It’s a cliché that some people aren’t missed until they’re gone, and that certainly was case with Charles McCorkle Hauser, the editor who transformed the Providence Journal from a solid newspaper into a great one.
It didn’t help that Hauser was brought in right after the newspaper’s only major strike, in 1973, hired by the frosty and right-wing publisher/owner Michael Metcalf as the first "outsider" to run the news operation in decades. Hauser thus walked into strike-poisoned atmosphere, and the suspicion of a lot of veteran reporters, including myself, that Hauser was determined to destroy what we believed was the New York Times of New England.
Moreover, Hauser — with his obnoxious middle name, a belt buckle stamped with a big "#1", a crooked mouth shaped into a permanent sneer — was a hard guy to warm to. One of his first acts was a memo dictating that most stories were to be limited in length to 500 words. It seemed as if the Journal’s trademark regional news sections should be homogenized into one indistinct and bland state section, and that editors reigning before his arrival would be downgraded and humiliated.
He was rude. He seemed to play off one person against another. He nitpicked that day’s paper, circling in red the perceived copyediting errors committed by the previous night’s hardworking copy desk. And he had absolutely nothing whatsoever to say if you were unlucky enough to ride the same elevator.
So it was a shock, after he was forced out of the paper in 1989, after Metcalf’s mysterious death in a bicycle accident, to realize what Hauser had accomplished in his 16 years.
Personal columns, of the sort now written by Bob Kerr and Mark Patinkin, were started. An investigative team was formed. From the obscurity of the copy desk, Hauser had picked Joel P. Rawson to run the newsroom, recognizing Rawson as a rare journalistic genius who would help Hauser launch the Journal as a "writer’s" paper, specializing not in 500-word stories, but series and narrative pieces that ran into the thousands of words, some literally after years of reporting.
A transformed Journal was not only the trusted "paper of record" that it had long been, but now it was also lively, deep, adventurous on its best days, and seemed to crackle with excitement. But I can’t remember many people feeling particularly troubled when the new publisher, Stephen Hamblett, canned Hauser. So it was a surprise when he started inviting some of us to lunch, just to chat about journalism, life, things in general. And when he moved out of state, he fired off notes, letters, and e-mails.
It turned out that this chilly, aloof autocrat, this management meanie, had an alternate personality, and this was what the writer-activist Richard Walton recently described to me as the an essential character flaw in any good journalist — "a bit of the outlaw."
Hauser, it turned out, truly missed the Journal and its personalities. Moreover, he cared when Hamblett and others reduced the size of the news staff, killed the afternoon paper, and the Sunday magazine, and then took the once-independent paper public.
When the paper was to be sold to the Belo Corporation of Dallas, Hauser, a stockholder by virtue of his earlier management role, fired off a 1997 letter to Hamblett — and sent me a copy for posting in the newsroom. "I consider it a tragedy that Providence is losing its locally owned newspaper," Hauser wrote, and he scolded Hamblett for "the size of the financial windfalls reaped by you and other officers and directors of the paper."
For years, until his death last Sunday, April 17, at 76, he remained both a cheerleader and a critic of not just the Journal, but the newspaper industry in general. When ProJo publisher Howard G. Sutton spiked his op-ed piece about the state of contemporary journalism a few years ago, Hauser was more than willing to talk with the Phoenix about it.
Hauser’s long-lasting passion for journalism was inspiring to reporters such as me, but also troubling. How come, during the years we worked with him, we had missed the real story?
Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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