, North Main Street and Olneyville, have become much fancier digs on Main Street in Pawtucket, just over the Providence line and certainly close enough for us to keep an eye on where it all started. With our other publications, Providence Monthly (which we bought from its colorful creator Greg Ferland), So Rhode Island, The Bay, Prime Time and our new statewide Hey Rhody magazine, we now have a combined circulation larger than the Journal. Add to this our websites and collateral side companies, we’re living proof that print, at least in Rhode Island, is a long way from dead. And with the expertise of our superb Media Director Jeanette St. Pierre and an incredibly talented staff we feel are second to none in this area, we are excited to address the technological and social media opportunities for still further expansion.

As our print publications grow, however, we remain committed to the idea of free newspapers. For years, that was a disadvantage. Paid was always perceived as better than free. Now, computers rule. And while this has crippled the big dailies, it actually has made our life a little easier. While you can still pick up any of our papers for no charge, we don’t call ourselves free any more. We like to say we’re now “priced to compete with the Internet.”

So there you have it. The story of our newspaper mini-empire. The story of the good things that can happen if you commit yourself to being an integral part of your community and serve it well. The story of the power of a handshake.
We now have shared more information about our paper – make that papers – than you probably really wanted (or needed) to know. That said, we still hope you found it interesting. After 40 years together, we’re too old to keep secrets from you anyway.

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