Boston’s premiere alternative weekly newspaper/magazine, The Phoenix (formerly the Boston Phoenix), closed for good as of March 14 this week. The announcement was made public in a mode reflective of today’s fast-paced media world: a simple tweet, “Thank you Boston. Good night and good luck.” The Phoenix had existed since the 1970s, and had long built up a reputation for quality alternative coverage of everything from the local arts scene to local and national politics.
The publication’s staff were informed by the owner and manager, Stephen Mindich, the same day. Staff members described themselves as “shell-shocked”; an expected 40 were let go this week and another 10 will soon follow.
In his poignant public statement, owner and publisher Stephen Mindich made clear the difficulty of the decision, noting the recent difficulties in the industry:
“…these have been extremely difficult times for our Company and despite the valiant effort by many, many past and current staff to attempt to stabilize and, in fact, reverse our significant financial losses, we have been unable to do so and they are no longer sustainable.”
Yet above all he emphasized the accomplishments of the publication: “What I can and will say is I am extremely proud, as all of you should be, of the highest standards of journalism we have set and maintained throughout the decades.”
Reasons for the demise
The Phoenix’s problems were not in its readership, which didn’t decline; according to leadership the problem was revenue. By the end the Phoenix was costing Mr. Mindich, who had guided the paper since the 1970s, more than $1 million a year. The company does not intend to file formal bankruptcy, but has hired a law firm to liquidate the paper’s remaining assets and pay as many of the taxes, employee wages, and approximately 40 creditors as possible.
The paper had previously changed formats less than a year before, in September 2012, when the former Boston Phoenix merged with its sister publication, Stuff, and became a glossy biweekly magazine called The Phoenix. This move was intended to generate new advertising revenues and was in general well-received, though even at the time it was noted that the magazine would still face major challenges. In other cities, similar “alternative weeklies” such as New York’s Village Voice or Washington’s City Paper have faced downsizing or been sold.
Observers differ in their impressions of what this means for the alternative news industry in general. According to the executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, despite the loss of the Phoenix the industry remains healthy; many papers are actually seeing improved circulation and are not in danger of closing. Yet in large markets such as Boston, alternative newspapers tend to be less successful than in smaller, less-competitive cities such as Providence, RI and Portland, ME, where the local Phoenix branches will remain in operation.
Many prominent writers with personal connections to the Phoenix have expressed their dismay at the news. In the words of New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean, one of many whose careers started at the Boston Phoenix, “It’s like finding out your college has gone bankrupt and is gone. I am a child of the alt-weekly world.” Other prominent writers who also got their start at the Phoenix include Joe Klein, Sidney Blumenthal, Janet Maslin, and David Denby. At the Boston Globe, columnist Yvonne Abraham wrote, “I would tell you how I truly feel about the Boston Phoenix closing, but that would involve using words that could only be published in the Phoenix.” She too had worked at the Phoenix in the late 1990s, and wrote that there she had been “surrounded by the smartest, funniest people I had ever known.”
Frequent Boston news commentator Dan Kennedy, author of the widely-read Media Nation blog, wrote that he was “not even going to try to write a real post about this today” as “I’m devastated.” He described the Phoenix as “the most formative experience of my career.” In fact, he wrote, “without the Phoenix, I can’t imagine what I’d be doing today — PR for some politician? Ugh.”
The Boston Phoenix will surely be missed by its loyal readership as well as this generation’s cohort of aspiring alternative newsmedia/long-form journalists.