Tag Archives: The Phoenix

A smart take on the glossified (Boston) Phoenix

I continue to be surprised at the amount of attention The Phoenix has received for its switch from newsprint to glossy paper. The latest to weigh in is Boston magazine, with a smart piece by Peter Vigneron on the alt-weekly’s struggle to survive in a dramatically changed media environment. (Among the many people Vigneron interviews is yours truly.)

The best quote is from editor Carly Carioli, who tells Vigneron: “We have said for decades that we are a magazine in newsprint form. Now we’re a magazine in magazine form.” Truth. Nice plug, too, for David Bernstein, whom Vigneron calls “a fine political writer, perhaps the best in the state.”

I only have one quibble. At one point Vigneron asks, “But can you save a publication that for many years has been neither lucrative nor especially relevant?”

As Vigneron himself notes, circulation remains north of 100,000. Like all publications, The Phoenix is fighting for its life. But a newspaper/magazine that’s picked up by more than 100,000 people each week is not irrelevant.

On another front entirely, artist Karl Stevens announced in a public Facebook post Monday that The Phoenix has canceled his weekly cartoon, “Failure,” allegedly over his mocking of Bud Light, an advertiser. I hope the cancellation proves temporary, and I welcome clarification and further explanation in the comments.

Disclosure: I was on staff at The Phoenix from 1991 to 2005, and remain a contributor.

Thursday update: Phoenix editor Carly Carioli tells the Boston Globe that any suggestion “Failure” was discontinued over the Bud Light reference is “categorically false,” adding: “As the Phoenix’s editor in chief, it was my sole decision to discontinue ‘Failure.’ There were no sponsor objections — zero — to this strip or any other that I’m aware of.”

Thursday update II: A very classy statement from Stevens: “After thinking it over and talking with people in the know, I may have misunderstood the reasons for the cancellation of Failure in The Boston Phoenix. I want to apologize publicly for any misinformation that was spread, and would like to continue the otherwise wonderful relationship I have enjoyed with the publication on any future projects.”

Climate change and the limits of journalism

Hurricane Sandy flooding New York’s East Village.

The most trenchant piece of media criticism you’re likely to see this week — this month? this year? — is an essay by journalist-turned-climate activist Wen Stephenson that appears on the cover of this week’s Phoenix.

Stephenson, an alumnus of the Boston Globe, the Atlantic and WBUR Radio, argues that though the media have in recent years finally moved beyond the false equivalence of balancing the scientific consensus with the views of a few fringe denialists, news coverage of climate change remains polite to the point of timidity. Stephenson writes:

Our most respected climate scientists … are increasingly clear and vocal about one thing: we’re rapidly running out of time to address climate change in any meaningful way and avoid the risk of global climate catastrophe, with the incalculable human suffering that it will bring, quite possibly in this century.

In the face of this situation — as much as it pains me to say this — you are failing. Your so-called “objectivity,” your bloodless impartiality, are nothing but a convenient excuse for what amounts to an inexcusable failure to tell the most urgent truth we’ve ever faced.

What’s needed, Stephenson says, is for the media to move beyond the political near-silence that has descended over the climate-change issue and instead focus relentlessly on the subject.

It’s a good, important piece, and you should read it. Nevertheless, I have some quibbles.

First, I think Stephenson, for all his experience, misapprehends the limits of journalism. It’s not like our best news organizations have ignored climate change. They’ve reported on it frequently, prominently and with great skill. But they’ve done it in an oxygen-deprived environment. That is, a story in the New York Times or on network television, no matter how it’s played, is not going to get the sort of traction Stephenson would like to see without the oxygen of an engaged political system.

That’s not to say Jim Lehrer, Candy Crowley or Bob Schieffer couldn’t have put President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney on the spot during the presidential debates. But that wouldn’t come close to the intensity generated by genuine political engagement, congressional hearings and the like. Climate change has slid off the public agenda. Journalism’s ability to force it back onto the agenda is not nonexistent, but it is limited.

Second, Stephenson’s argument does nothing to answer the sinking feeling I get whenever I read about climate change — that it’s already too late in many respects, that nothing we can do would offset the massive damage that is already occurring and that, essentially, we’re screwed. I’m not suggesting we be spared the truth. But that’s not the sort of message likely to lead to much more than sullen desperation.

Ironically, as I finish writing this, we are learning that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed Obama precisely because the president takes climate change more seriously than his opponent. Citing Hurricane Sandy, Bloomberg wrote:

Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.

So maybe facts on the ground — and in the sky, and the oceans — will accomplish what journalism has not: force all of us to take climate change seriously. Of course, we can’t pretend to know the relationship between Sandy and global warming. But it’s worth asking whether the storm was more severe than it would have been absent climate change; whether more storms like it are occurring; and whether Sandy caused more devastation than it otherwise would have because the seas are higher than they used to be.

Don’t misunderstand me. I completely agree with Stephenson and his observation that the mainstream media tend to seek consensus over difficult truth-telling. Maybe events like Sandy, and leaders like Michael Bloomberg, will start to change that consensus.

Photo (cc) by David Shankbone and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Reinventing the alt-weekly for the digital age

I’ve got a piece up at PBS’s MediaShift — my first — on how The Phoenix and other alt-weeklies are trying to maintain their relevance in the teeth of vast changes in technology, the economy and the culture.

Also, check out the accompanying podcast.

The Phoenix gets ready for its close-up

Joe Kahn wrote a smart piece on the future of the Boston Phoenix — ahem, The Phoenix — in Tuesday’s Boston Globe.

As you may know, the current issue of the Phoenix, lowercase the, is the last as a newspaper. This week, The Phoenix will debut as a free weekly glossy magazine, combining news and arts coverage from the Phoenix with some lifestyle content from Stuff, a magazine that will cease to exist as a standalone. And if you’re worried about The Phoenix’s straying from its alternative roots, keep in mind that the Phoenix had lots of lifestyle content in the 1990s. I look at this as a recalibration more than a complete reinvention.

The unusual aspect to this story, and one we Bostonians take for granted, is that the founder, Stephen Mindich, is still at it, and in fact has taken charge of the new publication. In an era of corporate chain media, The Phoenix, at 46, is still proudly independent. Mindich recently talked about his long career with Emily Rooney of “Greater Boston.”

The story of the Boston Phoenix, as with other alternative weeklies, is that it was heavily dependent on classified ads — not just the personals, but everything from a band needing a bass player to a student looking for a roommate. Needless to say, nearly all of those ads have moved to Craigslist.

And at a time when many newspapers, including the Globe, are asking their readers to pick up an increasing share of the costs through home delivery and digital subscriptions, The Phoenix is free both in print and online.

It’s a tough model for the Internet age, but glossy should enable The Phoenix to attract some of the high-end advertising it needs in order to thrive. In that spirit, I think former Phoenix contributor Mark Leccese, now a journalism professor at Emerson College and a blogger for Boston.com, was too pessimistic in his own recent assessment.

I’ve got my collector’s item from last week, and I’m looking forward to grabbing a copy of the new magazine as soon as I can. As most of you know, I was the Boston Phoenix’s media columnist from 1994 to 2005, and I still contribute occasionally.

I wish all the best to Mindich, executive editor Peter Kadzis, editor Carly Carioli and all my friends who are still there. See you tonight.