End of An Era for Boston Media as Phoenix Shuts Down

Originally published in Open Media Boston by Tate Williams (Staff), Mar-15-13

BOSTON - When the Boston Phoenix announced it was shutting down Thursday afternoon—after nearly 50 years of often being at the cutting edge of alternative media—the response was a mix of utter shock and resigned acceptance.

After all, while it had been a staple publication for the city for decades, there was general awareness that it was struggling in a world where classified ads are all online, and “alternative media” has fractured and bled into every corner of the Internet.

But mostly, when the Phoenix sent out that not-a-bang-but-a-whimper tweet (“Thank you Boston. Good night and good luck.”), the response was sadness.

“This is an incredibly sad day,” posted Dan Kennedy, media critic and longtime Phoenix contributor, to his blog. “Farewell, old friend,” tweeted writer Susan Orlean, who started her career there.

Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich announced without notice Thursday at 2 p.m. that it would cease publication, and the current issue in red boxes would be the last. About 40 employees will be let go, and the paper will liquidate its assets, reportedly facing about $1.2 million in debts.

“Yesterday was pretty rough, but I think we’re all incredibly proud of the work that we were able to do,” said Editor Carly Carioli, on the phone from mostly empty Phoenix offices on Friday. “We all felt that we were really going out at the top of our game.”

Carioli said that, while the timing was a shock to the staff, everyone knew there was a limited time following the paper’s recent move to a magazine format to make the publication profitable.

“The hope was that we could salvage something, and start something new and turn around the decline. In that sense, we’d had this sort of crisis 6 to 8 months ago where we turned around and launched a magazine,” he said. “Although it certainly seemed to take a fairly big jump at the beginning, it had begun to taper off.”

The Boston Phoenix changed formats in September to a glossy magazine called “The Phoenix,” combining with other Phoenix Media Group property Stuff Magazine. The hope was that, with classifieds drying up, they could draw some bigger, pricier national advertising.

It was a last stand to make the historic paper survive, and give them a chance to capitalize on what Carioli says has always been their magazine-like approach. But that advertising didn’t follow. While staff remained optimistic at the time, in retrospect it was an extremely heavy lift, he said.

“In the back of all of our minds, we all felt an increasing burden just in terms of the amount of work that it took to put out the magazine.” Carioli said. “There was no sense of, oh this is going to go away right now. But I think after we all stopped yesterday and were looking at each other, we were sort of going, ‘How the hell did we do that for so long?’”

In the aftermath, there will no doubt be debate over whether the paper’s closure was a result of missteps on the part of its owner Stephen Mindich, or just a canary in the coalmine of a rapidly changing media industry that has been particularly hard on large alt weeklies. Print news for years has been hemorrhaging ad sales. Alt weeklies especially, profited for decades from (sometimes racy) personal ads and classifieds. As those ads have gone to craigslist, many weeklies have folded, shrunk, or sold to larger media conglomerates.

The Phoenix, while it has changed significantly over the years, remained independently owned and operated by Mindich, who was on board from the beginning in 1966, when it was Boston After Dark.

The paper evolved into a groundbreaking voice in the progressive movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and expanded to Portland, ME and Providence, and to radio station WFNX. The two other, smaller papers will continue, but WFNX was sold to Clear Channel in 2012.

But Carioli has a hard time faulting Mindich for the paper’s collapse.

“I don’t think that there were any huge managerial lapses or anything like that,” he said. “The thing you have to understand about Stephen, is that he started this thing in 1966, he built it when there was no model for it, he profited from it, and then after it ceased to be profitable, he bankrolled it. It’s impossible for me to see how you criticize somebody who essentially acted and treated it like a nonprofit that was funded out of his own pocket.”

Instead, Carioli, who has also sat on the board of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, said it’s more indicative of larger alt weeklies struggling to compete in their markets for ad sales, while small-to-medium-sized papers like Seven Days in Vermont have actually done fairly well.

He at one point proposed shrinking the paper to an even smaller, cheaper publication to save it, but it was rejected by Mindich, and even that approach was projected to lose almost a million each year. They couldn’t find a sustainable model to keep what they were doing, he said.

Regardless of the especially competitive media market in Boston, Dan Kennedy said the Phoenix’s unique role will be missed. Kennedy was media critic there for 11 years and now teaches at Northeastern University.

“We are going to lose the stuff that the Phoenix is really good at. A progressive orientation to covering the news, deep insight into politics and really great coverage of the arts,” he said.

“I think there was a really fierce intelligence to the Phoenix that was rare for any era, but it was especially rare today since everything is so short and fast. The Phoenix still gave people a chance to stretch out a little bit.”

He cites the article by Chris Faraone, a 10,000-word piece this month that dug into the world of right wing media and Andrew Brietbart as an example of that kind of investment in deep reporting.

“That just isn’t happening anymore at very many places, and that’s what we’re losing.”

Phoenix writers Faraone and Liz Pelly also gave major voice to the Occupy Boston movement. Carioli cited their work at Occupy and the media partnership Anonymous Boston, which focused on the victims of urban violence, as examples of their writers’ dedication to underrepresented populations.

Regarding coverage of such communities, Kennedy said, “It’s just one more voice that they’re losing.”

He pointed out that the Phoenix has always had a large gay and lesbian readership, and at one time had an entire section devoted to GLBT lifestyle, “One In Ten.”

But for some detractors, the idea of an alt weekly itself has become dated and unnecessary. Peter Vigneron, at Boston Magazine, wrote Thursday:

“(T)his is mourning for the Phoenix of 1972, or 1982, or even 2002: the Phoenix has not been the only smart, subversive kid on the block for a decade, at least…I’m sorry to see the Phoenix go, but its demise is one among many, and it’s been leaving us for a long time.”

Salon in October made a similar critique of the platform, headlined “Goodbye alt-weeklies” and claiming the Internet has replaced the role of alternative papers. (Carioli at the time had some colorful, alternative words for its writer that you can read here.)

Today, he still finds the arguments that the Phoenix lost its relevance thin, based on the continuing strong readership right up until its end.

“There are a lot of so-called media experts who actually don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about,” he said. “They would sort of assume that because there was an advertising falloff that there’s an audience falloff, and those are actually two entirely different things.”

But if the audience remained, it was the ads that kept the doors open.

As for what’s next for Boston media, or media in general, both Kennedy and Carioli were hard-pressed for answers. Carioli thinks smart small or mid-sized print weeklies still have a strong future. Otherwise online or smaller publications will need to carry the load.

“It’s really putting such a burden on sites like Open Media (Boston). It’s really going to bring an awful burden to do a lot of the expensive reporting that we were doing—It’s going to have to fall into other hands.”

Kennedy likes the idea of a nonprofit model for alternative media, but doesn’t know how far it can go. Until somebody figures the next phase out, there will be a definite gap to fill, in Boston at least, Kennedy said.

“We need as many diverse voices as possible. We need independent voices. The Phoenix added to the diversity and it was one of the few independent voices.”

Check out the transcript of Tate Williams' interview with the Phoenix's Carly Carioli here.