The paper’s longtime-owners, a group of wealthy Rhode Island families who have controlled the Dispatch since the Civil War, always ran the place as a public service. For decades, they held out against the nationwide trend of local owners selling out to chains, and Mulligan has been grateful for that. But now, after too many years of declining circulation and advertising, the owners have reluctantly put the paper on the market. And the only suitor is a bottom-feeding media conglomerate that cares about nothing but the bottom line.
Mulligan is a wisecracking tough guy. Not much phases him. But he shudders when he thinks about what’s coming. For him, investigative reporting has always been a calling—like the priesthood but without the sex. But he’s in his forties now, and he knows his days as a newspaperman are numbered. He doubts he could ever be any good at anything else.
From where he sits, other metropolitan newspapers aren’t much of an option. Nearly all of them, hemorrhaging readers and revenue, have become mere shells of the vital institutions they once were. And few of them are hiring. They are laying people off.
Television news and online news websites don’t look like much of an option either. Network television news departments, never all that great to begin with, have shriveled into irrelevance. Twenty-four-hour cable news channels spew endless loops of trivial celebrity gossip, provide soap boxes for blowhards, and poison the public discourse with partisan distortions and misinformation. And the handful of internet news websites striving to be more than propaganda organs for the left and right lack the revenue streams required to cover the news with breadth and depth.
Mulligan, the protagonist of my Edgar Award-winning series of hardboiled crime novels, sees nothing on the horizon to replace newspapers as honest brokers of information. He’s appalled at how much damage their demise is doing to the American democracy.
If I were younger, I’d be in the same fix Mulligan is in. In recent years, I grew weary of being part of a rear-guard action and dispirited over the inevitability of the journalism’s decline. But I fought the good fight. The last major project I oversaw as a senior Associated Press editor, an investigative series about the exploitation of child gold miners in Africa, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. But five years ago, when the AP offered an early retirement package—part of its own retrenchment in the face of economic pressures—I decided it was time for a second act.
I’m a full-time novelist now, and the third novel in my Mulligan crime series, Providence Rag, will be published in hardcover and e-book editions on March 11. The book has already received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Booklist.
In each Mulligan novel, my protagonist shows his grit by investigating crime and corruption in the state of his birth. In Rogue Island, he investigates an arson spree that is destroying the working class Providence, R.I., neighborhood where he was raised. In Cliff Walk, he investigates political corruption that has allowed the state’s rampant sex trade to thrive. And in Providence Rag, he and the entire state struggle with the ethical dilemma of what to do about a psychopath who is being held in prison on phony charges because he is too dangerous to be set loose.
I want my novels to be enjoyed as suspenseful entertainment—but they are also about something more. It is my hope that as readers follow the skill and dedication with which Mulligan pursues the truth under increasingly difficult circumstances, they will gain a greater appreciation for what all of us are losing as newspapers fade into history
You can place pre-orders for Providence Rag here.
This article first appeared in Kevin’s Corner, Kevin Tipple’s fine blog, which you can find here.