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The sad, inevitable decline of The Boston Phoenix

Posted by Mark Leccese  September 4, 2012 08:01 AM

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Some time this month, The Boston Phoenix as we’ve known it for more than 40 years will cease to exist. A new publication created from the merger of Stuff Magazine and The Boston Phoenix will take its place — a glossy weekly called just The Phoenix.

The Boston Phoenix, like alternative newsweeklies around the country, has been in decline for years. The August 24 issue contained only 44 pages (not counting the “adult services” supplement) and included only three news stories and eight arts reviews. That’s thin gruel.

The question about the Phoenix has always been: “Alternative to what?” From its founding to, oh, about 10 or 15 years ago, the Phoenix — and most alternative weeklies — provided the alternative to the city’s two daily newspapers. They covered different stories, and when they covered the same story, they took wholly different approaches than the dominant dailies did.

What made the Phoenix so successful as a leading news source in Boston for so long was that it did advocacy and analytical journalism solidly grounded in fact. That requires talented reporters, and over the years the Phoenix always had talented reporters on its staff (and still does). I could reel of a roster of names, but you’d have to scroll down several screens to read them all.

Its arts section — reviews, features, listings — frequently bested the arts sections of the daily papers by a mile. And for decades the Phoenix was thick with advertising. It was the rare publication you sometimes picked up as much for the ads (what bands are coming to town? what’s playing at the movies? where can I find roommate? where can my band get a good bass player?) as for the copy.

What happened? In short, pretty much everything I talked about above, everything the Phoenix did well, is being done — sometimes better and sometimes not — by the Internet, and that includes the concert venue ads and the classifieds. I counted only 15 classified ads in the August 24 Phoenix, not counting ads for “massages and spas” and phone sex lines. I counted a total 16 total advertising pages in a 44-page paper.

The web has hurt alternative weeklies much worse that it hurt daily papers, and it has hurt dailies plenty. The Phoenix, like most alternative weeklies, is free, so it has no revenue stream from circulation and single-copy sales. The Audit Bureau of Circulations ranked the Phoenix earlier this year as the fourth largest alternative weekly in the country, with a free circulation of 130,000 — actually up 22 percent from 2011.

That might help the Phoenix raise its ad rates, but it doesn’t bring in enough money. The Boston Globe has gone, over the past 15 years, from a business model in which roughly 85 percent of revenue came from advertising and 15 percent from circulation to a business model where the percentages are now 50-50. The Phoenix never had that opportunity.

The Phoenix is not alone. David Carr, media reporter and columnist for The New York Times, wrote a blog post in August that asked “Are Alternative Weeklies Toast?” He explains the toast-ification of alternative weeklies better than I can.

The problem with so-called alternative weeklies is that they were often formed in opposition to the daily newspapers in their respective markets, offering a spicier take on civic events and cultural coverage that reflected what was actually nascent in various places. With dailies limping in almost every American market and the listings and classifieds that were the bread and butter of weeklies now all over the Web, alternatives are just one more alternative among many.

The idea of the alternative weekly — that news would be covered absent the agenda of mainstream media and that truths would be told without paying heed to any kind of formal balance or objectivity — has all but been overwhelmed by the Web. Listings, spicy writing, coverage of the next big thing, all of that has been digitized and democratized and many alternatives have ended up looking, of all things, stodgy within this new-media context.

It's hard to refute that what once had been the domain of the Phoenix and its brethren has “digitized and democratized,” and it’s hard to refute that alternative weeklies, including the Phoenix, have become “stodgy.” Alternative newspapers intended for an audience of twenty-somethings that are managed, written and edited by middle-aged journalists do get stodgy.

When I was a teenager in the suburbs with dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter, The Boston Phoenix represented to me the precise opposite of stodgy. Every week I’d walk the mile to the only store in my town that sold (35 cents) the latest edition Phoenix, take it home and read it front to back — I’d read everything: the news, the opinion, the features, the arts reviews, the ads, the classifieds.

That was the 1970s, and to a suburban kid The Boston Phoenix represented what was cool about the city, about newspapers, and about adult life. When I graduated from college and started working as a daily newspaper reporter in the early 1980s, the Phoenix (and the Village Voice) became an even greater influence on my life and my work. By the early 1990s, I was writing regularly for The Boston Phoenix and hanging around the newsroom on Brookline Avenue, were I made life-long friends and worked with some outstanding reporters, writers and editor.

For me, that’s the sad part of the decline of The Boston Phoenix — it’s nostalgia, I suppose. But once the Web exploded and computers with innumerable apps became small enough to carry in your pocket, the paper’s decline was inevitable.

I do not wish it were 1978 again — anything but that! — and over the past decade or so I, too, have pretty much abandoned The Boston Phoenix and sought alternative journalism and alternative voices on the internet.

Undoubtedly the new publication that arises from the merger of The Boston Phoenix and Stuff Magazine will be less stodgy, and it may even be hip, but I’m a middle-aged news junkie who spends hours each day with my desktop, my laptop, my iPad and my iPhone, so I don’t image I’ll have much need for the new Phoenix.

Still, I celebrate The Boston Phoenix’s glory days and lament its inevitable decline — while eagerly looking forward to whatever spangly and useful new journalism the online world can continue to create.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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