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R.I.P. Providence Phoenix Publisher Steven L. Brown

Published
UPDATE: Memorial Service for Steve To Be Held Sunday, June 5th at Fort Getty Park in Jamestown, R.I. from 3 to 7 p.m. Hope to See All Of Steve's Many...

UPDATE: Memorial Service for Steve To Be Held Sunday, June 5th at Fort Getty Park in Jamestown, R.I.  from 3 to 7 p.m. Hope to See All Of Steve's Many Friends and Colleagues There.

Stephen L. Brown, founder of the Vermont Vanguard Press, longtime publisher of the Providence Phoenix and a leader for nearly four decades in New England’s alternative newspaper industry, died Monday at Rhode Island Hospital after suffering a heart attack. He was 62.

Brown has endured health challenges in recent years with his usual mix of grit and humor. He was a grand companion, whether on the golf course and the 19th hole, at Fenway Park or grilling swordfish in his backyard. He especially enjoyed Pawtucket Red Sox games at McCoy Stadium.

A burly, friendly, funny and smart fellow, he was as at home dealing with the senators, governors and members of Congress who wooed him for Phoenix political endorsements as he was with the rock club and strip bar owners who bought advertising. He loved a nice lunch at Camille’s or the Capital Grille, but retreated after work for drinks at Nick-a-Nees, a Providence dive.

Brown, of Jamestown, R.I., started in newspapering at the `Vermont Cynic’ the student newspaper at the University of Vermont, where he majored in communications, graduating in 1976.

After UVM he landed in Boston, where he began his career as an advertising salesman at the Boston Phoenix. A street-savvy fellow, Brown soon took charge of harvesting advertising from retailers on tony Newbury Street at a time when the Phoenix was locked in competition with the Real Paper, the other alternative paper in the city.

The Phoenix was an incubator for journalists who would become among the nation’s great writers, including Dave O’Brien, Caroline Knapp, Charlie Pierce, David Denby and sports guru George Kimball. One of Brown’s first assignments was to make an ad trade deal with a boutique shoe store for a pair of fancy boots  Kimball coveted.

Brown inhaled the heady atmosphere of the Phoenix, spending evenings among the raffish and brilliant denizens of the Eliot Lounge, the legendary Back Bay writers-and-runners hangout. He learned the business side of journalism from such Phoenix icons as Barry Morris and Steven Mindich, a mentor.

At age 23, he returned to Burlington to pursue his brash dream of running his own alternative weekly. Burlington at the time was evolving from a dozy New England college town into the multicultural, tech, foodie and arts hub  it is today.

In the 1970s there was town and gown and the twain rarely mingled. UVM students hardly left the campus cloister save for expeditions to such gritty North Street taverns as Tut’s and the Redwood, where the legal drinking age was widely winked at.

A night out at a restaurant meant Bove’s, a hole-in-the-wall run by a local right-wing crank who served generous portions of mediocre Italian fare. The media was controlled by WCAX, a conservative television outlet; the Burlington Free Press, a conservative newspaper that had recently been sold to the Gannett chain; and the Vermont Sunday News, the Vermont arm of arch right-winger William Loeb’s Manchester Union Leader.

In stark contrast was a demographic change that washed over Vermont’s largest city. Graduates of UVM, many like Brown, from the New York and Boston suburbs, stayed in the city after graduation. The drinking and voting ages both dropped to 18. These new Vermonters were infused with the political and social ferment of the 1960s and 1970s that began in Vermont with Phil Hoff’s 1962 election as governor. They would move Vermont politics to the left.

The Vanguard chronicled these changes and nurtured the careers of a new group of Vermont journalists and photojournalists, including Paula Routly, Pamela Polston, Ron MacNeil, Josh Mamis, Rob Swanson, Greg Guma, Peter Freyne,  Glenn Russell, Jeff Polman, Rick Kisonak, and most notably, John Dillon, a onetime Brown housemate and now the news director at Vermont Public Radio.

``He was the best kind of publisher,’’ recalled Dillon. ``He was hands off until you needed him to defend you.’’

The paper covered politics, environmental, cultural and arts issues in a new way that reflected alternative news organizations in much larger cities, particularly the Boston Phoenix. In 1981, Burlington’s politics was upended when Bernie Sanders, a perennial left-wing candidate who had never held elected political office, captured City Hall by winning a four-way race by 10 votes. The next morning over breakfast at the Oasis Diner, Brown joked with  a Free Press reporter, saying, ``It looks like its our town now.’’

Of course, incumbent Mayor Gordon Paquette’s Democratic machine, mired in the politics of patronage and transaction, had become so rusty it couldn’t steal a 10-vote election. Paquette was the last Vermont political figure I remember who referred to UVM as Jew-vee-em.

Brown and his partner, Nat Winthrop, also a fine writer, kept the Vanguard afloat for about a decade. Then Brown won a fellowship to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. After he earned his masters degree, his old Phoenix bosses approached him about running their money-losing Providence edition, the Providence Phoenix.

Brown turned the paper around, increased advertising and pursued journalistic excellence. He was as comfortable in the boardroom as in the lunch room. He was generous and loved by employees; he gave people second and third chances and hated firing anyone.

As was the case in Vermont, Brown nurtured fine journalistic talent, including editors Lisa Prevost, Lou Papineau, Jody Ericson, Kathleen Hughes, David Scharfenberg, now at the Boston Globe,  and my friend and colleague, Ian Donnis, political reporter at RI Public Radio, Rhode Island’s NPR affiliate. Dogged by competition from the Internet, the Providence Phoenix outlasted its Boston parent but eventually folded.

Brown planted roots in Rhode Island, marrying Jean MacGregor Brown, a Providence television reporter, who survives. The couple had one child, Jessica Brown, a recent University of Rhode Island graduate who also survives. He also leaves his father, Kenneth Gay Brown; his mother, Elizabeth Woods Brown; his stepmother, Virginia Clarke Brown;  his brother Michael Scott Brown, also a UVM grad;  his sister Susan Elizabeth Brown and her husband Chip Gallagher; his sister Katie Brown Lawton and her husband Glenn Lawton; and nephews Ryder Haske and Thomas Woods Lawton. Funeral arrangements have not been finalized.

``I was really lucky in that I got to work with really talented, smart people who really gave a damn about delivering a different point of view on stories in the mainstream press and on covering stories that were ignored by other media,’’ Brown said when he retired from the Phoenix in 2014.

Steve Brown
Steve Brown