What Happened to the Boston Phoenix?
And can it rise again?
The former WFNX host Jim Murray says that his three years at the station, which ended in 2010, represent “easily the most fun, creative, familylike atmosphere I’ve ever had the opportunity to work in.” But the strategy ultimately failed. Brad Mindich and Gallagher both say the sales staff resisted centralizing, and that there were minor skirmishes over who would get access to the biggest advertisers. According to two former salespeople, employees were accustomed to Morris resolving these kinds of disputes, but Brad preferred not to intervene. By 2009, former staffers say, Brad had developed a reputation as an uninterested and even ineffective boss.
At the same time, the economy tanked, and, according to a former sales executive with access to the paper’s financial records, in the years that followed, revenues generated by Stuff and the Phoenix (which still maintains newsprint editions in Portland and Providence) declined dramatically. Brad and his team felt that the paper was overstaffed and underperforming financially, which reportedly led to clashes with Gould, the editor, who opposed cutting political and arts coverage, and with both Stephen Mindich and the executive editor, Peter Kadzis, who also opposed cuts to the editorial staff. Brad, for his part, acknowledges that there were “tough discussions” but denies that anything escalated to the level of clashes. “Everyone worked together,” he says, “and we got done what we needed to get done.”
By 2009, according to Rick Gallagher, the company was out of cash. Employees at WFNX and the Phoenix began noticing that bills were going unpaid. Three former WFNX hosts told me that an electric-company rep once appeared at the station’s headquarters in Lynn’s old Arts Building to collect payment, and that a staff member had to write a personal check to keep the lights on. FedEx refused to pick up packages at the Phoenix offices, and several people from both WFNX and the paper told me that their 401(k) accounts were not funded on schedule. Stephen Mindich acknowledges that the Phoenix did indeed have “cash-flow problems that resulted in some of our vendors not being paid on a timely basis,” and that during a single pay period in 2010 his finance department failed to make “certain contributions,” a problem he fixed in compliance with all state and federal regulations as soon as it was discovered. “We were no more immune to the exigencies of the Great Recession than anybody else,” he says.
In April 2010, Stephen hired an outside consultant, and the next month, the company laid off three executives who had been hired by Brad: Gallagher; the corporate controller, Michael Notkin; and the assistant corporate controller, Chris Crandall. The moves were seen as a repudiation of Brad’s business plan, and by late 2011 Brad had ceased regularly coming into the office. This past spring, Brad announced he was leaving the company to start an entertainment consulting firm. “For the first time in my entire working life,” he says, he and Stephen are interacting “simply as father and son, which is great for both of us.”
Since the mid-1980s, the Phoenix has operated out of a 32,000-square-foot brick building at 126 Brookline Avenue, right around the corner from Fenway Park, but this past summer Mindich sold part of the space and moved editorial operations upstairs to a smaller office on the third floor.
The company isn’t standing still, however. On October 31, Carioli and the music editor, Michael Marotta, relaunched WFNX as an Internet radio station. It plays the same mix of music as the old station, although most of the former WFNX staff is now working for the Globe at a Web radio station called RadioBDC. Carioli told me that he eventually hopes to reintroduce sportswriting to the Phoenix, and he is exploring ways to include more technology coverage. But so far the magazine is relatively unchanged from its old newsprint self. “It seems to me it’s the same Phoenix, but it’s the same Phoenix in a slicker skin,” Jack Shafer, Reuters’ media critic and a former alt-weekly editor, told me. “I think that they’ve made a very smart decision.” According to Kadzis, the staff has been happy with the relaunch, and Northeastern’s Dan Kennedy says that the core reporting and criticism haven’t changed. “They still have that alternative edge,” he says.
Though hurt by the recession, magazines have indeed done better than newspapers, and glossy city magazines have done better still. In June and July, there were rumors that the Phoenix was being shopped to potential buyers, but Kadzis says Mindich was unable to bring himself to sell. “Anyone who knows Stephen knows he’s a fighter,” he says. “It’s as simple as that.” In an interview with WGBH in August, Mindich said he “could not see walking away” without a last attempt to turn things around. That seems to imply some finality: Either Mindich makes the new Phoenix profitable soon, or he’s done.