Q & A with Tim White

Tim White — Courtesy of WPRI

You are the Target 12 investigative reporter and managing editor. Give us an overview of your responsibilities.

I wear two hats at WPRI. As an investigative reporter my role is to bring things to light that the people of Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts need to know about. My primary beats are the criminal justice system, government, public corruption and politics, plus whatever the daily news cycle brings our way. (I’ve learned a lot about bridge maintenance this month.) I also have been moderating debates since 2010, along with my colleague Ted Nesi.

As managing editor, I run the nine-member Target 12 unit, which is the easiest job on the planet because of the amazing people in that office. I essentially manage the robust collaboration that goes on every day with the entire team. In the end, though, I’m responsible for the content that comes out of Target 12, making the final call on how we allocate our bandwidth, then reviewing copy for online and on-air. But the mission for both positions is really the same: to act as a watchdog, as the eyes and ears for the community in which we report.

Your own reporting has won five New England Emmy Awards and six regional Edward R. Murrow Awards. Truly impressive! Can you give us a summary of the stories that brought these honors? 

No award is the result of a solo effort, and I’ve been truly lucky to work with the highest caliber professionals in the business. The stories that won awards generally all have the same theme: holding powerful people accountable. There was the investigation that exposed a state representative who didn’t live where he told voters he did (eventually resulting in a criminal conviction), another on leadership woes at the Fall River Police Department (the chief stepped down), one that exposed government waste in the Providence DPW and an investigation which shed light on the city’s troubled pension plan.

Eli Sherman and I worked on a series of reports that led to a former high school basketball coach getting charged in a sexual assault case, and separately a state lawmaker who had borrowed a lot of money – including from his own constituents – but repeatedly failed to pay people back. (He is no longer in office as a result of that report.) Our team also received a Murrow for a short documentary we did on an infamous Mafia induction ceremony. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that every award I have received in my 17 years at WPRI came as a result of work with chief videographer John Villella. It’s hard to describe what an incredible photojournalist he is, and how much I have benefitted from that.

Let’s come to the present. What are some of your top investigative pieces for the year 2023? 

It was a busy year… but I suppose when isn’t it in the Rhode Island news cycle?

The surprise congressional race over the summer spurred a few investigations for our team, including the signature scandal that rocked Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos’ campaign and an examination of why another candidate was told to stop teaching at Williams College. We also revealed an FBI investigation into the Providence Police Department after the colonel’s nephew was swept up in a drug investigation. One of the bigger headaches for the State House set came after we were able to pry loose a controversial email that revealed details about that now-infamous trip two state officials took to Philadelphia. That has also spurred multiple ethics investigation involving the McKee administration. While it wasn’t an investigation, my sit-down interview with Judge Richard Licht following a near-fatal pedestrian accident in February was memorable, and I’m grateful he shared his journey on the road to recovery with me. Of course, we ended the year with the abrupt closure of the Washington Bridge – looking into what happened behind the scenes with that major event will keep our office busy into the new year.

As if your investigative work was not enough, you are also executive producer and host of WPRI 12’s weekly Newsmakers show. Who were some of the guests this year? 

David Cicilline’s surprise announcement that he was leaving Congress had a significant impact on Newsmakers. We spent months interviewing candidates, moderating debates, and breaking it all down with multiple political roundtables. (Digesting the ups and downs of the campaign cycle with Ted Nesi, Joe Fleming and other analysts tend to be my favorite episodes.) We’ve repeatedly had on every member of Rhode Island’s federal delegation as well as political leaders in Massachusetts. As we do every year, we make sure we have the state’s leaders on regularly: the House speaker, Senate president, attorney general, etc.

I started hosting Newsmakers full time in 2008 (Ted Nesi joined me as co-host in 2012), and it’s one of the best parts of my job. I think there is so much value in long-form interviews that allow breathing room to explore big topics at length. I’m also proud that we are carrying on a long tradition; Newsmakers has been on the air since 1979, and my father Jack was a previous host.

OK, now some of your background. Where did you grow up and what college did you graduate from, with what degree

I was born in Newport, but when I was just a wee lad, we moved to Massachusetts. I grew up on Cape Cod, in Barnstable, where my mom Beth still lives. I graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1996 with a B.A. in communications.

What came next? 

I worked in print when I was at UMass, then changed mediums to radio for a few years after college (including as the morning drive news anchor for a rock station on the Cape). An internship at WBZ-TV in Boston my junior year eventually led to a part-time job in that newsroom, and then I was offered a full-time gig as an assignment editor at WFXT (now Boston 25). In 1999 I returned to WBZ-TV as what’s called a planning editor — think of it as an advance person handling coverage for major events like the New Hampshire presidential primary. I worked at WBZ for nine years — ultimately as their managing editor — before coming to WPRI in 2006. The best part of my time at WBZ was meeting my future wife, Melissa. Our oldest, Eliza, was born in 2006, followed by Dylan in 2008.

Talk about the influence of your late father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack White. As you know, I was his friend dating back to when we were both staff writers at The Cape Cod Times decades ago (and I had the honor of writing his obituary while I was at The Providence Journal after he died suddenly in 2005.) 

You honored my dad with that obituary, I remember it well.

Growing up as Jack White’s son was like living in an investigative reporting master class every day. He was the most principled person I have ever met. I would often join dad at work when he was a reporter for the Cape Cod Times, and watched him every night on TV when he returned to Rhode Island and WPRI in the mid-1980s. He instilled a passion for the job, and boy did he make reporting look so damn cool.

When I started working in the industry, dad was my best and toughest editor. Candidly, when he passed away in 2005, I felt adrift for a while … it was incredibly painful. But I know how fortunate I was to have learned from him for decades. He had such a respect for journalism and its power. I recall him once telling me, “Remember, when you do a story on someone, it is one of the most important moments of their life, so get it right.” Now, I was in third grade working on a story for my elementary school newspaper when he said that – so he could be intense. But I wouldn’t trade any of it. I’m lucky that 18 years after he died, I still encounter people all the time who knew my father and tell me how much they admired him.

Oh, and he was a hell of a hockey player, so I learned to skate practically before I could walk. That was fun.

Among your many other achievements is the degree you earned in 2022 from the Roger Williams University School of Law. Why did you pursue that degree and how has it influenced your journalism? 

In 2019 I was approached by the then-dean of RWU School of Law, Michael Yelnosky, who thought I would be a good fit to enroll in the master’s program there. After covering the American legal system for more than two decades, I thought I knew almost everything there was to know about the courts. My first day of class on campus in Bristol – in “Criminal Law” with Professor Emily Sack – set me straight on that. My instructors at RWU gave me a much deeper understanding of the law, and that has helped inform my reporting enormously.

It has also helped me fight for public access to government. Keep in mind, local newsrooms no longer employ full-time First Amendment attorneys, so reporters are now largely left on our own when we are tussling with a government agency over a public record or open meeting. The lessons I learned at the law school have helped me make better arguments when penning a public records complaint, and given me the tools to conduct proper legal research when appealing the inevitable “no” we get when trying to get our hands on a document that belongs to the people. To be clear: I am not an attorney – a friend has dubbed me a “fauxttorney” – but Yelnosky was right that my education at RWU School of Law has made me a better reporter.

It’s also opened up other doors outside the newsroom. I’m teaching my fourth Media Law and Ethics course in the communications department at Roger Williams University this spring. I’m told it’s the course communications majors dread, but I try and make it as fun as the law allows.

And yet another achievement: Tell us about “The Last Good Heist,” a book you co-authored. 

When I was a kid I would pester my dad to tell me tales from the trenches, and I had a particular fascination with stories about organized crime (Dad covered the Patriarca crime family in its heyday). One of my favorites was the brazen 1975 robbery of a secret bank of safe deposit boxes hidden inside the Hudson Fur Storage building on Cranston Street in Providence. It was a bank, of sorts, used largely by made members of the mob and their associates. I kept telling my dad that he should sit down – with all that free time I apparently thought he had commuting from Cape Cod to East Providence and back every day – and write a book about it.

When he died in 2005, I vowed to see that through.

The first think I did was call former Projo scribe Wayne Worcester, who was then a professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut. Simply put, he was the best writer I had ever read. Wayne and I then tracked down the globe-trotting Randy Richard (which was harder than it sounds), who was an investigative reporter at the Journal with my dad. One of Randy’s talents is an uncanny gift for getting people to talk to him.

It took us more than six years to research what happened to all the characters from the heist, due in no small part to several of the main players having been swallowed up by the Witness Protection Program. Among them: the lead gunman who the mob wanted snuffed out. (We found him, but you’ll have to read the book to find out where.)

It wasn’t easy getting the book published coming out of a recession, but in 2015 our agent inked a deal with a publisher, and it was printed the next year. I learned a lot from Wayne and Randy working on that project, and they are like family to me now. In many ways I also feel I got closer to my father, retracing his steps reporting out the heist in its early days.

I think I was right, for what it’s worth, that the story did make a damn good book. And I hope dad thinks so, too. The inscription on the inside is simple: “For Jack.”   

What advice do you have for young people who are studying journalism or starting in their careers, whether in broadcast, print, digital or other media? 

For budding journalists, understand what a noble profession it is, and – despite what others may say – know that it is a cornerstone of a free society. The last time I checked, a free press was one of the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment. It’s not always the easiest job (and certainly not the most lucrative), but it’s immensely important. Good journalists help people cut through all the noise. To do that, you have to be a good writer, and that goes for print, broadcast, digital – any medium you pick. You could be the best reporter in the world — digging up critical information that is vitally important for the public to know — but if you can’t effectively communicate your findings, what good is it? To be a good writer, you need to read good writers, emulate them.

It’s also important to understand that reporters don’t necessarily have to be experts. Our job is to find the answers and the truth at the heart of the matter. In that light, reporters have to be resourceful, don’t take anything at face value, question everything, and go into every story with an open mind.

Finally, it’s critical to understand how powerful journalism can be, and respect that. Someone once told me when you do a story on someone it’s one of the most important moments of their life, so get it right. It was pretty good advice, if you ask me.

How are you feeling about the media industry as a whole, and the future of journalism.

I’m worried.

Reporters don’t work on commission; if I have a report that garners huge ratings or a million page views online, my paycheck doesn’t change. But what we see today are platforms that incentivize content creators to generate as much material as they can to get clicks, because the more views, the more money. The problem is that has also incentivized people to generate content that feeds into people’s beliefs rather than challenge them. As a result, people have been flooded with misinformation and conspiracy theories by those who brand themselves as journalists, when in reality they’re modern-day snake oil salesmen who profit off anyone who will watch their outrage porn on YouTube. There are plenty of examples of the societal damage this has done in recent years. Some is a result of the contraction of the newspaper industry: there are simply fewer reporters getting answers, so misinformation has filled that vacuum.

Maybe to a certain extent because of that, attacks on journalism have also hit a fever pitch. I can’t count how many times one of my colleagues is out covering a run-of-the-mill school committee meeting and gets an angry finger pointed in their face by some member of the public who has been told by those in power we’re the enemy. (As if reporting on a school committee meeting is the genesis of all the country’s woes?) Public officials, too, have increasingly found that blaming “the media” is an easy path to explaining away a critical report. It’s nothing new, of course, but that page of the communications playbook is no longer used solely by national figures, and has been adopted by some elected officials at the state and local level, too. It’s been my experience, however, that those who attack journalism usually have something to hide.

That said, I see signs of encouragement. More independent and nonprofit news organizations have sprung up, and they are providing reliable information to communities that may have gone uncovered since the big daily newspaper in their state closed a bureau in their community. I have also seen local TV news – Americans’ most trusted news source in almost all polling – invest in more enterprise and investigative reporting. Every news outlet is going to cover the tragic car accidents, fires, and severe weather. And that coverage is important. But if the core mission of a free press is to act as a watchdog, local news outlets need to lean into enterprise reporting. The community must feel the value we provide directly, or we’ll go extinct, and democracy will suffer.

What’s next for Tim White? 

Whatever Rhode Island throws at me.