The Phoenix would have been the first to call out such hawkish idiocy. Unfortunately, the anniversary came four days after we shut down, as did the plethora of tall tales about American success on that front. In the weeks and months that followed, the Phoenix was also missed as Boston’s five-term mayor, Thomas Menino, announced plans to retire, setting off a 16-way scrap for the ages, and in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, as media from all over the world proved incapable of communicating the region’s proudly provincial quirkiness. Starting moments after the explosions, a number of publications reached out to me for dispatches. But while the BBC, The American Prospect, and a few others took my input seriously, the bigs like CNN and The Huffington Post asked me to chase puff pieces with the robot media that had parachuted in. Editors at those places didn’t seem interested in my knowledge of the city, or the people who live there. They just wanted more of the same Boston Strong hero-worship they had been peddling all week. Needless to say, the ordeal served as a reminder of how special the Phoenix was, and how fortunate I’d been to work there.
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As mass media continues to consolidate, and fewer companies control more venues, peripheral voices have been pushed farther out of public reach and relegated to incestuously amplified comment sewers in obscure orbits of the Internet. In that dystopian context, A Trumpet to Arms is infinitely more important now than it was in 1981. As it reads, the book can help one navigate the labyrinth of modern media. Pick any paragraph, substitute the word “blog” for “printing press,” and Armstrong’s research is as good as updated.
The déja vu is hard to ignore. As Armstrong notes, during his own heyday at the Barb, “The flirtation between rock and revolution was a quarrelsome one, ending when rock stars jilted their would-be radical allies.” Such has been my own experience, as hip-hop artists who helped radicalize me—Common, Mos Def, Ice Cube—have traded in their underground appeal for sitcom roles and corporate sponsorships. As for avant-garde business prototypes, Armstrong explains that the alternatives have been crowd-funding since William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the abolitionist siren The Liberator, was beaten by a pro-slavery mob and dragged across the cobblestones of old Boston.
Armstrong takes into account the internal conflicts over sex, drugs, and power that crippled some alternative ventures, as well as the constant threat of co-option posed by a mainstream that was becoming decreasingly distinguishable from its subterranean doppelganger. In a few captious passages, Armstrong points to the apparent hypocrisy of some alternative media. He reports, for example, that a 1980 conference for the National Association of Newsweeklies featured a cocktail hour atop Bank of America’s corporate headquarters. The author hits such critical notes loudest in a chapter titled “Ten Great Places to Find Croissants After Midnight,” in which he scrutinizes “urban weeklies of the seventies” for soothing, rather than challenging readers, and for subsequently neutralizing “large segments of America’s most activist generation.”
I’ve felt the same way about my own publication. But even after the Phoenix transitioned to a glossy magazine format six months before it died, focusing more on lifestyle frills than I may have liked, I knew the drill. Restaurant reviews attract more eyeballs and advertisers than do investigative features. They always have, and probably always will. Technically speaking, before absorbing the more literary Cambridge Phoenix and, later on, the rival Real Paper, Mindich launched his empire with Boston After Dark, which was primarily a source of music listings and reviews.