What Happened to the Boston Phoenix?
And can it rise again?
Thirty years ago, the Phoenix was the essential paper for a new generation of readers: those interested in a smart, countercultural alternative to the offerings of the mainstream press. Its writers and editors, many of whom are now among the most distinguished in American journalism, surveyed the landscape here in the city and created an enduring body of work in culture, the arts, politics, even sports. Its music section was read nationally, exerting—along with the Village Voice and Rolling Stone—a powerful influence on early rock criticism. The Phoenix helped develop an entire genre of writing, media criticism, that is now a staple in most papers and magazines. The paper was lucrative for its owner, Stephen Mindich. It was important.
Today the Phoenix is fighting to survive in a radically different environment. All media have suffered in the age of the Internet, of course, but alt weeklies have taken the worst of it: They’ve lost not only their most profitable revenue source, classified ads, but also their monopoly on the alternative ethic, and they have been unusually slow in establishing compelling and profitable websites. Many have folded, and nearly all of the survivors have seen both readership and advertising decline dramatically. In the past two years, for instance, the Chicago Reader has been redesigned and sold, and both the Village Voice and SF Weekly have let go key staff writers. The Phoenix itself has fared better than most, but it, too, has suffered financially and has had to make difficult cuts in staff and coverage. “Since 2008,” Mindich says, “we have navigated through rough seas.”
In May, Mindich, who has owned the paper for more than four decades, sold its sister radio station, WFNX, and laid off all but four of the station’s 13 staffers. For several weeks this past summer, it seemed likely that the same fate would befall the paper—Mindich is 69, after all, and he seems to have been making plans to retire for years. But in August he surprised everybody by announcing that he would make a new run at profitability, by transforming the Phoenix into a glossy weekly magazine. Ever since, he’s been putting in long hours at the office.
The new Phoenix, the first issue of which appeared on September 20, is a bold, colorful hybrid. Mindich took the Phoenix and Stuff, a lifestyle magazine he also owns, and combined them into a single glossy publication. For the most part, what you’ll find in the new magazine are traditional but abbreviated Phoenix stories, like Lloyd Schwartz’s classical-music reviews and David Bernstein’s sharp political analysis, only now they’re stacked next to photo-heavy fashion spreads. At times, though, there are some odd departures—the feature story in the Halloween issue, for example, was an apparently credulous profile of a ghost hunter.
Not surprisingly, the sale of WFNX and the transformation of the Phoenix have been portrayed in some circles as the end of a grand era in Boston media and even in American journalism. Salon weighed in on October 6 with an article titled “Goodbye, Alt-Weeklies,” in which Will Doig claimed that the old paper had disappeared in a “puff of newsprint.” The next day, the editor in chief of the Phoenix, Carly Carioli, responded by calling the Salon article “shamelessly shoddy,” and rejected its charge that the publication is substantively different. “We have said for decades that we are a magazine in newsprint form,” he wrote. “Now we’re a magazine in magazine form.”
By all accounts, Mindich remains devoted to the idea of alternative media. The Phoenix is his life’s work, and the shift to glossy has the feel of a real effort for survival, not a last-ditch move to sell. But can you save a publication that for many years has been neither lucrative nor especially relevant?
Mindich is short, balding, and wears a mustache and a long ponytail. He’s smart and talks with a smoker’s rasp. He can be polarizing, but he is also respected. “I hated his guts,” says Joe Keohane, the former editor of the Weekly Dig, who has also worked for Boston magazine, “but I still came away kind of admiring his scrappiness.” Mindich identifies as a progressive, but he occasionally strays into libertarian territory. In the early 1980s he busted an attempt to form a union and physically fought a janitor who’d been organizing, and in 2002 he made national headlines when his paper’s website linked to a video of the beheading of the journalist Daniel Pearl. Rick Gallagher, the Phoenix’s CFO and COO until 2010, says Mindich is a patriot, “a defender of the right to free speech.” When I asked Mindich what appealed to him about journalism, he responded with a quote from Oscar Wilde: “Somebody—was it Burke?—called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time, no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate.”After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Boston University, Mindich started at the Phoenix as a writer in 1967, when the paper was only a year old and called Boston After Dark. He soon became its publisher and part owner, and in 1972, he bought the competition, the Cambridge Phoenix, and renamed his paper the Boston Phoenix. Right from the start, he told me, he had two goals for the Phoenix. He wanted it to be a destination for young readers interested in the arts and culture, and he wanted to provide a “higher standard of commentary” than was then available in Boston. He succeeded on both counts. The Globe and the Herald didn’t understand music or the arts, and by hiring writers who did, the Phoenix quickly captured an important new audience. Its writers had space for long reviews and were not bound by the staid traditions of daily papers. They could swear. If an album sucked, they could say so. “The news organizations were trapped in a way of presenting news,” says Marty Linsky, who from 1975 to 1979 edited the Real Paper, a rival alt weekly that Mindich bought in 1981. “They weren’t helping readers understand what was going on, and it created a huge opportunity.”