Innovation Ecosystem

To be young, gifted, and a journalist in RI

A startup digital news platform, "A Little Rhody," is the creation of Julia Rock

Image courtesy of Julia Rock

Julia Rock, who recently launched "A Little Rhody," a new digital news platform.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/31/20
An interview with young journalistic entrepreneur, Julia Rock, who has launched a new news platform, “A Little Rhody.”
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PROVIDENCE – The latest issue of “A Little Rhody,” a start-up digital news platform covering politics in the Ocean State created by Julia Rock, published on Thursday, Aug. 27, featured an in-depth analysis of a competitive primary race in House District 7, posing the question in the headline: “Can David Morales’s ground game unseat a machine-backed state representative in Providence?”

As detailed in the story, Morales, backed by some of the state’s most prominent progressive organizations, is taking on incumbent Rep. Daniel McKiernan and the Democratic Party apparatus. [See link below to the story.]

Rock, who graduated from Brown University in May of 2019, has created the fledgling news platform on a shoestring, doing the reporting on the side while she works at a number of different day gigs.

She is what many would call a start-up entrepreneur in the news biz, attempting to fashion a new approach to covering the news in a world where much of the news-gathering enterprise has been disrupted by private equity takeovers and consolidations of media platforms, where the stream of advertising revenue supporting the news industry has been decimated by Facebook and Google, and where the opportunities for a career in journalism often appear to be beyond the economic reach of many who are not affluent.

ConvergenceRI spoke last week with Rock to get a better understanding of her vision for launching “A Little Rhody,” and to capture her story of perseverance in fashioning a career in journalism, including what her dream assignment would be.

ConvergenceRI: How would you describe your journalistic endeavor?
ROCK: I would say there are two components. First, I graduated from Brown University in May of 2019, where I worked on the alt weekly paper; I was the metro editor.

That was how I came to learn about reporting on Rhode Island and how I became engaged in politics and culture in Providence – and become really passionate about it.

Since graduating, I have worked with varying degrees of intensity as a freelancer. Most of my freelance work has covered Providence or greater Rhode Island.

Freelancing is not my day job. It has always been something I do in addition to my work. I haven’t been able to put the time into it that I would like to.

ConvergenceRI: What is your day job?
ROCK: My day job? Well, I have a number of day jobs. I am kind of doing the gig economy-type thing. I work part-time on a podcast; I work part-time doing some political communications work for a national organization.

Then, I also work part-time for a journalist, who works for a different news site.

ConvergenceRI: What’s the other component?
ROCK: Two months ago, I started this newsletter, which I hope to produce weekly, although I have been on vacation for these first two weeks in August.

ConvergenceRI: What is the name of the newsletter?
ROCK: It’s called “A Little Rhody.”

ConvergenceRI: Is it self-funded? Is it for-profit or a non-profit?
ROCK: Right now, all the content is free, and I’m not making any money from it.

As I said, I’ve always had a day job, and done journalism in the evening and on the weekends. And, I’m not making any money from it.

ConvergenceRI: I’m not sure that journalism is a profession where you will make a lot of money.
ROCK: True. None of my professions I make a lot of money in, just enough to pay the rent and things like that.

ConvergenceRI: One of the reasons why I created ConvergenceRI seven years ago was my belief there were stories not being covered, which needed to be covered in more depth. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but my question is: what are the stories that you believe need to be covered?
ROCK: Yes, absolutely. I think that the media industry nationally, and in Rhode Island, has been really been hurt by the rise of private equity [investors] and Facebook and Google. So, there are certainly fewer stories being covered.

The kinds of stories that really got me into journalism and excited about it were covering the police and police misconduct and police violence. That was certainly something that this spring felt like it was on the minds of so many people in Rhode Island. But what was being covered in the news media didn’t reflect what people were concerned about – or what people wanted to know about.

That is certainly one aspect of it. Another aspect is the way in which state politics and machine politics operate in Rhode Island. There is a sense among all different types of people that politics here are either corrupt, with special interests influencing politics, and I don’t think those types of stories are being told nearly as much as they could be.

There are really good political journalists in Rhode Island. I just think that there needs to be more of them.

ConvergenceRI: In writing about health care, I often find that reporters tend to cover the “wrong” stories, in my personal opinion. It often seems as if we have “health news” taking shape in the form of rewritten news releases. I also think that political reporting could be a lot better than it is.
ROCK: Absolutely

ConvergenceRI: What frustrates you most in terms of the news coverage that you would like to correct, in “A Little Rhody.”
ROCK: That’s a good question. Let me think about that. I guess one thing I’ve really learned in the very short amount of time I’ve been doing this is that there are a lot stories in Rhode Island, in which people kind of know something is happening, but it hasn’t really been reported on.

No journalist has gone out and connected the dots to either validate what people are already thinking, or to tell story that some people know bout. Many existing political reporters in Rhode Island have been reporting on Rhode Island for a really long time, so I’m not even sure it occurs to them.

You’ll hear people say, for example, “Well, of course, this bill can’t pass, because this politician is blocking it,” but that actually won’t be reported.

I think it’s much more about explaining to a broader audience what is actually happening at the State House, and what are the interests that are informing politicians, and how are they voting [as a result].

Just being willing to say things that everybody kind of knows, but there seems as if there is some unspoken agreement that people aren’t going to report on it. Those are the stories I am most interested in.

ConvergenceRI: I second that emotion. It may seem like an obvious question, but how difficult is it to support yourself, working as a journalist? In my own experiences, when I started out, I often had to fall back on working as a cook when money from my freelance writing gigs didn’t pay enough. Could you talk about that?
ROCK: Absolutely. I have had to work at a job that pays me during the day and then find the additional time to do this, which is really challenging.

In many ways, I am in a really lucky position. Having gone to a school like Brown, I didn’t graduate with any student debt. I think that many people my age face more financial constraints than I do.

I think that is a huge problem with the industry, where the young people who can make it, either freelancing or doing the kinds of things I’m doing, are people who are already pretty affluent.

I know there is a new national program, called Report for America, that is paying a large number, something like 200 or 300 entry-level journalists, to go work in local news rooms, and that’s really valuable.

But I think that making well-paying jobs available is really really important – and well-paying jobs that aren’t located in the most expensive cities, like New York, San Francisco and D.C., because it would be a really terrible thing for the industry if there is an entire generation of journalists who are the only people who are already affluent and are able to fall back on their parents paying the rent or something like that, because that is going to inform a particular perspective.

For me, it’s been really hard to work and do this on the side. It’s hard to recommend that to anybody. It’s kind of a larger problem with the industry. Facebook and Google have decimated local news, so I don’t necessarily blame newsrooms themselves for being unable to produce well-paying jobs.

But that really is necessary. There needs to be jobs with benefits that pay well, so that people can go into journalism and you don’t already have to come from an affluent family to do so.

ConvergenceRI: What would your dream assignment be?
ROCK: Like a job?

ConvergenceRI: You define it. Five years out from now, where would you like to be?
ROCK: [long pause]. I’m from Minnesota, for example, where there are a few really successful nonpartisan newsrooms have started there in the past decade, that are focused on accountability reporting, public records reporting, and data journalism.

And I think seeing that type of [opportunity] in Rhode Island, whether it was a small nonprofit news outlet or just an expansion of accountability reporting or investigative reporting at an existing newsroom, I would love to work for some entity like that.

I know that The Public’s Radio [the NPR station in Rhode Island] is hiring some more people to do investigative work, and obviously WPRI does some really good investigative work.

But I would really love to have the time and resources and team to work with to do that kind of investigative reporting in Rhode Island. Working alone is really hard. Working with not much time or money is really hard.

To have more people sending in a bunch of public records requests and interviewing people, mining through data, would be a really great thing to see in Rhode Island.

ConvergenceRI: What data would you like to mine through for a story?
ROCK: I think there is a lot of reporting to be done, for example, on the opioid crisis in Rhode Island. There are some companies that have a lot of employees here, that spend a lot of money in politics here, that have also been defendants in lawsuits regarding the opioid crisis. CVS is an example of that.

I think reporting on that is really important, and I think that kind of data reporting would be great to see.

ConvergenceRI: Would you like that assignment?
ROCK: What?

ConvergenceRI: You heard me. Would you like that assignment?
ROCK: What do you mean?

ConverenceRI: I don’t know how familiar you are with ConvergenceRI. I have covered the opioid crisis for more than a decade, going back to my days at the Providence Business News, where I broke the first story about the growing number of deaths from prescription painkillers, working with public health researcher Traci Green in 2011.
The story led to Dr. Michael Fine, then the director of the R.I. Department of Health, changing the public health priorities in the state, based on my reporting.
ROCK: Wow.

ConvergenceRI: Now, it sounds like ancient history. How would anybody know? Let me repeat the offer: Would you like that story as an assignment?
ROCK: Yeah, I would definitely be interested, depending on what it entailed.

ConvergenceRI: Do you regularly read or follow ConvergenceRI?
ROCK: I remember reading something you did on lead poisoning.

ConvergenceRI: Yes, I won an award last year from the Childhood Lead Action Project for my reporting on lead poisoning in Rhode Island, which actually dates back to 1986, if you can believe it. In terms of a data mining story on opioids and lawsuits, I would be interested in a continuing series.
ROCK: That sounds great. I would be happy to write up something like a pitch or outline, to get some feedback on, if that works for you.

ConvergenceRI: Sure. Please send me an outline and then I can give you some feedback and ideas about how best to pursue the story. I believe that there are a lot of talented young journalists in Rhode Island, and I am happy to provide a platform for you to show your wares.

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