behind the news

Boston Phoenix, down in flames

The death of a stellar weekly
March 14, 2013

On Thursday afternoon, Boston Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich announced that the 47-year-old alt-weekly would cease publication effective immediately. The past few years “have been extremely difficult times for our Company,” Mindich said in a statement, “and despite the valiant effort by many, many past and current staff to attempt to stabilize and, in fact, reverse our significant financial losses, we have been unable to do so and they are no longer sustainable.” The Phoenix‘s March 15 print edition will be its last; its website will shutter after next week’s online edition.

Phoenix staffers knew that something was up. At 8:08pm 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,, 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.

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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.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.