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Boston Phoenix hopes to fly higher with new look

Redesign targets young audience, rival free papers

The Boston Phoenix's most radical redesign in 25 years hits the streets today with a bolder, more contemporary ''flat tabloid" look that aims to woo young readers disenchanted by daily newspapers and stave off competition from free commuter papers such as Metro Boston and upstart rivals such as the Weekly Dig.

The redesign, which includes a new logo and more colorful graphics, seeks to make the Phoenix easier to read. New Internet-friendly type faces are used so that what people see in the paper mimics the look of the Phoenix website.

Previously, the paper came folded in half. In focus groups, Phoenix executives heard that young people didn't like that format.

''That fold bummed people out," said Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis.

The $1.2 million redesign, which seeks to keep existing readers happy while winning over well-educated new readers in the 18-to-34 year-old age group, eliminates the fold.

The astrology column has been relocated and video-game coverage is now included in the Arts section, but there are no big changes in the Phoenix philosophy of offering provocative political and social reporting and arts criticism along with extensive dining and entertainment listings, said Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich.

The Phoenix, which has sister papers in Portland, Maine, and Providence, will still run long feature stories such as this week's cover story on Tom Monaghan, a pizza entrepreneur who hopes to build a gated community in Florida for conservative Catholics.

In print, that story is nearly 4,400 words long and is accompanied by a 2,000 word sidebar, Kadzis said. The paper directs readers to an additional sidebar on its website. The Boston Phoenix recently increased its weekly print run from 109,000 to 150,000 copies.

At the six-year-old Weekly Dig, which prints about 50,000 copies, publisher Jeff Lawrence said the Phoenix needs more than a makeover. Young people want shorter, punchier stories. They want ''light" treatment of hard news, and they can find long features boring, said Lawrence, who last year sold a majority interest in the Dig to Boston magazine owner Herb Lipson. The Dig recently did its own redesign, and Lawrence said the Phoenix is following its lead, something Mindich heatedly denied.

The Phoenix, launched in 1966, has ''grown old" along with baby boomer readers, Lawrence said, and it has a hard time being hip and cool when it attempts to write about the local nightclub scene and hot new bands.

''They won their Pulitzer for classical music reviews," Lawrence said. Noting that many Phoenix writers are in their 20s and 30s, Kadzis shot back that the Dig does not practice serious journalism.

''They're a toy," he said.

What young people want to read today is a cause of anxiety for the print media. As the Internet has become a more popular information source, particularly for young consumers who don't believe they should have to pay for news, circulation has slipped for many daily newspapers, including the Globe.

In contrast to paid dailies, the free-circulation papers that belong to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies estimated that collective circulation and revenue rose between 3 and 4 percent last year.

A private company, the Phoenix does not disclose revenue. At one time, the Phoenix charged $1.50 per copy. In 2000, the company began distributing free of charge.

Mindich said the Internet has turned hard news, the bread-and-butter of daily newspapers, into a commodity, but there is still a growing audience for the type of ''point-of-view" journalism that many alternative weeklies provide.

Still, challenges lie ahead, according to a recent report on the ''state of the news media" from the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Websites such as Craigslist.org could reduce the amount of money consumers and businesses are willing to spend to buy classified ads in alternative weeklies, said Dante Chinni, one of the authors of the state-of-the-news-media report. On some Internet bulletin boards, landlords can post free ads for vacant apartments. Other sites offer no-cost options for lonely consumers who might otherwise pay an alternative weekly to run ads that outline their romantic desires, often in lurid detail.

Other potential challenges are the free papers that target young commuters who use public transportation in many cities. Locally, there's Metro Boston. In March, the Globe completed its purchase of a 49 percent interest in Metro Boston.

''New competition, while potentially threatening, has not yet dented in any real way the bottom line of alternative weeklies," the project's report noted. ''The question is whether weeklies are simply more resilient than other media that have suffered against new competition -- like newspapers that have suffered with the Internet's growth -- or whether these alternative weeklies' challengers are still relatively immature."

The Phoenix's redesign is about being ''proactive" toward challenges ahead, Mindich said.

''We're recognizing that the way people consume media is changing," he said. ''And we want to drive that change instead of waiting for it."

Chris Reidy can be reached at reidy@globe.com.

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