Fire Engine Read

Fire Engine Read

By Cliff Barney

The story of the City of Pawtucket’s new fire engine was one of the great sagas of the 1950’s, at least in the pages of the Pawtucket Times, the small Rhode Island daily on which I broke into the news business.

The Times lived under the shadow of the neighboring Providence Journal, subsisting on a fine-grained coverage of local events that even the heavily staffed Journal did not deign to pursue. We included Rotary Club meetings, church socials, and four-generation parties as part of the regular beat system, right up there with the City Council and the police and fire departments. Our attention to schoolboy sports was unmatched. The Women’s Department (lately called “Lifestyle,” of course, though still headed by a female) offered a lavish smorgasbord of weddings and bake sales. All in all, one of the most boring publications I ever worked for; and yet in retrospect I can see that it offered something that its modern equivalents do not: a coherent, if limited, view of what local citizens were actually doing.

The news engine

Even for the Times, the fire engine odyssey was something special. I watched with amazement, from a safe perch in Sports, as it unrolled, canto by canto, over the course of more than a year, chronicling the entire story, from a request by the chief for a new hook-and-ladder, to rollout and engagement in battle. Our local Homer was a news hound who first tumbled to the opportunity from an item at a City Council meeting, the budget submitted by the Fire Department. A new engine today will run a city close to half a million dollars; even at less than a tenth of that, in the Fifties, the item stood out.

The reporter wrote a Council sidebar about the fire engine, and followed it up with a backgrounder a few days later on what fire engines cost and how long they lasted (ten or twenty years, I think). He coasted for a while with weekly updates as the council debated the matter and then broke loose when they voted to go ahead with the project.

He produced a weekly series of articles on specifications, tradeoffs, and funding; when these were settled and bids were solicited (big story), we got profiles of the various companies that made fire engines, plus a retrospective on where the city’s current fire engines had come from. Eventually a winner was selected (front page), the award was appealed (another page 1 piece), there were new hearings and discussion, all grist for the mill; and then a final award was made.

Fit Tab A into Slot B

That brought about what I think was the peak achievement of the series: the Times bought the reporter a train ticket and sent him to visit the manufacturer and write a vivid, nuts–and-bolts description of how the engine was actually being built. It took up most of a page the first day and trailed off in a series that ran throughout the week.

There ensued a period of marking time, as the delivery date was delayed, the city protested, and the matter was hashed out in the Council, all events worth noting; and then, finally, there was the actual delivery, a two-parter that began with an advance piece on the day before the engine arrived, and climaxed with a satisfying story on the rollout of the machine and the turning over of the keys.

And it still wasn’t over; the reporter had arrows left in his quiver for the testing of the vehicle, its delivery to a home station, and a follow-up on what happened to the machine it replaced. The end of the tale, its mustering for a first call to fight a real fire, was almost anticlimactic.

But though I mock the process now – and to be honest, may exaggerate it somewhat – I can see that it provided a kind of continuity that must have been reassuring to the burghers of Pawtucket. Very few of the subscribers can have read every installment but most of them surely must have noticed, over time, that the city was acquiring a major piece of equipment. There was no scandal connected with the story, no kickbacks, no crowds with pitchforks at City Hall, only a continuous stream of narrative that, while it may have lacked vitality or surprise, at least gave a sense that someone was paying attention.

All news is local

That’s a civic service that is being lost in the continuing diminuendo now playing in the daily press. Much handwringing accompanies the possible fate of the flashy exposes that newspapers pride themselves on: a Watergate story, the unraveling of government secrets, Presidential sex, Iran-Contra. These – most of them anyway – are indeed valuable; but I think that even more than so-called investigative reporting, it is the constant flow of neighborhood news that has sustained local newspapers for most of the last century. Henry Beetle Hough, the legendary editor of the Vineyard Gazette, who knew how to write stories directly on the linotype if he needed to, is recorded to have blessed an edition of his weekly with the remark, as it rolled off the press, “Once more, the Thunderer greets the world”; it was an ironic invocation of the then august LondonTimes, but it nonetheless carried some weight, in that the people on Martha’s Vineyard paid attention when the Gazette came out. That was true in Pawtucket, too, where the paper’s circulation, over 40,000, was half the city’s population.

The Times has fallen on difficult times since its days as a chronicler of fire engines; it now sells fewer than 9,000 papers daily, and the former owners have sold it to something called the Rhode Island Media Group. I doubt then that it covers the Rotary Club any more, since the only reason we did during my stint there was that the owner was a member. It certainly would not devote such attention to a single vehicle, not even one painted red, not unless the mayor had been caught joyriding in it, drunk, with the assistant principal of Tolman High School, and been rewarded with a gig on American Idol.

In itself, this is no great loss; the paper now has the Pawtucket Red Sox, a Boston Triple-A farm club, to feast on, and City Hall continues to provide weekly examples of political progress. Our old nemesis, the Journal, has been sold to some Texans.

But there’s a reason that the circulation has shrunk so greatly, and I suspect that it has something to do with the abandonment of the old press mantram, that news was whatever happened locally.  Today news is “content,” something to separate the dwindling blocks of advertising. That, I would say, is the real cause for alarm.


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