After decades at the Journal, Alan Rosenberg is looking forward to his next act

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Alan Rosenberg retired on Dec. 1, 2020, leaving behind a nearly 43-year career in journalism at the Providence Journal.

Originally from Chicago, Rosenberg graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and came to Providence to start his career in the Journal’s Greenville Bureau. He covered a variety of beats as he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the features editor, then managing editor, and then, in 2017, executive editor.

Rosenberg and wife, Avis, are longtime members of Temple Beth-El, in Providence, where they taught in the religious school. They have three adult children and live in Warwick.

Jewish Rhode Island interviewed Rosenberg a few weeks after he retired. Here are excerpts from that interview:

How’s retired life treating you?

So far, so good. I’ve had a lot of different things to do. I’ve not had a feeling of ‘what do I do next?’ It’s less of a transition than if I was going downtown every day; I hadn’t been in the newsroom since March [due to the pandemic]. There’s not a change of venue.

I don’t know what it’s going to be like. It’s very strange. It’s not something I was planning for. It kind of came up.

Where did you see your career going when you graduated from journalism school?

I had this rough plan. Go someplace like Providence – a good, midsize paper – that would in five years lead to the next step. I did start looking. Then I met a young lady from Cranston, and I put the job search on temporary hold.

I met Avis at a Passover seder. I only realized later that it was a setup. It took several months to work through that (she was interested and I was not). We kept running into each other. We got married two years to the day after we met at that seder.

I was happy to be at the Journal all these years and not worry about the bigger pond because the Journal was such a great place.

Providence was a good mix both in terms of the newspaper …  and Rhode Island was nicely situated between Boston and New York, but you had a place where you could raise a family and a place with a great community that you didn’t get with the bigger places.

Did you ever think twice about coming here as a nice Jewish boy from Chicago?

I never factored that in. There’s a Jewish community everywhere. People in the community seemed surprised I was at the Journal. There was this image of the Journal as a Protestant, a WASP, institution. I never found that to be true. I did very occasionally find a lack of knowledge, but … I never sensed any hostility or swimming upstream.

What would you tell people just starting out in journalism?

It’s a tough time for journalists. It’s a tough time in many ways.  We’ve seen over the last several years that journalists are targeted across the spectrum. People expect you to be their ally. That’s a dangerous term. It’s not our role as a journalist to be anybody’s ally. It’s our role to tell important stories. Once you declare an ally, you are forfeiting your objectivity.

It’s also a tough time in terms of trying to make a living as a journalist. We’ve seen the number of jobs cut in half. Young people coming out of school are getting hurt, while the ones with jobs are just trying to hang on. At the same time, there are a number of bright journalists coming out of school.

[And] this is a multimedia job. Today’s young journalists have to be skilled across the board.

The future of print journalism?

I don’t know. There is still an audience that wants print. Print subscribers still respond to advertising. Advertisers still stick with print. Many younger readers are not terribly interested in print. I also think that that is not necessarily the right question.

What is the Providence Journal, and, by extension, other print media? Is it the piece of paper or the journalism on that piece of paper?  The Journal works hard to pivot to digital because the future is digital. What’s important is the quality of the journalism and the objectivity of the journalism. If you’ve got those values and if you maintain that in the digital space, then whether it’s printed on a piece of paper ultimately doesn’t matter.

How did you decide what to cover in the face of shrinking resources?

What are the stories that we absolutely need to tell? What are the stories that nobody else is going to tell? You make the choices. These are not easy choices, especially when the story that was close to your heart was one that nobody was reading. We have numbers that tell us who is reading what.

Have the readers changed?

It’s a question of image. The audience has skewed older with people who have the newspaper habit. I’m not sure that younger people in general are interested in the kind of local news the Journal does. I think they are interested in the news in their town [but] I’m not sure they care about what’s going on at the State House. We have seen fewer people with families picking up the paper.

We are dealing with a secular change. Younger people in general don’t know what a newspaper is. Don’t read them, haven’t seen them. Not just in Rhode Island. If they are going to encounter the Journal’s journalism, they will do it online.

What’s next for you?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m eager to find out. It just felt like the right time to make a change. This is a chance to reset and find out what I want to do next, which is something I hadn’t thought about at all. There’s probably a next act, but what that next act is, I don’t know yet.

What are you reading?

I’m in the middle of the second book of Simon Schama’s “The Story of the Jews.” I read Politico’s newsletter every morning and a couple of Poynter [Institute for Media Studies] newsletters.

I’m listening to audiobooks. I’m still doing my audio column [in the Providence Journal]. I’m in the middle of an audiobook that takes off from the college-admissions scandal.

I just finished the latest issue of Moment magazine. And I read Sports Illustrated, which I’ve been reading on and off since I was a kid.

Are you a kugel or a knish?

Oh, kugel … noodle kugel, the sweet kind with the raisins.

If you could invite three people to dinner, who would they be?

Barbra Streisand, I think. One of the great entertainers of all time and someone that I have had a mild crush on forever.

Bob Woodward. He’s seen so much and done so much and is an icon of journalism.

The Baal Shem Tov [Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, founder of the Hasidic movement]. He must have just had such an interesting mind to have originated the brand of Judaism that he did that to converse with him would be fascinating, presuming we had the same language.

FRAN OSTENDORF (fostendorf@jewishallianceri.org) is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.