What Happened To The Phoenix?

And can it rise again?

By Peter Vigneron | Boston Magazine |
what happened to the boston phoenix

Photo by Bob O’Connor / Post-Production by GLP Creative

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.”

what happened to the boston phoenixThe November 9, 2012, issue of the new Phoenix. (Photo by Samantha Carey)

The Phoenix also developed a reputation as a writer’s paper. “It was unique in its function for writers,” says Mark Jurkowitz, who was the Phoenix’s media critic from 1987 through 1994, and again from 2005 to 2006. “It was clearly a place you wanted to go if you were thinking about long-form journalism.” This was especially true for young critics, who had seen a succession of top talent make extended stops at the paper before moving to major national publications. Janet Maslin, the paper’s music and film critic in the early 1970s, left for the New York Times and was succeeded by David Denby. Denby, for his part, ended up at the New Yorker, and was succeeded by Stephen Schiff. And Schiff went to Vanity Fair, but only after training David Edelstein, now the film critic for New York. “It was thrilling to be part of that,” Lloyd Schwartz says.

The Phoenix of the 1970s and 1980s is often remembered as a political paper, and it was indeed strong on state politics, with Sidney Blumenthal, Jon Keller, and Charlie Pierce all contributing. But it had a national reputation, too, built on cultural criticism. “Alternative papers insisted that culture was as important as politics,” Kit Rachlis, the paper’s former music editor, says. “In those days, in newspapers, to be a culture writer was to be on the bottom of the hierarchy.” The Phoenix helped change that. But the moment didn’t last.

 

Until the advent of the Internet, the Phoenix, like so many other papers, made its money on classifieds. It was a source of culture and news, but it was also the place where young people looked when they needed a place to live, or a date, or someone to play in their band. In 1989, Mindich expanded the idea and formed a company called Tele-Publishing Inc., which allowed people to respond to personal ads through voice mail. He licensed the TPI system to alt weeklies across the country and abroad, and eventually the enterprise employed more than 200 people. For a period in the late 1990s, TPI provided one of the largest shares of the company’s revenue, along with the classifieds.

The Internet broke both businesses, almost at the same time. “What has really killed the alt weeklies is that they were so dependent on classified ads,” says Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern who was a media critic at the Phoenix for 11 years. The dating site Match.com alone decimated TPI, which laid off scores of workers before shutting down this past spring.

And advertising wasn’t the only part of the alt-weekly proposition that suffered in the new digital age. “Around 2003, 2004, you could feel all that alternative energy dissipate onto the Web,” Kit Rachlis says. “What was really alternative? It was blogging: the earliest generation of bloggers. And then the economic model for newspapers was just blowing up.”

So was the economic model for radio, which meant trouble for Mindich’s WFNX. The station had never made much money, but it played a key role in discovering new music and helped Mindich make good on his commitment to free expression. In 1997, for example, the station broadcast a live reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, in violation of federal obscenity laws.

Mindich founded WFNX in 1982, but it wasn’t until the explosion of grunge in the early 1990s that the station gained widespread acclaim. Famously, in 1994, a WFNX-sponsored concert at the Hatch Shell featuring Green Day turned into a riot, and in the months that followed, the station achieved some of its highest ratings ever. (According to Brad Mindich, Stephen Mindich’s son, his father had trouble deciding whether to make WFNX a rock or a country station when it launched. Brad, a teenager at the time, insisted that it needed to be rock.)

Just as the Phoenix exploited the opportunity presented by an underserved market for cultural criticism, WFNX did so with the underserved market for music. It was the first station in the city to play bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and it continued to explore alternative music well into the 2000s, with a four-hour show on Sunday nights devoted to local bands. WFNX-sponsored concerts at City Hall Plaza drew audiences in the tens of thousands, and local acts Guster, the Dresden Dolls, and Passion Pit all got early radio play on the station. “Symbolically, they meant a lot,” says Oedipus, the longtime program director at the rock radio station WBCN.

But not many people were able to listen: WFNX was limited by a weak signal. Per FCC rules, its 101.7 frequency could not broadcast in Greater Boston at more than 3,000 watts, because anything higher would interfere with nearby frequencies. This restriction limited ’FNX’s listenership to the immediate downtown area and several communities along the North Shore. The signal faded to static 20 miles west of Boston and was all but inaudible south of Dedham. By contrast, WBCN, which shut down in 2009, broadcast at 50,000 watts.

Radio has always been a precarious business, and in May, Mindich, already struggling to keep the Phoenix alive, sold his license for 101.7 to Clear Channel, the massive media company based in Texas, for $14.5 million. (The station is now called “The Harbor” and plays a mix of classic rock and adult contemporary that’s worth actively avoiding.)

But breaking and promoting new music on the radio, which had been a core function of alt-rock stations for decades, has become vastly less important in the past five years. Radio stations were once tastemakers, but they’re now more likely to follow trends established online. Shred, a former radio DJ and now a booker for the Middle East in Central Square, says he believes that musicians in Boston have been mostly unaffected by WFNX’s demise. They’d be online, promoting their music on their own, even if the station were still around.

 

In 2007 Mindich put in motion a succession plan. The Phoenix’s longtime president, Barry Morris, stepped down at the end of 2006, and Brad Mindich, who was then 38, took over day-to-day operations. Morris, according to several people I spoke with for this story, is a driven, detail-oriented boss. Brad told me that Morris had been a “tough manager” with an “unbelievable will to get things done.” Brad, though, took a different approach. Several people told me that he decided to lead with a softer touch. “Brad’s M.O. was, ‘I’m not Barry, I trust people,’” says a former sales executive who was laid off this past summer.

Brad told me in October that his business strategy was meant to transform the Phoenix from a collection of independent entities into a unified media company. He used the word “convergence,” which in plain English means luring advertisers with offers to promote their products simultaneously across the company’s various formats. “From a sales standpoint,” says Rick Gallagher, the former Phoenix CFO and COO, “modern media buyers are not going to be too happy if the newspaper person comes in to sell them something, and then the radio person comes in, and the Web person comes in, and the mobile person comes in.”

The company-wide collaborations weren’t limited to sales, and for a time the strategy seemed to be working. “There was a game plan that made sense, a decent idea of creating a synergistic media empire,” says Lance Gould, who edited the Phoenix from 2007 through 2010. Carly Carioli, who was then editing the website, took on a major redesign, and Phoenix music writers intensified their collaboration with DJs at WFNX. Brad Mindich, who was formerly a professional musician, gave the station wide discretion in programming and staffing.

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.

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.”

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