Can the Boston Phoenix’s digital history be saved?

It’s always hard when a newspaper dies. But when the alt-weekly Boston Phoenix passed away, it prompted one of the more notable media funerals in recent memory. After the announcement was made on Twitter, TV and radio crews stood outside, ready to interview staffers walking out for the last time. Later, pallbearers carried an “open-casket newsbox” past Fenway Park to the Phoenix offices, and MIT hosted an event to remember “a Boston institution.”

There was one consolation for fans and alumni of the Phoenix (full disclosure: I’m one of them): The publication’s parent company, Phoenix Media/Communications Group (PMCG), and the owner and publisher of the Phoenix, Stephen Mindich, reassured everyone that the website would be maintained, and the online and print archives—along with Phoenix paraphernalia and Mindich’s personal papers—would be preserved.

That was in 2013. For a time, the site was up and running, though with occasional blips. Then, last year, Boston’s sister paper the Providence Phoenix died too, and the Portland Phoenix was sold.

And then—apparently sometime in late 2014, though it’s not clear exactly when—the Boston Phoenix and Providence Phoenix websites went dark. Visitors to the site were greeted with the spinning rainbow wheel of a page that won’t load.

Obviously, this was cause for some self-interested concerns among the publication’s writers: Where is my work? When will it be back? More than one former Phoenix journalist I spoke to said something like, “My entire career is on that site. I sure hope it comes back.” Recently, the sites began to load again, often sl-o-o-o-w-ly and in a disintegrating format that recalls the internet circa 1998. When a page loads, authors excitedly cut and paste their work from the old site to their own.

But it’s not only the writers who see something at stake. Rob Potylo is a performer, activist, and documentary-maker in Boston. To him, the Phoenix represented everything on the left side of the tracks—the landscape the daily Boston Globe and Boston Herald “wouldn’t go near.”

The Phoenix gave “a whole insight into the alternative scene of Boston—the music, the vibrancy of it,” he said. “Gay rights, marijuana, shady deals with politicians… the Phoenix had the balls to go into that. And to police the other media, too.”

“If you wanna know a large part of Boston’s history that goes beyond clam chowder, Mark Walhberg and Aerosmith, the Phoenix archives become essential,” Potylo added. “If you lose the archives, you lose the complete history.”

There is still hope that the Phoenix’ online archives will be fully recovered, and that the Web and print material will find a permanent home. Still, their trajectory and uncertain fate show how it can be challenging for smaller publications both to keep their digital histories intact and to find a welcoming home, if the outlet goes defunct.

The Phoenix dates back to 1966, and it went online for the first time in 1994. When the alt-weekly died, says Carly Carioli, the last editor in chief, “A lot of people were asking me what was going to happen. A lot of people were reaching out.” People in the open-source community offered to scrape the site’s data to help preserve a record. “It was a weird time. People were cold-calling, saying we’d love to figure out a way to throw money at this. [It was] hard to tell who was serious and who was in the grips of nostalgia.”

Carioli didn’t take up any of the offers. At the time, the general expectation around the Phoenix was that Boston University, where Mindich is an alum, would take the archives—encompassing everything PMCG. For one reason or another, that never happened. (BU declined to comment for this story.)

Meanwhile, the publication’s website was disintegrating. “We assumed that as long as we kept the servers working they’d be ok,” said Mindich, who acknowledges he’s not a tech expert. “The first time they went offline, it was clear we had a code-writing issue. Because the Phoenix website was written in-house over decades, there is no book of the code.”

In the mid-2000s, Carioli and former managing editor Clif Garboden had explored what it would take to put online the entire print archives of the Phoenix—which include photos from the city’s busing riots; on-the-road tales with Patti Smith and Bob Dylan, the ad the Pixies placed that bassist Kim Deal answered, and more. (It’s difficult to account for nearly five decades of counterculture covered by the Phoenix in one paragraph.) The cost was prohibitive, and the Phoenix didn’t have permission to republish everything; the vast majority of stories from the pre-internet issues never ended up online.

But at least those stories still exist in print, and for the especially curious and committed, the Boston Public Library has in its collection every issue of the Boston Phoenix from 1974-2004 available for viewing, on microfilm. If born-digital content—such as the Phoenix’s real-time coverage of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, or the Occupy Boston protests of 2011, or even the Phoenix’s controversial decision to link the Daniel Pearl beheading video—disappears from the Web, it’s gone entirely.

“How can we let contemporary technology fall through our hands like grains of sands?” said David Bieber, formerly director of special projects at the Phoenix and now an archivist himself, about the publication’s full digital history. “It’s sad to think these things wouldn’t be available for the sake of anyone with a historical curiosity. This isn’t something to be handled with white gloves. This is something to be absorbed and digested. It was participatory journalism.”

“There’s this fiction that because everything is online now, that it’s going to be online forever and that it leads to a democratization of history,” Carioli said. “But in practice, so much of the Web is even more ephemeral than legacy media, because the only places that can really afford to digitize and maintain their archives are big legacy media companies. In 20 years, we may look back and only be able to find those primary media sources. Alt-weeklies, as they disappear, are disappearing from the Web as well.”

Recently, Mindich said he is working to scrape the website and “hopefully digitally capture the material” to create a backup, in the event that the site degrades further.

And he is optimistic that he will soon be able to announce an agreement with one of Boston’s major universities (not BU) to be the permanent home of the Boston Phoenix archives: the full print and Web run, online and searchable. He also expressed optimism a similar arrangement can be found for the Providence Phoenix archives in Rhode Island.

If those deals come to pass, Mindich anticipates continued involvement—but he hopes to leave the tech end to the universities.

The lesson Mindich takes from this experience in hindsight: “Make sure that your coding is solid for your [digital] archives, and that will allow you to maintain them to download them.”

For journalists everywhere, meanwhile, the experience is a reminder to archive your own work once it’s published—even if it seems like the publication will function in perpetuity.

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Valerie Vande Panne is an award-winning independent journalist, currently based in Boston. Her work has appeared in the Boston Phoenix, The Daily Beast, Mashable, and Salon, among other publications. She is a former editor of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times. Follow her on Twitter @asktheduchess.