Beacon publisher celebrates 50 years at helm of Warwick paper

West Bay

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — On Wednesday evenings, you’re sure to find John Howell behind his keyboard. It’s deadline day, after all, and Howell is putting the Warwick Beacon to bed just as he has for the past 50 years.

Howell and his then-business partner, Anthony Ritocco, bought the Beacon back in December 1969. The pair met working at the East Providence Post, where Howell had taken his first editor’s job. When they saw the Beacon was for sale, they raised the money to buy the newspaper — $40,000 — in a week’s time by selling stocks. The pair hit the ground running.

Howell remembers his first story for the Warwick paper: a developer had plans to build a 10-story hotel on Chepiwanoxet Island. Howell had been scouring records to try to get the exclusive before the half-dozen or so other Warwick beat reporters were able to figure it out. He succeeded and published the first of what would be countless scoops. The hotel was never built.

“It’s been a long ride, one that’s gone awfully quickly,” Howell told Eyewitness News in an interview Wednesday, shortly after sending the paper off to press. “I am sure at the time when I started, I never would have imagined I’d be here 50 years later doing the same thing.”

When Howell and Ritocco bought the paper, Howell was just 28. The pair eventually went their separate ways, and Howell expanded his Rhode Island media empire to include other local papers like the Johnston Sun Rise and Cranston Herald, as well as magazines under the Providence Media Group umbrella.

The Beacon is now a biweekly paper, publishing on both Tuesdays and Thursdays. In 1969, circulation was roughly 7,000. It late rose to an all-time high of 12,000, but has now dropped to around 6,000, something Howell pins on social media and the internet.

Still, he says, there’s something special about print.

“You’ve got your news online, but you can’t clip out the honor roll and with a magic marker circle your son’s name and stick it on the fridge,” Howell said. “I think there will always be a demand for a print version of the paper.”

The Beacon, according to Howell, also fills the unique role that so many community newspapers do: it’s a place where news about municipal politics is printed alongside a feature on the local Eagle Scout’s award-winning science fair project.

Howell isn’t just the one editing that news and sending reporters to it — he’s often the one gathering it. It’s something he wouldn’t have any other way.

“Talking to people, meeting people, learning from people,” he said. “I enjoy that aspect of it and then I find myself wanting to tell that story to, quote, ‘the rest of the world.'”

Warwick Mayor Joseph Solomon said Howell hasn’t just covered the city, he’s become a part of it.

“His involvement in so many civic groups and charitable causes and events over the past 50 years has certainly made our community richer, and the people who live and work here the better for it,” Solomon said in a statement to Eyewitness News.

Tom Ward, who founded the Valley Breeze newspapers, said Howell is a fixture of the Rhode Island media scene.

“I salute John,” Ward said. “It’s an amazing accomplishment. Fifty years in the business and still going strong. Everyone in the media knows John and he’s a real gentleman and pleasure to be around.”

In his half-century at the Beacon, Howell said it’s hard to pick a favorite story or standout moment, but said there’s something special about making an impact. He recalled writing an editorial about Rocky Point, setting in motion a series of events that led to the land becoming the public park it is today.

He also reflected fondly on all the staff members and interns who have come through his doors, saying he enjoys imparting knowledge to younger generations of budding reporters and watching where life takes them.

At 78, Howell has no immediate plans to retire, though he did would consider handing over the reins if the right successor or buyer came along – though the buyer needs to be local.

For now, Howell still rises before 5 a.m. and puts in 60 to 70 hours a week. It’s curiosity, he says, that keeps him going.

“There’s always another story,” he said. “So why slow down?” 

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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