What Happened to the Boston Phoenix?

No paper wants a financial crisis and a succession crisis at the same time.

What Happened to the Boston Phoenix?

Well, it at last ran out of money. The paper’s final print edition dated March 15 is already in those red boxes for the last time. The March 22 edition will go up online next week, but won’t be distributed in paper. WFNX.com, the online-only survivor of the Phoenix’s iconic, sister radio station WFNX—which was sold for $14 million in May—won’t broadcast any longer, either. The Phoenix office on Brookline Avenue will close on Monday.

The abruptness of today’s announcement appears to have caught nearly everyone off guard. Star political reporter David Bernstein is in Washington, D.C. today working on a story, and several staffers are in Austin for SXSW. None of the current and former Phoenix employees I’ve spoken with knew this week’s issue would be the last until just before Phoenix owner Stephen Mindich convened a staff meeting at 2 P.M. “Up until three minutes before I went into that meeting, it was a big surprise,” one employee told me.

Still, I don’t think many people, at least not those who have watched the paper over the past few years, are surprised by the development. Quite a few are upset, certainly—for 47 years, the Phoenix was one of the great alt weekly papers in an era in American journalism when alt weeklies did some of the country’s most innovate reporting. As I recounted in the December issue, the number of top critics and writers who came out of the paper is mind boggling.

But the current era is not a good one for alternative media, and a couple things went wrong. Last September, Mindich relaunched the Phoenix as a glossy weekly magazine, which he hoped would capture higher-end advertisers. In an email to me in October, he was (typically) defiant and upbeat: The Phoenix had been through some hard times, he insisted, but he had no reason to think it wouldn’t pull through. “At this point,” he wrote, “the response to our new format has been universally positive from our readers, our current advertisers and from a growing number of new and potential advertisers.” And things did seem to be going well for a time. When my story was published, the new Phoenix had crept up to 110 pages, which seemed like a good sign—more pages equal more ad dollars.

But newspapers, even when reimagined as magazines, don’t compete well with the Internet, and alternative weeklies compete less well: a big portion of The Phoenix‘s revenue used to come from classified ads, including ads for escorts, nearly all of which have dried up. And the Phoenix was tied into those businesses even more intimately than other papers: along with print classified, it counted on revenue from a service called Tele-Publishing Inc., which let people create personal ads (remember those?) with cheesy voicemail messages instead of cheesy 50-word blurbs. For more than a decade, TPI was enormously profitable for the Phoenix company, but in the past eight to ten years, as classifieds migrated to Craigslist and people stopped using voicemail, the Phoenix has been in a downward spiral of layoffs, sell offs, and restructuring. And of course the economy has sucked.

In 2006, Mindich handed control of the Phoenix Media Group over to his son Brad, and by most accounts Brad’s tenure was not a success. How unsuccessful is a matter of some dispute, but according to several people I spoke with, Brad ceased being involved in day-to-day operations sometime in 2011, and officially left the company in the spring of 2012. It was never clear to me how much of the paper’s decline was a story about falling advertising revenue, and how much was about a failed transfer from father to son, but no company wants to deal with a financial crisis and a succession crisis at the same time, and the Phoenix did.

When I reported my story last fall, most of the Phoenix staffers and sales people I spoke with were already concerned about the future, and the new magazine format hadn’t done much to allay their fears. The Phoenix hadn’t made money for years, they told me, and needed to start doing so quickly: Mindich had been financing week-to-week operations for months out of his own pocket (as much as $30,000 a week, according to one person I spoke with) and didn’t intend to do so for much longer. If the new glossy format didn’t start making money, he’d made clear, he would close it. As far as I could tell, last fall, even at around 100 pages the ratio of editorial content to high-end advertising wasn’t safe, and this week’s issue, at 76 pages, now looks like a crisis, and of course, it must have been.

There has already been a great deal of hand-wringing today, and I think much of it is warranted. Boston is poorer without the Phoenix, no doubt, even gloss-ified and short on writers and editors. But this 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. Earlier today, a journalist named Robert D. Sullivan wrote that with the Phoenix, an “alternative route to journalism disappears,” and strictly speaking he is right, but he misses the story for the news: in 2013, there are only alternative routes to journalism, and some of them are great, for journalists and for readers, and some of them are not. 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. I just have no idea, for Boston, what comes next.