Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

To be able to ask a question, that is the issue

ConvergenceRI finds itself cited by both Gov. Raimondo’s press secretary and by UpriseRI in a dispute over access

Image courtesy of UpriseRI website

A daily news briefing by Gov. Gina Raimondo. From left, Dr. James McDonald, R.I. Department of Health; the Governor; Commerce Corp. Secretary Stefan Pryor; and the sign language interpreter.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/13/20
When Steve Ahlquist of Uprise RI and Josh Block, the governor’s press secretary, both cite my work at ConvergenceRI as a “defense” in proving their points in an argument, it is time to step up to the plate and offer my own perspective.
How will the nursing home and skilled nursing facility industry be forced to change as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic? What is the state strategy to ramp up testing, for antibodies, for potential viral infection, and for populations that have not yet been tested? What are the opportunities to develop virtual community engagement strategies that challenge the status quo of the flow of news?
One of the hardest hit sectors of the economy, not surprisingly, by the aftershocks of businesses shuttering their doors and people being laid off or fired by the millions, are news media outlets, as advertising dollars have vanished and even the expected boost of election year advertising revenues, have disappeared. As The New York Times detailed in a story by reporter Marc Tracy, published on April 10, an estimated 28,000 employees of news media companies in the U.S. have been laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced sine the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some websites for newspapers, such as for The Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass., have asked online readers to contribute to help pay for continued coverage of the coronavirus pandemic in their community.
To quote Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.”

PROVIDENCE – I began writing this on Thursday evening, April 9, as I was catching up on the incessant, noisy overflow of Twitter chatter in a time of pandemic. I discovered that Steve Ahlquist from UpriseRI had tagged me in a post regarding the evolving policy on how questions were to be posed during the daily news briefings with Gov. Gina Raimondo.

Ahlquist’s post, having tagged me, had generated a fair number of “notifications.” So it goes in the Twitter sphere.

Imagine my surprise. Both Josh Block, the Governor’s press secretary, and Steve Ahlquist, the force behind UpriseRI, had invoked my work at ConvergenceRI as an “example” to support their respective arguments regarding the relative difficulties in getting access to ask questions of Gov. Raimondo during her daily news briefings.

It seemed both appropriate and newsworthy to respond, to offer my own version of the story.

The backstory
First, because Ahlquist has promised to republish what I wrote in response in UpriseRI, here is some helpful background for his regular readers.

For those that don’t know me or may be unfamiliar with my work, I am the editor and publisher of ConvergenceRI, a digital news platform launched in September of 2013, covering the “convergence” of health, science, innovation, technology, research, education and community in Rhode Island, attempting to break down the often rigid silos around reporting the news.

In answer to the question once posed by Jimi Hendrix, yes, I am experienced.

I have spent nearly five decades in the news and the communications biz: my work has been published by The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Boston Magazine, The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Rhode Island Monthly, The Berkshire Eagle and The Providence Business News, among others.

I have served in numerous journalistic professional roles: as managing editor of a weekly alternative newspaper in Amherst, Mass., as editor of a national environmental monthly in Washington, D.C., as an assistant news editor of a local daily in Greenfield, Mass., and as editor and publisher of five weekly newspapers in Manchester, Vt., among other jobs.

I have also worked on the public relations side of the biz, as a communications director, in Washington, D.C., in Boston, Mass., in Providence, R.I., in Westborough, Mass., responsible for directing several million-dollar campaigns.

I have worked as a consultant for the John Adams Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, “ghost” writing many of the materials involved with the development of economic development initiatives in Massachusetts focused on the Innovation Economy. I am also the former president of a television production company in Northampton, Mass., and once wrote TV scripts for “The Rockford Files.”

In terms of my most “recent” history, before the launch of ConvergenceRI, I was the health care and life sciences reporter for three years at The Providence Business News. [My content is also currently shared weekly by RINewsToday.]

Covering the news in a time of disruption
ConvergenceRI is published 48 times a year, every Monday morning, providing in-depth reporting and analysis unavailable anywhere else in the Rhode Island marketplace.

Mine is a disruptive business model: it is built upon yearly subscriptions, encouraging subscribers to share the content of ConvergenceRI across their networks, the way that information flows best in the digital world we live in.

[I do have a website where the content is offered for free, without a paywall, where three stories each week are published. It is not “curated”; the stories “disappear” after a week. Often, as was the case with the April 6 edition, when I published six stories in ConvergenceRI, not all the content can be seen on the website.]

It is a difficult model for many in the news biz to comprehend, it seems, because it does not follow the “orthodoxy” of many news enterprises. I am not chasing tweets or clicks or pageviews, the standard metrics by which advertisers decide on how to spend their advertising dollars.

That kind of click-driven frenzy, often referred to as click bait, leads to stories that tend to promote a world filled with murder, mayhem, anxiety, scandal and calamity: the stuff that creates outrage and drives profits for Facebook.

But what happens when there is a real calamity such as a pandemic, where tens of thousands of people are dying, hospitals and mortuaries are being overwhelmed, and the news media is on a constant, “breaking news” alert? What is the best way to cover a pandemic when movement is restricted, when people have been ordered to stay at home and stop physical contact, when businesses are closing while their employees are being laid off by the thousands? All good questions, not easily answered.

Late for the sky
In a time of social and physical distancing, in a time a pandemic, when it is risky to leave your home and venture outside, it requires a different kind of innovation and improvisation when reporting the news.

These days, much of the news flow is generated by officialdom holding daily news briefings, seeking to control the flow of news as much as to control the spread of the coronavirus.

In Rhode Island, it has taken on the form of daily news briefings hosted by the Governor; initially, there were in-person media scrums, with reporters shouting questions, trying to be heard. The briefings have now morphed onto a virtual platform, with questions required to be asked in advance.

As such, the news media has dutifully functioned much like a Greek chorus performing in a tragedy by Aeschylus: repeating the key facts and figures and messages as they are enunciated at daily news briefings – how many new cases, how many deaths, how many folks in quarantine, and how many people tested. What is often missing is the nuance to the facts.

The news briefings are now held in “remote” fashion, with reporters asked to submit questions and, depending on time permitting, getting them answered by the Governor and her cabinet members. Call it your daily three minutes of fame.

And, recently, when reporters complained about the inability to ask follow-up questions, those ground rules were changed to encompass a 15-minute free-for-all at the end of each phone call.

Block vs. Ahlquist
Recently, Josh Block had requested that the news media refrain from asking questions on successive days, on an honor system, which did not take into account that many of the news media that participate in the news briefings have multiple reporters asking questions, according to Steve Ahlquist, who found Block’s policy discriminatory, given he is a sole-reporter news shop.

Ahlquist wrote on April 8 in Uprise RI: Noting that Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo has held a daily press conference for over a month now, Josh Block, the Governor’s press secretary, sent out an email with some interesting numbers.

“Over the past six days, we have answered a total of 82 questions, averaging about 14 a day – not counting the additional questions that are answered in the follow-up conference call,” writes Block. “Those 82 questions came from a total of 34 reporters. In fact, 42 of those questions – more than half – have come from just 8 reporters. While it’s great that we have been able to answer so many questions, it’s also clear that there are 35 additional reporters – more than half of the press list – who would like to ask a question but have not yet had an opportunity to do so.”

The solution presented by the Governor’s office? Limit each reporter to one question every other day.

“In that spirit, and in the interest of fairness, we are asking those of you who had a question answered on any given day to choose not to submit one the following day,” continued Block. “To be clear, we are not changing the functionality of submission in any way – this is on the honor system. We are simply asking everyone to be respectful of one another and to give space for voices that haven’t yet had an opportunity to be heard.”

Ahlquist continued: Big news outlets, like the Providence Journal and Channel 12/WPRI, field enough reporters that they can still get several questions before the Governor, even if their reporters take every other day off. Channel 12 has 11 reporters who have asked questions through the system so far, Alexandra Leslie, Anita Baffoni, Walt Buteau, Hannah Dickison, Kim Kalunian, Steph Machado, Gina Marini, Ted Nesi, Eli Sherman, Kait Walsh and Tim White. The Providence Journal has seven: Brian Amaral, Patrick Anderson, Kathy Gregg, Wayne Miller, Tom Mooney, Katie Mulvaney and Paul Parker, one for every day of the week.

The Associated Press and Providence Business News have two reporters registered in the system, so they can easily ask a question every other day. Channel 6 has five reporters asking questions, six if you count an account labeled “ABC News.” Channel 10 has five reporters asking questions.

WPRO radio has five reporters asking questions through the system, while The Public’s Radio has three.

Further, Ahlquist argued: As far as I can tell, looking at all the questions asked so far and not counting those questions sent in through anonymous accounts, every other news outlet has one reporter asking questions, which means their ability to ask questions and get them answered by the Governor will be cut in half.

Perhaps some of these reporters will sign up with phantom accounts, so that they might still get their questions in. I’m pretty sure UpriseRI could do this. But one of the founding principles of UpriseRI is honesty: We won’t lie about who we are to get the story.

Block’s response
When Ahlquist expressed these objections to Josh Block, Ahlquist said that Block attempted to cast this process as one of opening the process to more reporters and more perspectives. Block, Ahlquist continued, “implied that if I continue to ask a question every day, I was being selfish and discriminatory.”

Block’s response invoked ConvergenceRI as an example:

“I think you would agree that Richard Asinof at ConvergenceRI, and Liza Gordon at Noticias Rhode Island, and Gina Macris at Developmental Disability News, and Christy Nadalin at East Bay Life, also all represent important perspectives and have unique audiences,” said Block. “And that list goes on. But while we have answered around 40 of your questions over the past 30 days, we have not been able to answer a single question from any of them.”

To which, Ahlquist wrote: I agree, of course, that those reporters represent important perspectives. And contrary to Block’s assertion, Richard Asinof did get a question in, as I wrote about here.

Here is what Ahlquist had previously written:

Toward the end of the press conference Richard Asinof of ConvergenceRI asked a similar question, focusing on the low-wage front-line health care workers.

“Would you be willing to make an emergency funding request through Commerce RI to increase the hourly wages of CNA (certified nursing assistant) workers in nursing homes, hospitals, and the home health agencies,” asked Asinof.

Gov. Raimondo’s answer was to essentially trust the market and the health care executives in charge of our local institutions to make any decisions as to whether CNAs deserve higher pay.

“So at this time, what we are doing is I’m in very good contact with hospitals, nursing homes, and the labor unions that represent the CNAs, nurses and social workers,” said Governor Raimondo. “Soon the federal stimulus money will be made available to hospitals and other healthcare providers. And then, at that point, I would say that the individual institutions – health care institutions – will have to figure out how to use that additional capital to keep the lights on and keep folks employed and to have the PPE necessary. And I would just encourage each institution to do what they think is in the best interest of their employees and their patients.”

The view from ConvergenceRI
When Gov. Raimondo moved the daily news briefings to a virtual, online platform, the news media was requested to fill out a form as a way to process questions.

I did that, but unfortunately, apparently because somehow I was not part of Block’s “official” media list, I was not “allowed” to participate in the news briefings, and did not receive the daily notifications about how to submit questions.

My attempts to get questions asked and answered, working through the R.I. Department of Health, often resulted in a dead end, a frustrating process.

For instance, among the questions I submitted to be asked during the Sunday March 22, news briefing included:

Has the new innovation campus known as “401 Tech Bridge” with its focus on advanced textiles been activated to produce needed medical supplies, such as swabs and masks?

Will an addendum be written to the RI Innovates 2.0 economic strategy to include public health infrastructure investments?

Has the response to the COVID-19 pandemic made a strong economic case for adopting a single payer model for health care in the U.S.?

I will be the first to admit that my questions were thoughtful, longer-term in nature, reflecting the in-depth reporting and analysis to be found in ConvergenceRI.

For instance, the stories contained in the March 23 editions ConvergenceRI included:

“Unsettled in Seattle,” a first-person report about life in Kirkland, Wash., as the shadow of the pandemic interrupted the flow of life there, the initial epicenter of the pandemic, which has since been surpassed by New York City.

“In a time of pandemic, CODAC revamps its delivery model,” reporting on how CODAC, one of the leading provider of services for substance use disorders, medication assisted treatment and recovery efforts was rapidly adapting and adopting to the onslaught of the pandemic, moving to a virtual platform.

“We are all living in the same salad bowl of life,” a first-person reflection about how she and her family were targeted as a result of President Trump’s attempt to scapegoat the Chinese for his own leadership failures.

My philosophy when it comes to news is also somewhat disruptive: I believe news is not so much what happens, but what you don’t know. I also believe in the show, don’t tell school of reporting, allowing people’s own stories to be told, in their own voices.

Asking for guidance
Without revealing sources, I finally did ask someone connected to the Raimondo team to submit one of my questions, frustrated by having apparently been frozen out from participating in what was, for all intents and purposes, the only game in town if you wanted to pursue questions about the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

That resulted in my question about “increasing the hourly wages” for CNAs actually being asked – and answered, as detailed by Ahlquist in UpriseRI.

For the record, I have frequently conducted in person, one-on-one interviews with numerous members of Raimondo’s team, including: Commerce Corp. Secretary Stefan Pryor; R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott; R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones; Rebecca Boss, former director of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Development Disabilities, and Hospitals, among others.

And, the communications crews that work for these administration officials have always been professional, courteous and prompt in responding to my requests.

Still, I was a bit surprised to learn that Josh Block, the Governor’s press secretary, was using me as an “example” of not “asking questions” to indicate the alleged fairness of the Governor’s engagement strategies with the news media.

As the news churns
Here the story gets a bit more convoluted. On the advice of news media colleague, I reached out directly to Josh Block to be added to the official news media list in order to be able to ask questions within the constricted format for the daily news briefings.

Block responded promptly, and I was finally added to the list, beginning on April 8, three weeks after the remote process had begun.

To ask a question, here’s the process: Having been sent a daily prompt from Block, which is an adapted “polling” software, you are asked to enter your name and organization and then, once the Governor finishes her “15 minute” briefing, you can submit your question, on a first-come, first-served basis.

What that means is that you have to sit by your computer, the question ready to be pasted into the prompt as soon as Governor finishes her initial briefing, competing with some 40 other reporters.

The first time I attempted to do this, I was slow on the draw, and my question fell well below the radar screen of the usual limit of 15 questions.

The second time, I was more successful, and my question was asked and answered, regarding the potential to develop mobile testing for residents who were living in group homes, managed by behavioral health entities.

The moral of the story
First, let me acknowledge that everyone is attempting to do the best job they can, in some very difficult circumstances, to communicate in a transparent manner about the latest developments as the coronavirus pandemic changes our lives and threatens our health. There will be no returning to normal.

I also have the utmost respect for all of the news-gathering colleagues engaged in the art of asking questions and relaying information, as well as for the government officials attempting to be transparent about what is happening on a daily basis, painting instant scenes on a canvas in the middle of a deadly plague.

It is a time when we all need to be pulling together in the same direction, I agree. But it shouldn’t get in the way of being able to ask hard questions and to pursue difficult topics.

So, thanks to both Steve Ahlquist and Josh Block, for invoking my work, allowing me to respond, in order to provide a platform to share my thoughts about the importance of asking questions and seeking answers in a time of pandemic.

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