What Happened to the Boston Phoenix?
And can it rise again?
It won’t be easy. People told me that to make money the magazine would need to boost revenue in the second half of 2012 by between 25 and 30 percent. The first issue of the redesign ran to 118 pages, but the following six issues came in at around 90, roughly a third of which were devoted to ads. That ratio, according to several people with knowledge of the Phoenix’s advertising rate base and financial situation, is simply not enough to keep the company afloat. In November, when I asked Mindich via email how much time he was willing to give the new format, he replied that he was optimistic about the potential to increase revenue and did not feel a need to put in place a time frame. (And perhaps things are looking up. The November 9 issue had 110 pages.) Unlike many alt weeklies, the Phoenix has seen its circulation stay constant in recent years, at just above 100,000. “At this point the response to our new format has been universally positive,” Mindich wrote. “And it is still early in terms of the sales cycle.”
In the past two years, in an apparent attempt to stand out, the Phoenix has become sharper and more opinionated, most notably in a series of aggressive stories on the Occupy movement by the writer Chris Faraone (who has contributed to Boston magazine in the past). One former Phoenix news editor told me that the Occupy stories would not have made the cut in the early 2000s, less for reasons of ideology than for reasons of editorial quality or newsworthiness. The Phoenix has always skewed left, but its political writing in the 1970s and 1980s was rarely strident. Marty Linsky, the Real Paper editor, told me that moving hard to the left may be one of a few remaining ways for alt weeklies to attract attention. “I think, in some respects, that’s the only avenue left, to be politically radical,” he says. On November 1, Carioli ran an article by the former Atlantic and Globe staffer Wen Stephenson that attacked the mainstream media’s coverage of global warming. Stephenson would like to see climate change covered as a crisis, not a debate. The piece was angry and polemical, and at times it read more like a pose than a genuine critique. But like Faraone’s writing, it has attracted plenty of attention.
One problem for alternative weeklies in 2012 is that their place in the modern media landscape is poorly defined. What are they now alternative to? Mainstream news organizations in the United States are far more diverse and permissive than even a decade ago, and you can find just about any alternative you want online. In substance, mainstream and alternative papers haven’t been all that different for a long time. “The evidence of this is how easily alt-weekly all-stars go to dailies and magazines and succeed,” Jack Shafer says. “They’re less important the way the Boston Globe and the Washington Post are less important. It’s more competition, more voices.” And so the challenge is daunting for alt weeklies: less identity, less money, and nimbler competitors.
No publication should be judged strictly against the standards of a bygone era, so it’s not fair to compare the glossy Phoenix of today to the classified-ad-supported paper of 1980. But the differences are stark. In 2001 the Phoenix broke the Boston-clergy sex abuse scandal with a series of careful articles on Cardinal Bernard Law. And as recently as September 2002, the paper was able to run two columns in both the dance and theater departments, in addition to feature interviews with playwrights and a full complement of reporting and opinion. The magazine now appears to rely on one provocative feature per issue, along with David Bernstein’s political reporting. There’s no media column, no criticism longer than 450 words, and very little local reporting, especially compared with the Globe.
When I asked Carioli about the earlier eras of the Phoenix, and how he thought it has changed, he said comparing the two is mostly pointless. “I don’t understand the logic,” he said. “Because there are many alternatives, we can’t be one of them? You have to be smart about what you’re good at. And the things that we’re good at, I think we’re better at than the competition.”
He has a point. The Phoenix’s arts coverage remains better than the Globe’s, and Bernstein is a fine political writer, perhaps the best in the state. So maybe the Phoenix will indeed rise again. In his response to Will Doig’s Salon article in October, which seemed to take the Phoenix’s end as a given, Carioli wrote that the paper has never been driven by nostalgia. “So don’t come in here peddling that ‘disappeared’ nonsense,” he wrote. “This isn’t our first evolution, more like our fortieth, and it won’t be our last.”