Innovation Ecosystem

Disrupting the status quo of traditional news narratives

A brief interview with Steve Ahlquist, the driving force behind Uprise RI

Photo by Steve Ahlquist

Steve Ahlquist, left, and Richard Asinof,

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/30/19
A conversation with Steve Ahlquist, the producer of the online digital news platform, Uprise RI, in which he talks about disrupting the status quo of news narratives.
How has Uprise RI changed the dimensions of political coverage in Rhode Island? In a time when the status quo is being challenged, politically and economically, how will news digital platform change the nature of the conversation? What are the opportunities for ecoRI, Uprise RI, RINews Today and ConvergenceRI to collaborate?
As the nation wrestles with the political implications of the pending impeachment of President Donald Trump, what are the opportunities to create a different kind of political talk show, one that does not feature the usual pundits and power brokers but instead, showcases a more diverse, younger, more progressive voices that challenge the current status quo?

PROVIDENCE – Recently, two unassuming, somewhat mild mannered producers of independent digital news platforms in Rhode Island walked into a coffee shop to have a conversation. What happened next?

There was no drama, no breaking news, no raised voices, and no breathless hints of mayhem to come – save for an umbrella being blown over in a sudden gust of wind, quickly caught in one hand by the one who had been a baseball catcher.

What occurred was a face-to-face conversation, one that included lots of listening and thoughtful answers to questions. There were no verbal fireworks; there was no “hint” of celebrity recognition by others who were enjoying a pleasant fall afternoon, sitting in the outdoor café plaza on the East Side, that two of Rhode Island’s better known news disrupters were in their midst. [The only moment of “recognition” was when a Providence City Counselor stopped by to say hello to Ahlquist.]

Challenging the dominant narrative
It was a serious conversation between Steve Ahlquist of Uprise RI and ConvergenceRI, about the travails of creating an alternative news narrative in Rhode Island, striving to tell stories to be heard above the braying of the dominant news paradigm, in comic book lexicon, for truth, justice and the Rhode Island way – beyond “I know a guy or gal.”

Ahlquist was recently featured in a profile in the Columbia Journalism Review; he will also be one of the featured speakers at the TEDx Providence 2019 to be held Saturday, Oct. 5, at The Vets auditorium in Providence. Ahlquist was wearing a blue t-shirt with the comic book logo for Superman; ConvergenceRI was sporting a neck brace following surgery; in an image taken together in a selfie, the two displayed what might be described as a distinct air of “scruffiness.”

Ahlquist prefers to be the person behind the camera, rather than the on-screen performer, capturing other people’s stories and voices. As he told ConvergenceRI, “Quite honestly, it’s a lot of work [to prepare for Tedx Providence]. Memorizing 10 minutes of text, to get up there and speak in front of a live audience, it’s something that I’ve never done before. I’ve been practicing every day with my speech. I’m hoping that I don’t mess it up; it’s nerve-racking right now.”

In terms of putting his role at Uprise RI within a larger context, Ahlquist likened himself to a roving Benedictine monk, taking a vow of poverty, traveling from place to place, asking what he can do to help others. “We don’t celebrate; we move onto the next story, to the next fire to put out,” he explained.

Ahlquist told ConvergenceRI he had pretty much been a writer all of his life, including writing comic books. With the digital news platform of Uprise RI, the immediacy of the platform and the feedback was an important part of the story. “My work immediately grabs people; it seems to feel a vital purpose for people, and it allows people to use my work to amplify their own messages as well.”

A strong undercurrent to the status quo
Together, Uprise RI and ConvergenceRI, along with ecoRI News, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, as well as RI News Today and WhatsUpNewport, represent a successful undercurrent to what has been the long, slow, painful decline of traditional news media in Rhode Island, creating digital news platforms to report on stories that seem to matter most in the everyday lives of Rhode Island – health care, the environment and local politics beyond the status quo.

If ConvergenceRI has carved out a niche in its expertise in reporting on the convergence of health, science, technology, innovation and research in Rhode Island, and ecoRI News has developed a comprehensive approach to connecting the world around us with the world we live in, Uprise RI has become the political storyteller of record, capturing on video the voices of protests by Rhode Island citizens attempting to disrupt the business-as-usual approach to most news stories.

In describing the current landscape for news reporting in Rhode Island, Ahlquist likened what most people think of when they talk about the news media in the state as having a bias toward preserving the status quo – what he would call the “capital” bias, a bias toward the moneyed elite.

The idea behind Uprise RI, Ahlquist continued, is to “showcase people and showcase their stories” in a way that challenges the idea that the world is controlled by a very a very small group of powerful State House insiders and rich people.

In doing so, Ahlquist said, the digital news platform helps people to begin to take back control of their own lives and their own narratives. The stories being portrayed by Uprise RI are narratives that are often not seen in the so-called “real” media. “They are not necessarily going to cover the stuff that people really want to know about,” he said.

The advantages of Rhode Island
The relative small size of Rhode Island becomes a distinct advantage in reporting, according to Ahlquist, because of the accessibility to cover events. “Providence City Hall and the State House are a 20-minute walk from each other,” he said. “Those are the two centers of power where a lot of stuff happens.”

And, even if you want to go “far afield,” Ahlquist continued, it is only a 30-minute drive out to Burrillville or a 40-minute drive out to Tiverton. You can do that in Rhode Island; it is not like trying to cover all of New York. You can’t. Between New York City and Albany [the state capital], it’s a two-hour drive. During rush hour, it’s probably worse.”

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