Alt Weekly – Boston Phoenix – One Year Gone
In a poignant signal of a fast-changing media landscape, The Boston Phoenix sent out a short and simple tweet Thursday afternoon: “Thank you Boston. Good night and good luck.” With that terse dispatch, the groundbreaking Boston alternative weekly, which only six months ago reinvented itself from tabloid newspaper into glossy magazine, put a final punctuation mark on its 47-year history. Its current issue, dated March 15, 2013 will be its last.
New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean, one of many prominent journalists whose careers started at the Boston Phoenix, said: “It’s like finding out your college has gone bankrupt and is gone. I am a child of the alt-weekly world, and I feel like it has played such an important role in journalism as we know it today.”
Employees at the Phoenix were told of the closing by owner and publisher Stephen M. Mindich Thursday at what evolved into a tearful, emotional meeting. It is expected that about 40 employees will be let go within the week and another 10 or so soon after, according to executive editor Peter Kadzis, who described the general reaction among Phoenix staffers as “shell-shocked.” Several people were crying during the meeting, according to one person who was there.
Employees will not get any severance pay.
“We’ll get paid for this week and if we’re owed vacation time, but no severance,” said staff writer Chris Faraone. “It’s sad, but also not. It’s not an anger thing. Everyone’s really proud. We went as hard as you could to the end.”
The Phoenix established its alternative reputation in the 1970s through its coverage of the local arts scene, especially rock music and movies, as well as with aggressive media criticism and coverage of local and national politics. Its target audience, even after its recent shift to a glossy magazine, never shifted: young, educated, active both socially and politically, and childless. You were more likely to find a sex column than a parenting one in the Phoenix.
Sister publications in Providence and Portland, Maine, will stay in business, but WFNX.com, the Phoenix Media/Communication Corp.’s online radio station, will not continue in its present form, its fate to be decided shortly. The company’s custom publishing unit and MassWeb Printing operation, based in Auburn, will remain open.
The long, slow decline of alt-weeklies
By Jack Shafer
March 15, 2013
Alternative weekly colossus Boston Phoenix cracked and fell yesterday, ceasing publication after 47 years. According to a Phoenix executive quoted in the obituary in today’s Boston Globe, the alternative weekly was losing more than $1 million a year, and a format switch last fall from newsprint to glossy had failed to attract the sort of national advertising it desired.
Once one of the leading alt-weeklies in the nation, the dead paper leaves behind $1.2 million in debt and roughly $500,000 in assets. The fact that its owner didn’t — or couldn’t — sell the publication to cover some of its debt signals the illness of the greater alternative weekly market. Like its daily newspaper counterpart, the alt-weekly has enjoyed a terrible half-decade of plummeting revenues, circulation and page counts in the 100-plus markets currently served. One large chain that owned papers in Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Charlotte and elsewhere filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and was eventually spun apart, but that financial disaster was as much about clueless proprietors overleveraging themselves as it was the decay of the alt-weekly business model.
The formula, pioneered by the Village Voice in the 1950s, finessed by the Phoenix in the 1960s and perfected by the Chicago Reader, the Phoenix New Times and others in the 1970s, became such a cinch that know-nothing bar owners and recent college graduates (or dropouts!) eventually made millions off it. Some papers, like the Phoenix New Times, built immense chains from the links they forged and acquired. The formula connected underserved readers with overcharged advertisers in both compact, urban settings like New York and Washington and sunbelt expanses like Phoenix and Dallas. In 2005, the two largest alt-weekly chains, anchored respectively by the Phoenix New Times and the Voice, combined to create a company valued by the participants at $400 million, with annual revenues of $180 million. Newspapers started in bar booths had become big business, but like many of the daily newspaper merger and acquisition deals going down during same period, this deal also proved too rich.
Many former alt-weekly editors would like to persuade you that their cutting take on city politics and the arts combined with their dedication to the feature form won readers. Actually, it was the whole gestalt that made the publications work. Comprehensive listings paired with club and concert ads to both entertain and help readers plan their week. Classified ads, especially the personals, often provided better reading than the journalistic fare in the front of the book. No better venue for apartment rentals existed; even people who had long-term leases used the housing ads to fantasize. Even the display ads, purchased mostly by local retailers and service providers, were useful to readers.
In most cities — and eventually in all — the alt-weekly was priced at zero for readers, prefiguring the free-media feast of the Web, and these publications became cultural signifiers. Bob Roth, one of my bosses when I edited Washington City Paper (1985-1995), told me to watch people as they picked it up from a street box and walk away with it: Almost to a one, they would hold it in their hands or fold it under their arms as if to display the paper’s flag so onlookers would know they were City Paper people, whatever that meant.
The alt-weekly collapse came in spurts over the last decade, as a market shift destroyed whole advertising sectors. Craigslist destroyed the classifieds — housing, for sale, services (sex and otherwise), et al. — and the lucrative personals and matches ads fled for the Web, too. Depending on the paper, classifieds had amounted to anywhere between 20 percent to 50 percent of revenues. Now, that money is mostly gone.
Mostly gone, too, is record-company advertising. Before that business was disrupted, the labels would give record stores — remember them? — big bags of “co-op” money to advertise the new releases, and even reissues! Video stores — remember them? — were big advertisers, too. Amazon has helped to clean out whole categories of retailing that once advertised in alt-weeklies, such as electronics, books, music and cameras. Big-box stores have displaced many of the indie retailers that long provided advertising backbone. And while Hollywood still places ads, it’s nothing compared to the heyday. To give you a sense of how precipitous the drop, the smallest edition Washington City Paper printed in 2006 contained 112 pages, with 128-pagers and 136-pagers being the most common. In 2012, the page counts ordinarily ranged between 56 and 72.
These retail shifts have made it harder for publishers to distribute their weeklies. Before Tower Records went under, a paper could drop thousands of copies a week at the store’s many locations, and the stacks would disappear in a day or two. The video stores that once distributed them? Gone. Borders Books? Gone. What’s equally alarming is that some surviving retailers now say they’d rather use that tiny space by the door or bathroom where the newspaper rack once stood to sell their own goods.
The advertising shift from newsprint to Web is mirrored by a cultural shift. In my mind, the alt-weekly remains the perfect boredom-alleviation device. Waiting for a subway train? Pull one from your bag and it will entertain you. Your girlfriend is late for your date? The paper will keep you occupied. That beer and bag of nuts not distracting from life’s troubles as you mope on a barstool? The alt-weekly saves the day again.
But even a human fossil must concede that the smartphone trumps the alt-weekly as a boredom killer. How does a wedge of newsprint compete with an affordable messaging device that ferries games, social media apps, calendars, news, feature films, scores, coupons and a library’s worth of music and reading material? Ask a young person his opinion and he’ll tell you that nothing says “geezer” like a newspaper, be it daily or alt-weekly.
What’s changed, and what probably convinced the Phoenix to exit, is that the papers are no longer a 30 percent (or higher) margin business, and that lost business is not returning. Publishers who hope to survive will have to content themselves with 10 percent margins. They will have to work harder to maintain advertising categories where they still have a comparative advertising advantage, such as food and restaurants, which usually require a face-to-face meeting between an ad representative and an owner to make a sale.
It’s a cliché, but I’ll toss it out there anyway: Every newspaper and website needs to compete in the events business. The smarter papers are already there, and if they’re lucky they’ll hit the jackpot the Austin Chronicle has with its decades-old SXSW business. And it doesn’t require much insight to urge alt-weekly publishers to continue building out their Web components.
If this sounds like a campaign for every alt-weekly to slip itself inside a noose like the Phoenix tied for itself, I apologize. Even in their diminished state, these papers still break news, publish terrific features, drive the politicians at City Hall nuts, cover the arts smartly, and do well most of the things they did well before the commercial decline. They just don’t do as much of it. So, pour yourself a drink and spend some time with an alt-weekly this weekend. You’ll rue the day they vanish.
by Steve Annear
Former Phoenix Reporters Launch Online Alt-Weekly ( http://www.fvckthemedia.com/issue29/frontpage ) With The Phoenix long gone, and the red boxes that once held it obsolete from city streets, three former staff members of the historic alt-weekly have launched an online supplement “inspired by the spirit” of the “recently defunct” magazine.
“The Media,” headed by Phoenix Assistant Music Editor Liz Pelly, with help from one of the weekly’s former designers, hopes to put back in place coverage of the alternative arts, culture, music and news, along with grassroots activism, that was lost with the Phoenix’s farewell. According to the alt-weekly’s mission statement: “The Media aims to bridge the gap between underground presses and mainstream media. Our contributors are often embedded in the communities they cover, but seasoned and skeptical enough to keep the writing balanced, critical, and fair.”
The site was launched within a month of the idea’s conception, and was designed by Faye Orlove, who used to be a production artist at the paper-turned-glossy magazine. Orlove’s brother stepped up to help the duo put the actual website together after they figured out how they wanted it to look, which in the end, they decided, should be like a newspaper. From there, they started putting together editorial content. The online publication says of its choice in aesthetic that they wanted “our content to resonate on its own merit, free of frivolity and flash, and grounded by a homepage that’s striking in its radical simplicity.”
In its debut issue, “The Media” focuses on what was lost when The Phoenix finally folded, but also includes articles about the marijuana industry, and a feature on singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson. Aside from that, there is also some insight in regards to the aftermath of the Boston bombings from former Phoenix Editor-in-Chief Carly Carioli.
Pelly says she is glad there will be a place for writers to submit their work, and hopes down the line they will be able to conjure up some cash and possibly launch fundraising efforts in order to pay contributors. She admits that the online publication won’t ever replace what the Phoenix offered, but the magazine closing shop is what drove the group to launch the site. Pelly says the break from writing for work, and strictly writing because she wants to, has been refreshing, however. “I have been working in the professional journalism world for so long, it just feels almost like less of a burden to do something not for work or for your job, and just because you really want to be doing it,” she says. “I’m also obsessed with the way that it looks and the design of it…and hopefully people will think it’s a viable publication. Sometimes with a lot of news sites, things can be really distracting and conflicting.” When asked what she hopes people take from the new site, Pelly says she would like to see it become a successful medium that people can pitch to, which will also be community supported. “I hope it will also reach beyond being a Boston publication, too,” she says.
Fellow writers have already started reaching out to the “staff,” offering up shared space for the team to meet and discuss future issues of “The Media,” according to contributor and former Phoenix staff writer ArielShearer. “I hadn’t considered shared space. It’s all happening really fast, and I don’t know what happens next, but it would be great to have space for editorial meetings.”
by Jim Romesko
Where Boston Phoenix journalists landed
Former Boston Phoenix executive editor Peter Kadzis says of the gray day that the 47-year-old weekly paper closed: “At the moment — and still in retrospect — it had a dream-like quality. There was that pull between the unconscious (can this really be happening?) and the conscious (yes, it is!). There were a few tears. A lot of sniffles. A general feeling of numbness.”
He recalls writer Chris Faraone lighting a strong joint — “that provided a flash of levity” — and then about a dozen staffers heading to the An Tua Nua bar for drinks. The rest of the day “was pretty depressing,” says Faraone. “I think I was there [at the bar] last, and that was probably like 7 or 8 at night. The great detail, of course, is that An Tua Nua just closed too. Like a fucking plague over there.”
The Phoenix folded on March 14, five months ago tomorrow. Here’s what some of the alt-weekly’s staffers are doing now and their thoughts on the paper’s demise.
Carly Carioli, who was editor-in-chief, writes:
My two biggest concerns in the aftermath of the Phoenix closing were 1) to give the editorial staff a way of communicating directly with each other outside of the paper; and 2) to do everything possible to help people get new gigs. As a group, we quickly put together a google doc where we all shared job openings, contacts, headhunters, and agencies. It was a real collective networking effort, and I think there were at least a few jobs that came directly out of that.
That Google doc was titled “FUck you we used to be the Phoenix.” (Yes, it’s FU, not Fu.) “It was also immensely helpful to have a network of Phoenix alumni to turn to,” says Carioli. “There were dozens of friends and strangers who reached out or responded to cold-calls on behalf of our staffers. Some were in a position to offer freelance assignments, others were able to give tips on unlisted job. There was a long-ago former art director who ended up hiring two of our best people.”
He adds: “I was one of the very lucky ones — I was talking to potential employers within 24 hours of the announcement that we were closing. And ultimately I started at [the Globe’s] Boston.com the day after I left the Phoenix.” In late July he resigned and joined Boston magazine as executive editor./CONTINUES
A few of the journalists decided to start new ventures – or revive old projects – after the Phoenix folded. “It took about 36 hours after the final Phoenix ‘send-off’ for me to start getting itchy,” says Michael Marotta, “so I took an old blog off a Blogger platform, which I had named Vanyaland, and started posting there again. It was created around 2008 to give me a proper outlet from the Boston Herald, where I was (frustrated) at the time and wanted to ramble about music and trashy reality TV.”
The site was reborn in May — it now has seven contributors who once freelanced for the Phoenix — and “the response has been huge,” says Marotta.
( http://hereandsphere.com/ )
Did he consider working “a regular job” after his time at the Phoenix?
Not really. I flirted with a certain big company, but my heart was never really into it and the fit definitely wasn’t right. I’m past the point where I ever want to work for someone else, and in 2013 there’s really no need to. Independent online media, at least concerning music, has more credibility in this city right now than the traditional dinosaurs. Their attempts to “get younger” are just facsimiles of what the blogs and indie websites are already doing. Marotta notes that “a lot has happened to Boston – and the world – since mid-March [and] it breaks my heart a little bit that the Phoenix isn’t around to filter through the bullshit and tell it like it is. But I think anyone that has ever worked for the Boston Phoenix always considers themselves a part of it, and that spirit lives on in how they approach and execute their work, regardless of where they are or who they are working for.”
A week after the Phoenix closed, S.I. Rosenbaum interviewed for a “content provider.” She thought it was a freelance copyediting position, but the company offered her a fulltime job. She took it “and was promptly totally miserable.” It wasn’t the company’s fault, she says.
“It was just a huge shock after the Phoenix newsroom. I couldn’t deal with the civility, the stable personalities, the swank office furniture, or with no longer being part of a journalistic operation. People were telling me to get used to it, that journalism jobs were over, that I should be happy editing content for Home Depot.” But she ignored them and started looking for a better job. “I called up New York Mag, Texas Monthly, and Boston magazine. TM never got back to me, but NYMag was interested, and so was BoMag. They were interested enough that I gave notice at the content company and never looked back. “In the end, BoMag made me the first offer, and a very good one. By that time the bombings had happened, and I was more than happy to stay in my hometown what looks to be the newsiest era Boston has had in decades. I have the chance to shape coverage about the city I love, and the freedom to do longform journalism – not to mention the ability to make rent every month. I’m thrilled.”
She adds: “At the Phoenix we were earning so little, and working under such bare-bones conditions, that the work itself had to be our main compensation. If we weren’t having fun making our magazine the way we wanted to, working on projects that made us happy, there was no point to being there at all. And that’s not something I’m willing to give up now that I’m being paid a living wage.”
David Bernstein also landed at Boston magazine, as a contributing editor. (He does some work for WGBH, too.) About two weeks after the Phoenix folded, Bernstein was the first to report – on his personal blog – that Boston Mayor Tom Menino wouldn’t run for re-election.
“I was a fairly valuable brand” – especially after breaking the Menino news – and it became clear it would be a huge political year, “so, several outlets, including BoMag and GBH, reached out to have conversations with me.” He signed with both.
There was something special about working at the Phoenix, feeling that you were part of putting out something that you could at some level feel was valuable and important, and upholding a certain tradition. And, although I tend to keep mostly to myself when I work — whether on staff or as a freelancer/”contributor — I like being around smart, incisive, clever people who are engaged in the world, which was always the case at the Phoenix.
I asked about the city missing its alt-weekly.
“Boston without the Phoenix? A disengaged and disconnected media wasteland of conformity and pandering, where the occasional talented journalist toils futilely within deadening constraints before succumbing to the lure of a PR job that pays the bills. But that’s probably a slightly too pessimistic view. Slightly.”
I asked former Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy — he left the paper to teach in 2005 — the same question. “The effect of its demise has been incalculable,” he says. “Its absence after the Boston Marathon bombing and, now, during the first wide-open Boston mayoral campaign in 20 years is a terrible loss. The Boston Globe is about to be sold, and the Phoenix’s take would have been definitive. I don’t know how you make up for it. The era of the big-city alt-weekly seems to have passed.”
Former executive editor Kadzis, now a WGBH News regular contributor, adds: “The demise of the Boston Phoenix has left a hole in the city’s media fabric, but Phoenix talent is still enriching the scene. It’s just not concentrated in a single place.”
I was at the Phoenix just shy of 25 years, so leaving there felt a bit like leaving home when I was in my early 20s: equal parts exciting and scary. What I miss are my colleagues: the crazy driven salespeople, the cooler-than-cool graphic designers, the writers who constantly second guess themselves to make sure they got things right, and the know-it-all copy editors who are truly the unsung heroes of our business.
Jacqueline Houton started as managing editor of The Improper Bostonian six days after The Phoenix folded. (She had been M.E. there, too.) “I just felt extremely lucky to land something so soon,” she says. “I applied for one other position and was asked in for an interview, but by that point I’d already accepted the position at the Improper.”
What Houton misses about the Phoenix: “The muckraking spirit, the creative freedom, and the incredibly talented, weird, and wonderful team.”
“When most people lose their jobs, even they don’t give a shit,” says former Phoenix staff writer Chris Faraone. “When we lost our jobs, everyone from you to the New Yorker had something to say about the situation. It seems a bit overblown – no doubt. But the place really was that special.
“Money was always tight, so we wouldn’t always be able to bring in freelancers and interns who we wanted there full-time, but they stuck around anyway, and in a lot of cases became part of the family. I’m one of those people, as I started freelancing hip-hop articles for the paper about six months before coming on as a staff writer.”
About 10 minutes after word got out that the Phoenix was closing, Faraone got a text from the owner of Dig Boston; he wanted to talk about Faraone’s next move. (He started his career there — when it was called Weekly Dig — in 2004.)
“I decided that it’s best to stay mostly independent for now, but to also work with the Dig to develop young writers, and to keep the alt spirit alive locally.” The Dig has published his series on City of Somerville corruption, which he started working on with other journalists last September. “So far, our work has yielded some significant results,” he says. He was asked to write the Dig’s cover story after the Boston Marathon bombing. “I didn’t even have to think about it; less than 24 hours later, I filed this story, flashing back between my experience in NY on 9/11, and what I saw in Boston following the marathon attack. Coincidentally, the Dig had picked up some Phoenix ad dollars, and was bringing back a feature well after years of not having one. My bombing story wound up marking the return of long form to the paper.” He also wrote about the Marathon bombing for the American Prospect and Racialicious and put his work into an ebook titled “Heartbreak Hell.”
“It’s sold pretty well on Kindle, even charting a few times, but more importantly it’s been read tens of thousands of times in this kickass free format that I did with help from a few friends. Looks great on any device.” He’s also working his next book, “I Killed Breitbart.”
Longtime arts editor Jon Garelick says that since the Phoenix closed, “I’ve just been trying to get a new work rhythm going where I’m freelancing and also looking for work.” He notes that “the Globe has been really responsive to my pitches” and “I’m now doing work for people who used to work for me and still like me, which is nice.” Freelancing has kept him busy, but “it’s very isolating. You’ve got to remind yourself to leave the house once in a while otherwise you won’t go out. …I’d be happy to fully employed again.”
Peter Kadzis gave me this information:
“Kristen Goodfriend, the overall art and design director, is working/consulting with the Portland and Providence Phoenixes to train them on maximizing editorial design. Lindy Raso, the receptionist and general go-to person, is now the office manager at The Weekly Dig. …Staffer Alexandra Cavallo is at Metro Boston. …. Kevin Banks, deputy art director, and Shaula Clark, managing editor, are at The Pohly Company. Liz Pelly, the assistant music editor, has started an online alternative paper, The Media.”
Re: Alt Weekly – Boston Phoenix – One Year Gone
by Susan Orlean
Sorln (nospam) msn.com (unverified) 11 Feb 2014
I attended the University of Michigan, but I got my real education at alternative newsweeklies. That’s where I learned to write, to report, and to think of myself as a journalist; that’s where I grew up. Even now, many years out from my last newsweekly job, which was at the Boston Phoenix, I still think of myself as a product of the alt-weekly world. And it was a wonderful world. We didn’t make much money, but we made up for that by enjoying a certain amount of freedom in what we wrote and how we wrote about it, and by having the conviction that we were doing something a little better than what was being done at conventional newspapers. In many cases, that arrogance was unearned, but the sense of mission and adventure was real. We could write ten thousand words about amyl nitrate (which I actually did) or cults or Hmong refugees or corruption if we felt the story was good. Everyone was young (or youngish). We were excited about being writers or editors. Working at an alternative newsweekly felt mischievous and disruptive and nimble, and it was as close to feeling like I was in a rock band as I’ll probably ever get.
When I went to work at the Phoenix, in 1982, its offices were in a ratty old building at the end of the otherwise glamorous Newbury Street in Boston’s Back Bay. I don’t mean ratty in a figurative sense, either: there were rat traps tucked into most of the corners and nooks, and they weren’t ironic. The office had all the polish and orderliness of a very bad yard sale late in the afternoon. Everyone was shaggy. There were, as one would expect in a roiling workplace full of young folk, a million desperate romances and personal dramas and the like, but everyone was also very serious about the work. Back then, the Boston Globe seemed stuffy and self-important, and the Phoenix set itself up as the scrappy anti-Globe, more tuned into street culture and the arts; funnier, looser, cooler. I did stories on a crazy array of subjects: how Miami had been reborn, how much I loved giving parties, Ginsu knives, and a music festival in Jamaica. Of course, many of us secretly hoped that a big paper like the Globe might scoop us up, eventually. I interviewed for a job there not long after I started working at the Phoenix, and the editor who met with me warned me that the paper, as a rule, didn’t hire from alternative newsweeklies since we didn’t have a work ethic and didn’t understand how to behave in a professional way—as if we were drinking beer and getting high all day and still managing to put out a pretty good newspaper every week. I didn’t get the job, of course, but I realized then that our silly nose-thumbing at the Globe was equalled only by its silly nose-thumbing at us.
It was so much fun. And it was inspiring. By the time I arrived, the Phoenix had already graduated a whole bunch of writers who had gone on to become big deals at bigger publications, and there were staff writers who were winning awards and recognition. The paper was big and fat, and we all assumed (and resented) that the Phoenix’s owner, Stephen Mindich, had gotten rich from the profits. The Phoenix, more than almost any other alternative newsweekly, seemed like it could practically print money, since Boston had such a large population of college students, a perfect audience for what we were doing. For a while, that seemed to be true. The Phoenix bought a radio station, and then some other newsweeklies, and moved into ratless offices near Fenway Park, and appeared to just roll merrily along. Yes, much of the profits probably came from the skanky sex-service ads in the back of the magazine, but that’s business. The Globe editor who had lectured me about work ethic notwithstanding, the Phoenix continued to launch writers into good jobs at magazines and newspapers. While some newsweeklies drifted more into being arts calendars, the Phoenix, like the Village Voice, was one of the papers that kept doing harder journalism in addition to its significant arts coverage—which won the paper a Pulitzer, awarded to Lloyd Schwartz for criticism—and seemed to manage it well.
For the longest time, when journalism students would ask me how to get started as writers, I would tell them to go to work for an alternative newsweekly. Better than graduate school, in my opinion, I’d say, and more fun than a conventional job at a conventional publication. Now, as the ranks of alternative newsweeklies thin out, I’m not sure what I’ll tell them. The thing that I learned at the Phoenix, which I feel is essential for a writer to learn, is to be enterprising. I’ve never worked on staff at a regular newspaper, and I imagine you learn lots of valuable lessons from their tradition and stature, but what I loved about being at a place like the Phoenix was the sense that we were sort of making it up as we went along. The Phoenix felt like a handmade thing, and that made me feel like I ought to be inventive with my story ideas and my thinking and my writing, even if it didn’t always turn out perfectly. A conventional job would have had health insurance, but working somewhere where I was encouraged to write a story about Ginsu knives not only made me who I am as a writer but in many ways made me mature as a person: it was up to me to figure things out. I can’t imagine where I’d be today if I hadn’t had that experience.
The recession, Craigslist, the Internet, newsprint prices—who knows what finally did in the Phoenix? I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked when I heard the news yesterday that it was shutting down, given the last ten years of bad news about print publications, but boy, was I surprised nonetheless. It feels like my college has suddenly announced that it has gone out of business. Now the liquidators will come in and pick through the remains, putting price tags on the beat-up desks and dented wastebaskets, and this experience that defined me and meant something to so many people—readers and writers, especially when we were young and turning into our adult selves—will live on only as a Wikipedia stub. Farewell, Boston Phoenix, and thanks. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2013/03/memories-of-the-p
Phoenix staffers knew that something was up. At 8:08pm that Wednesday, business staffer Rachael Mindich sent an ominous all-staff email that suggested some big and terrible impending news:
Join us in the Boston editorial space outside the conference room tomorrow afternoon at 2pm for a town hall meeting, during which important information relevant to all PM/CG staff members will be discussed. For those of you who are located outside of the Boston office, we ask that you call in on our conference line to be part of the discussion.
But nobody was expecting the guillotine. I certainly wasn’t. As a longtime Phoenix reader and part-time Boston resident, I’m shocked and disconsolate. The Phoenix is and was one of the best alt-weeklies in the country. From its smart reporting on state and local politics to its tough, nuanced coverage of social justice issues, the Phoenix consistently exemplified the best of the alternative press. Staff writer Chris Faraone’s you-are-there coverage of the Occupy movement was honest, unsentimental, and indispensable; during last year’s presidential campaign, political writer David S. Bernstein offered valuable insight into the Romney cotillion. The paper’s departments were memorable, too—David Thorpe’s loopy The Big Hurt music column; Robert Nadeau’s authoritative restaurant reviews; Barry Thompson’s “Meet the Mayor” series of interviews with various local Foursquare “mayors;” the tenacious local arts coverage. All were lively and occasionally brilliant; all will be missed.
That’s not to say that the paper was flawless. No publication is. But, from my perspective, the Phoenix’s successes far outnumbered its failures. More to the point, the Phoenix was a legitimately independent weekly in a space largely dominated by conglomerate corporate media. While other alt-weeklies across the country were acquired by national chains, the Phoenix remained resolutely rooted in New England. (The Boston Phoenix had two sister papers in Providence, RI, and Portland, ME, both of which will continue to publish.) Now, the only true alt-weekly in Boston is the wisecracking Weekly Dig, which has a huge opportunity if it plays its cards right. (Many current Phoenix staffers began their careers at the Dig.)
The signs were there that the Phoenix was having financial problems. Last year, its parent company, Phoenix Media/Communications Group, shuttered the weekly’s affiliate FM radio station, WFNX, turning it into a Web-only station, WFNX.com, which is also closing down. Around the same time, the Phoenix transitioned to a glossy magazine format, in a move designed to court national advertising dollars. At first, I thought the move was distasteful. Later, I thought it was brilliant. Apparently it wasn’t enough.
Some worried that the switch to the glossy format meant that the stories were going to get shorter and dumber, but that didn’t really happen. Lately, the Phoenix had been leading the way on climate-change coverage, regularly running forceful, impassioned cover stories by Wen Stephenson, the former journalist turned climate activist. Two weeks ago, Chris Faraone wrote a tremendous 10,000-word cover story about a young ex-GOP operative named Nadia Naffe and how she was betrayed by James O’Keefe and harassed by Andrew Breitbart. It was a prime example of the sort of reporting that made the Phoenix great: gimlet-eyed, deeply reported, and unafraid.
In an email this afternoon, Faraone noted that he “couldn’t be prouder to be one of the last writers to hold down the long tradition of badass reporting at the Phoenix.” (See my 2011 profile of Faraone for more on what he means by this.)
“On the much sadder side,” he continued, “my true concern is for the disparate and vulnerable people who have for so long relied on the alternative press to keep their issues in play, and to trumpet their all-too-often ignored voices. They’ve lost the most today. Them and everyone who has ever rushed to a red Phoenix street box first thing on a Thursday to feel the pulse of this city.”
That pulse will beat slower for a long time to come.
Full disclosure: I worked for the PMCG (but not the Phoenix itself, it was a company called TPI) back in 99-01 taking personal ads, running refunds, supervising the call center, and doing various bits of backend programming for a salary that amounted to being kicked in the balls and flipped a shiny coin as my assailant sauntered on. Still, I had many great memories. But this is not the time.
One of the first things I did upon moving to Boston in January of 98 was to grab a copy of the Phoenix in the lobby of my college. It was free for us (even though you used to have to pay for it). I was amazed by what they were printing. This was nothing like journalism back in Amish country: Music reviews, social events, scathing articles. . SWEAR WORDS! ZOMG! I got hooked. I made sure to grab a copy every week when they showed up. In fact, this lead to the one act of petty larceny in my life. I didn’t know that the phoenix wasn’t just a free paper so I grabbed one on the way out the door of Tower Records. When I got back I saw the price at the top, felt so bad I went back and tried to pay. The cashier just looked at me like I was nuts and turned her back.
Ah, the memories.
It’s odd to write this, since there was a rift after I “left”. I never held a grudge, but picking you up seemed odd somehow, like seeing an old girlfriend who never gave you back all your stuff and still owed you $200 for that month you covered the rest of her rent, but now that you’ve passed I can say that I honestly have nothing but good memories.
Boston Phoenix, you kept me in the know about what was up for years. You gave me reasons to laugh at things that weren’t funny, not laugh at things that should have been, and a list of shows I needed to sneak into or weasel my way onto a list for as long as I can remember. I hope that in the years to come people remember you as fondly as I.
by James Parker
The Boston Phoenix Set Me Free
“Consider yourself off the leash,” he said. I was moaning about editors to my new editor, Lance Gould, in his office at the Boston Phoenix. Editors had been messing me around my whole life, I told him—neutering my style, rejecting my ideas, making me explain myself, fucking up my thing. Bloody editors… Gripe, grumble… I fumed and fidgeted in the crappy chair. And yet here he was, this kind man, this editor, regarding me with eyes of understanding and telling me that I was FREE. Was it a dream?
It feels rather dream-like today, now that the Phoenix is kaput. I received the news of the paper’s closing, last week, the way I receive most bad news—which is to say, I barely received it at all. It bounced numbly off my heart. Doink! But now I’m thinking about it, and beginning to feel it.
I was a staff writer at the Phoenix for 18 months, 2007-2008. Free? I was practically feral. I wrote much too fast and much too frequently about whatever took my interest. Poems, weekly. A column about reality tv, also weekly. (My secret plan was to turn it into a column about bullriding. This never happened. But it could have.) In the name of the Phoenix I interviewed—how about this for a journalistic coup—a man who hadn’t written a biography of GG Allin, the most horrible punk rock frontman ever; in the name of the Phoenix I accompanied a Wildlife Removal Specialist as he tore embedded raccoons from one suburban loft-space after another; in the name of Phoenix I went into a men’s prison and watched a priest lead a group of convicts through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
And I loved my colleagues. The muse of the Phoenix, as I came to know her, hovered in the space between the groovy young buggers who were coming up and the old-school eminences who wouldn’t quit. At this higher level, scholarship abounded. Jeffrey Gantz, Penguin Classics translator of The Mabinogion and ardent—in fact incandescent—Chelsea fan, rushed between cubicles like the White Rabbit, a hand to his forehead. He knew everything. Jon Garelick would lend his exquisite jazzman’s ear to your prose, tell you where you’d gone out of tune. The great Clif Garboden sat hunched in his special managing-editor’s alcove at the back of the third floor, with torrents of copy churning beneath his ironic eye: from time to time he would bark an oath at his computer, or exhale in a shuddering, Job-like manner. (I’m quoting here from something I wrote for the paper after his death. Hope you don’t mind, Clif.) It was a uniquely supportive environment, an accidental ecology in which—if you were the least bit accidental yourself—you could thrive.
These days, whenever an assignment begins to cramp me up, I pretend I’m doing it for the Phoenix: instant relief.
My fellow staff writers were delightful. I marveled at the gumshoe tenacity of political reporter David Bernstein, and the fact that—on a diet of pizza, cigarettes, and noisy phonecalls—he somehow preserved the complexion of an athletic schoolgirl. I annoyed Sharon Steel by throwing bits of paper at her. I slipped out for surreptitious pints with Adam Reilly. Mike Miliard helped me, endlessly.
So I was free, and the paper was free. It was flung out onto the street for whoever wanted it, whoever happened to be passing—not for some technocrat in Peets, pecking out a URL. It was a loose transaction, and it kept you loose. Even the leaking sordor from the “Adult Services” section, I confess, I found helpful. Trash and fecundity are neighbors, after all. These days, whenever an assignment begins to cramp me up, I pretend I’m doing it for the Phoenix: instant relief.
All a dream, all a dream… I can see Pat D pushing around his enormous dustbin as if, rather than putting things into it, he might produce things from out of it—ingots or rayguns or shrunken heads. I can hear the hacking and rumbling of Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman, on the line from Prague, fantastically intoxicated: “I don’t like human beings, I think they’re parasites, they’re fucking parasites.” Eheu fugaces labuntur anni. About the industry, journalism, the Internet, the row of grinning skulls where all the good writers used to be, I have nothing useful to say: I share in what I assume to be the general state of dazed apprehension. Not so long ago, many things were possible for a lucky writer. As of last week—this is how it feels—they are a little less possible.
Re: Alt Weekly – Boston Phoenix – One Year Gone
by Chris Radant
frtny (nospam) msn.com (unverified) 14 Feb 2014
Modified: 04:16:19 AM
A look back at some of its greatest stories.
Home for the Holidays
Chris Radant • November 1990
On heading home for Thanksgiving.
“Grazing began extra early on Thanksgiving morning. My brothers arrived with assorted girlfriends, wives and children. And there were fried eggs, pancakes, ‘crew-sonts,’ fudge cookies, and sticks of butter disguised as every manner of food. Mom made us go look at the long icicles coming off the corners of the shed. The kids bounced up and down. Dad recited in-flight emergency procedures. And on TV, the Johnny Mann Singers sang, ‘Y’gotta have heart,’ as only they can. Dad repeated his complaint about uncle Freddy repeating his stories. Mom told everyone about the oozing lesion of somebody we didn’t know. The question, ‘Is Disneyland more fun than Busch Gardens?’ was tossed out for debate. Dad went outside to look at the sky and missed Mom’s brief history of nasty gashes suffered in our family.”
The Strange Case of Audrey Santo
Ellen Barry • December 1997
A comatose from Worcester, Mass., is the catalyst for a string of miracles and becomes a tourist attraction.
“Her name is increasingly well known in the circle of people who follow miracles. ‘She’s new. I think she just became popular in the last year or so,’ says Jim Drzymala, administrator of the ‘Apparitions of Jesus and Mary’ Web page. Those who can’t jump the line by virtue of chronic disease take what ancillary contact they can get; once a year, on the anniversary of her near-drowning, Audrey is wheeled into a local church to receive the faithful. Last year, as Audrey lay in her tiara on a stretcher, this Mass attracted upward of 5000 people—a crowd so large, and so unexpected, that ‘the police could not respond appropriately,’ according to city councilor Wayne Griffin.
“Every time the story appears, it ratchets up the level of public enthusiasm. Audrey’s Life and The Story of Little Audrey Santo have become so popular that one fan recently asked Audrey’s dermatologist, who appears in the video, for an autograph. Channel 7, which has run several spots on the phenomenon, has reported as many as 250 phone calls after a broadcast. And when the Boston Herald ran a story about Audrey last month, the accompanying photograph showed a plaque with a contact number for the Santo family friend and representative Mary Cormier. The story ran on a Monday. Over the next two days, according to Cormier, 700 people called that number.”
Seattle Was a Riot
Jason Gay • December 1999
What really happened at the World Trade Organization protests.
“Meanwhile, the police are watching. There are more than 500 police officers on the scene, most them arranged around the outskirts of the Washington Trade and Convention Center, where the majority of WTO events are scheduled to take place. Almost all of these officers are decked head to toe in black riot gear—helmets and gas masks and baseball-catcher-style knee pads and arm pads and chest protectors—and carry crowd-dispersal weapons such as pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber-pellet guns. At one intersection, a group mans a small armored vehicle nicknamed the ‘Peacemaker.’
“It’s easy to see that a situation’s developing. The protesters are everywhere; the delegates are shut out of their meetings; many of them, including the US representative to the WTO, Charlene Barshefsky, can’t even get out of their hotels. What’s more, the big protest—the labor march, with more than 30,000 people—hasn’t even started yet. It’s not even nine o’clock in the morning, and authorities are losing control of the city.
“Soon after, the tear gas comes. It’s a surreal moment. When gassing first occurs, I’m standing about 100 yards from the intersection, and people near me pause and stare momentarily, as if they’re not sure whether it’s gas or a stray, low-flying cloud. It’s almost as if the crowd is saying to itself: That didn’t just happen in America in 1999, did it?”
Kristin Lombardi • March 2001
Cardinal Bernard Law knew as early as 1984 John Geoghan was molesting children. The priest would not be defrocked for 14 years.
“Law, a high-ranking official within the Catholic Church, is one of just eight cardinals in the United States. His boss is Pope John Paul II. As head of the fourth-largest diocese in the country, Law wields substantial power. He is a senior member of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), a canonical body that makes high-level recommendations for the American Catholic hierarchy on pastoral practices, interreligious affairs, and government policy. One Boston attorney who handles clergy sexual-abuse cases says that ‘suing Law is almost like suing the pope.’
“Still, those familiar with the scope of Geoghan’s behavior are surprised it’s taken so long for Law to face legal action. ‘This has been a dirty little secret the Church has desperately tried to keep quiet,’ charges Stephen Lyons, a Boston attorney. Lyons is best known for defending David and Ginger Twitchell, the Christian Science couple whose child died after receiving inadequate medical care. But he has earned national recognition for his legal work involving clergy sexual abuse. He has successfully litigated more than six lawsuits against the Boston archdiocese and other dioceses nationwide, and says he’s ‘well aware’ of evidence implicating the cardinal—evidence that he cannot reveal because of confidentiality orders. (Lyons has never handled a Geoghan case, nor has he handled a lawsuit against the cardinal.) ‘As far as I’m concerned,’ Lyons says, ‘it’s extraordinary Law hasn’t been named a defendant [in the Geoghan cases] before.’ ”
Did He Murder His Mother?
David S. Bernstein • April 2005
The jury made a mistake when it convicted Abdul Raheem.
“The state medical examiner was never allowed to enter the crime scene—another peculiar aspect of the investigation. That examiner, Alexander Chirkov, testified that he came to the crime scene the first evening and stood waiting outside the house for half an hour, but was sent away. Chirkov performed the autopsy at 10 a.m. the next morning in his lab, a delay, he testified, that denied him access to information that could have allowed him to pinpoint the time of death, and perhaps to discover other important information.
“Then, too, there was the loss of the rape kit. A rape kit, a standard part of an investigation of a female victim—especially a naked one—includes swabs from the body, material from beneath the fingernails, and other potential physical evidence. This was, in fact, the only potential source of DNA evidence taken from on or around the body. Yet detectives did not ask to have the kit processed for months, and when they finally did they found that it had been ‘accidentally destroyed’ at the office of the chief medical examiner (CME), according to a report submitted by Coleman. (Chirkov, who no longer works for the CME’s office, did not return calls from the Phoenix seeking comment.)”
A Weed Grows In Boston
Valerie Vande Panne • December 2009
What’s a suburban soccer mom who was once fervently anti-drug doing running a business growing and selling pot?
“From the outside, we could have been on Wisteria Lane. But none of their neighbor’s houses are visible through the trees that surround Mary and Joey’s abode.
“We walk into a neat, clean, sparse home. There are no pit bulls, no guns, no security cameras. No henchmen, no gangsta rap blaring. No heavily tattooed and pierced punks or hippies. It is, in fact, the exact opposite: a quaint residence, quintessentially suburban, with a bowl of plastic fruit on the dining-room table, pictures of their happy family on the walls, house plants in the windows, and a bird feeder in the backyard. Smokey, the house cat, lolls in the living room.
“That living room has a few EZ chairs and a long, wrap-around couch — replete with built-in cup holders — where a ‘trimmer’ is stationed with a marijuana-filled TV tray. He’s using a little pair of scissors to cut the leaves (the “trim”) off the buds (the desirable part of the plant for sale to consumers). MTV’s For the Love of Ray J plays quietly on the television. (‘In order to keep the trimmers trimming,’ she advises, noting how they can get easily distracted, ‘it has to be reality television. It can’t be sports.’)
” ‘We pay our trimmers $20 an hour, plus food,’ explains Mary, gesturing to the composed laborer. ‘We can’t offer them health insurance, though. Most of our trimmers are unemployed otherwise.’ One of them, it turns out, is a former chef who’s had a hard time finding work in the global depression.”
The Trials of Nadia Naffe
Chris Faraone • February 2013
Naffe, a young Republican, entered the belly of the political beast—and was nearly eaten.
“After a long cruise through wooded Westwood, O’Keefe pulled up to Naffe’s accommodations for the night: a two-story barn on the property of an upscale suburban home. Naffe says details of their destination were not made clear on the ride, but it didn’t take long once they arrived for her to realize that she was inside Project Veritas headquarters. There were awards on the wall with O’Keefe’s engraved name on them; equipment from the RV in Los Angeles was set up on a desk. With contributions pouring in, O’Keefe had invested thousands on computers and surveillance equipment. His renovated barn was a full-service bunker for waging war against liberals.
“O’Keefe sat in his editing cockpit and began to play the NYU recordings. Strangely, Naffe says, there were also candles lit around the room. She sipped a beer, and asked again about O’Keefe’s grudge against Seife. She also asked when he planned to leave so she could have privacy. After the long train ride, she was eager to shower and get to bed early. But Naffe says O’Keefe made several excuses for why he needed to stay—to watch a football game, to use his ‘stuff.’ Then she turned her attention to a phone call with another guy, and the conversation flipped completely. O’Keefe stormed out, and peeled off. That’s when Naffe says that she began feeling woozy, as if she’d been drugged.”
by Scott Timberg
How the Village Voice and other alt-weeklies lost their voice in 2013 http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/12/28/how-the-village-voicean
The papers — which documented parts of cities that other media missed — suffered major blows this year
LOS ANGELES — There was something else there, but you couldn’t see it. There were notes coming from somewhere — maybe adding up to a melody — but you couldn’t quite hear them. Growing up in and around this sprawling, elusive city in the 1970s and ’80s, Lynell George would see things, hear things, that never showed up in the daily press.
“I didn’t always find my city in the newspapers,” says George, who grew up black in racially mixed neighborhoods and was so inspired by the city and its contradictions that she decided to become a writer who’d decode L.A.’s sense of place. She was tired of reading about the wealthy Westside, Hollywood deal-making and society ladies in Beverly Hills. “Sometimes there were just little glimpses,” she says, of something else.
Documenting the city — its racial and ethnic fault lines, the brilliant corners of its music scene, its overlooked literary life — was something, George realized, she could tackle more effectively as a journalist for alternative newsweeklies rather than a novelist. She’d spent years driving to Book Soup, a store on Sunset Boulevard, to pick up the Village Voice and read Greg Tate on black culture or Guy Trebay on the Bronx’s crack epidemic or to Venice’s Rose Cafe or Tower Records to pick up LA Weekly. “I wanted it on Thursday; I couldn’t wait,” she says. “If you didn’t get it, it was gone. I wanted to be part of that conversation.”
Talk to readers and writers about the heyday of the alternative press and you hear stories like this. For all the good memories, though, 2013 has been a rough year for alt-weeklies. The Boston Phoenix, among the oldest and most storied, collapsed in March, putting about 50 employees out of work, just six months after an optimistic move to glossy stock; the paper was losing roughly $1 million a year. Susan Orlean, a New Yorker writer who, like Joe Klein, Janet Maslin and David Denby, worked for the Phoenix early on, compares it to the disappearance of her alma mater. “I am a child of the alt-weekly world,” she says, “and I feel like it has played such an important role in journalism as we know it today.” The New Haven Advocate was folded, along with two other weeklies, into The Hartford Courant this month after a year that saw heavy layoffs. In May, the two top editors of The Village Voice resigned rather than cut a quarter of the staff.
The troubles are not confined to the northeast: The LA Weekly, whose issues typically offer less than half the pages they did a decade ago, recently announced substantial cuts in its theater coverage, to which the paper had a three-decade commitment. Most places, page counts and staff sizes are way down.
Some of the causes of the alt-press meltdown are more complex than those of daily newspapers, which have been felled primarily by the Internet and corporate overreach. But the results are at least as tumultuous.
None of this sad trajectory was clear to Lynell George back when she became — in a chaotic office in Silverlake, a gritty gay neighborhood not yet declared cool — an LA Weekly intern in the late ’80s and a staff writer in the early ’90s. A tattooed performance artist manned the front desk, and pompadoured staffers in pegged jeans would arrive with guitars in preparation for after-work gigs. “You didn’t know what you’d come into in the morning — I loved that. It reflected the music scene, the art scene.” And “alternative,” she realized, meant asking, “‘What’s really going on?’ And to come at it in a different way.”
Despite its association with the counterculture, the alternative press had its origins in the Eisenhower era — in the Red Scare, in fact. Though mainstream culture circa 1955 was sleepy and reactionary, Norman Mailer, who helped found The Village Voice that year out of a Greenwich Avenue apartment, wrote that the paper would “give a little speed to that moral and sexual revolution which is yet to come upon us.” Dan Wolf, another founder, described the era as one in which “the vulgarities of McCarthyism had withered the possibilities of a true dialogue between people.”
Mailer’s column for the Voice, the novelist wrote a few years later, gave him the kind of opportunity that would have made Jack Kerouac swoon: “Drawing upon hash, lush, Harlem, Spanish wife, Marxist culture, three novels, victory, disaster, and draw, the General looked over his terrain and found it a fair one, the Village a seed-ground for the opinions of America, a crossroads between the small town and the mass media.” Avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas became the paper’s film critic, urbanist Jane Jacobs wrote important pieces on the destruction of lower Manhattan neighborhoods, Nat Hentoff chronicled jazz and politics, Robert Christgau helped invent rock criticism.
The Voice surged from its initial print run of 2,500 copies (sold, originally, at 5 cents apiece) to 150,000 readers by 1970. By that point, the paper had company: What began as a music-heavy publication in 1966, Boston After Dark would become the more comprehensive Boston Phoenix, and in 1970, anti-war students at Arizona State founded the first New Times paper to protest the Kent State killings. The year after, the Chicago Reader was inaugurated by a group of college friends, and the following year, the first of the Creative Loafing papers, which would spread across the South, began in Atlanta.
These papers inherited varying degrees of the Voice’s political edge, emphasis on hipness and personal style, and pugnacity toward the mainstream. When LA Weekly rolled out its first issue in 1978, Jay Levin, one of its founders, wrote, “the smog in L.A. was so bad that much of the year you could barely see the hookers on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue.”
Before long, the Weekly had dug into the cozy relationship between government regulators and polluters and turned out 40 stories on smog and the people responsible for it. This was the paper’s mission: “We would challenge all the official stories.” (Today, now that L.A.’s smog problem has improved, you can see the hookers clearly.)
Alt-weeklies thrived in conservative and conventional times. “The Reagan years were in some ways the alternative press’s glory years,” says Tom Carson, who wrote for the Voice and LA Weekly from 1977 to 1999. “We knew we were a playing an adversary role. Peggy Noonan was right: It was a revolution, destroying what was left of the New Deal, making this into a very different country. And we were the only ones calling (Reagan) on it, besides a few scattered op-ed columnists.”
At a time when corporate rock thrived and the blockbuster culture was gearing up — Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were no longer mavericks, Phil Collins and hair metal raced up the charts — and the president refused to utter the name of a plague killing thousands of gay men, the lines were clearly drawn. The alternative press knew which side it was on.
Though sometimes dismissed as hippie rags, alt-weeklies exerted an influence on mainstream, straight dailies. “The alternative press should get credit for pushing the daily press to cover culture and the arts,” says Doug McLennan, a former Seattle Weekly staffer who now runs ArtsJournal.com.
But the influence went the other way, too: By the ’90s, with the first popular Democratic president in three decades, corporate studios starting indie-film wings and “alternative rock” albums shooting up the charts, the lines became more blurred: Alternative weeklies and mainstream papers were harder to tell apart.
Manohla Dargis was writing for The Village Voice when she saw a New York Times story on the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and realized that things had changed. Cultural shifts, and an interest in youth and fringe culture by the mainstream press, meant that alt papers were losing their distinctiveness. And without a Republican White House, alt-weeklies were losing their political edge.
“When you take away the politics — if you don’t have an editor with a very aggressive political agenda — all the other coverage is up for grabs,” says Dargis. “Mainstream journalists started to cover that stuff. Mainstream papers started to poach, and some writers were comfortable in both worlds. Why shouldn’t they be?
“People like Greg Tate and C. Carr were never going to work for the mainstream press.” But Dargis says she realized that the terms had shifted, and by 2002, as film editor at LA Weekly, she was tired of toiling for alt-press wages. “I could stay there or make twice as much money in the mainstream. I couldn’t say ‘f—‘ anymore, but maybe I could make a living.” She is now a movie critic for The New York Times.
In terms of circulation and revenues, the ’90s seemed like a good time for alternative weeklies. But the seeds of demise had been planted. It wasn’t just what social critic Thomas Frank has called “the conquest of cool” or the pressures that pushed the Voice, for instance, to stop charging for its publication in 1996. It was a wily company from Arizona.
New Times began opening new alt-weeklies and aggressively acquiring existing ones in the ’90s, and their model emphasized investigative reporting but not progressive politics. In 2005, New Times, led by founder Michael Lacey, bought the Voice, LA Weekly and other papers and renamed itself Village Voice Media. At the original Voice, jazz critic Gary Giddins, photographer Sylvia Plachy, Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer and senior editor and gay-rights crusader Richard Goldstein were pushed out before New Times arrived; writers Hentoff, J. Hoberman, Christgau, Michael Musto and James Ridgeway after. From ’05 to ’07, the Voice cycled through five top editors. LA Weekly was cannibalized, too. For those writers left, it was a culture shock.
“I got out in the nick of time,” says Carson, the former LA Weekly and Village Voice employee, who now reviews movies for GQ. “I could not have survived the New Times era. They seemed motivated by hatred of everything the alternative press stood for — the left-wing politics, the countercultural sensibility, the value placed on intellectualism. These guys were just aggressively demolishing everything that weeklies were good for.”
Of course, Craigslist and the Internet consumed much of the advertising that both alternative and mainstream papers depended on and altered the whole landscape. “These retail shifts have made it harder for publishers to distribute their weeklies,” wrote press critic Jack Shafer, a onetime alt-weekly editor in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. “Before Tower Records went under, a paper could drop thousands of copies a week at the store’s many locations, and the stacks would disappear in a day or two. The video stores that once distributed them? Gone.” Instead of opening an alt-weekly as you waited for your subway car or girlfriend, he says, young folks now pull out their cell phones.
“The alternative press comes at a very specific point in American history, and its demise does, too,” says Dargis. “People are going to look at it as completely a technological issue, which is totally reductive. By the time the Internet arrives, the alternative press had already given it up. It had lost its mission.”
A journalism career’s start
As it happens, I am not a disinterested observer in these questions. I became a journalist largely because of the alternative press. As a left-leaning, college-radio-loving teenager in a moderately conservative Reagan-era suburb in Maryland, I found the Voice while working at a bookstore: From its political engagement to its underground music coverage to J. Hoberman’s ability to make broader sense of mainstream films, this was a world I’d suspected existed but had never quite found before that.
By the latter ’90s, when I was in my late 20s, I was editing a film section and writing about culture for New Times’ L.A. paper, New Times Los Angeles, which the company formed after it bought two smaller weeklies and, in my boss’s phrase, “machine-gunned the staff.” I was told over and over again by my bosses about what a bunch of lazy, pontificating hippies sat across town at the Weekly, even as I blushed at the quality of their arts coverage. At New Times I met a very sharp bunch of journalists, but a business model clearly built on the promiscuous use of job termination. (I was fired once, then rehired.) They weren’t quite right-wing — more macho libertarian, with a bullying streak — but when Sarah Palin broke out and began to run down coastal “elites,” I felt like I was back in a Monday editorial meeting.
For all the emphasis on reporting — the implication being that columns, essays or reviews were somehow unmanly — it was a film critic, Peter Rainer, who earned a Pulitzer finalist spot during my time there. Jonathan Gold, who worked for LA Weekly until last year, won his Pulitzer as a food critic.
But what seemed strange about the New Times crowd is that sometimes they were right. And sometimes they were right on important things, as when the paper helped break a scandal in which the Los Angeles Times secretly shared profits with an advertiser.
It was sad, then, when the company shut New Times Los Angeles, in 2002. I had decamped to the Los Angeles Times by then, and I watched with amazement as New Times swaggered back to town, took over the Weekly and started butchering. (Two longtime New Times editors told me the alt-press troubles come from the economy and the Internet and not anything the company did and declined to speak on the record. Similarly, the Association of American Newsmedia has said the Boston Phoenix’s closing and other turmoil is not a sign of a larger decline.)
New Times’ owners killed my old paper’s online archive, so most of what we wrote disappeared. They later dumped almost all of the Weekly’s archive of old papers, which contained what one scribe called “the secret history of L.A.” They moved the paper from a gritty, almost-hip location on Sunset Boulevard to a freeway-adjacent corporate box that former staffers liken to an Ikea set down in Siberia. Joe Donnelly, a gifted editor hired by one “Weekly” regime, fired by another, is not alone in thinking the owners ruined the paper. (Disclosure: I’ve worked with several people in this story, including Donnelly.)
In 2012, Lacey split to take control of Backpage, an online classified service heavy on escort services that has been linked to underage prostitution. (New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof has called it “Where Pimps Peddle Their Goods.”) He has compared his departure to Backpage to his youthful protest over the Kent State dead and to Grove Press’s Barney Rosset’s fight to publish D.H. Lawrence.
What’s the significance of all this for people who read weeklies rather than write for them? Los Angeles, which had three alt-weeklies in the ’80s and ’90s — including an LA Weekly with fact-checkers, researchers and a large writing staff — now has just one, with a skeleton staff and fewer than 100 pages of copy. (Matt Groening’s “Life in Hell” comic, a precursor to “The Simpsons,” ran in one of the papers New Times killed, the Los Angeles Reader.)
Over the years, alternative papers have paid attention to neglected issues and unjustly obscure rock bands. The members of the Pixies met through the classified pages in The Boston Phoenix. Giddins’s jazz writing in the Voice remains as daring and clear as a Charlie Parker solo; Ridgeway’s work on neo-Nazis and militias has no peer. LA Weekly helped document parts of its city that would literally explode in the ’92 riots, and then documented the carnage, in words and pictures, better than any other outlet. Even the New Times papers have published an enormous number of gutsy investigative stories on crony politicians, corrupt sheriffs, kids victimized in foster care and vile religious cults. “Yes, we’re under tremendous pressure in the digital age, like everyone in the media,” says Sarah Fenske, editor of LA Weekly, before naming stories that make her proud to be in the business. She cites a piece about lawyer Carmen Trutanich, whom she calls “one of the biggest bullies in L.A. politics”; one on accusations of exploitation of would-be filmmakers on YouTube; and a third arguing that an epidemic of hit-and-run accidents has been ignored by the police.
“What factory that we’d once hear about dumping toxic chemicals are we not hearing about anymore?” asks Ted Drozdowski, a onetime Boston Phoenix editor. “There are less watchdogs, which is why we hear less barking.”
When those papers go down, or cut pages and staff, those stories disappear and those writers find another way to pay the rent. But it’s not just what we don’t see; it’s the way seeing itself has changed. “When the Voice was in muckraking mode,” says Carson, “and we’d go after some shitty landlord or some awful politico, that story was on the cover, and it was all over the place. Today, you can see that story online and you may be the only person reading it. A physical paper is a physical presence — and you’d see it all over the city.”