By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The Providence Phoenix, 1978-2014*

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 7.20.05 AMAs you may have already heard, The Providence Phoenix is shutting down, about a year and a half after The Boston Phoenix closed its doors. Ted Nesi of WPRI covers it here. Awful news, but not entirely unexpected. As recently as a few months ago, I was hearing that The Portland Phoenix of Maine was doing well but that Providence was lagging financially.

What happened? It’s hard to say. But Portland is a smallish city, insular and self-contained — the sort of place where alt-weeklies seem to be surviving. An example: Seven Days of Burlington, Vermont, which appears to be thriving. Providence, by contrast, is a fairly large city within the orbit of Greater Boston.

The demise of The Providence Phoenix would be bad enough on its own. What makes it even worse is that the Providence Journal is in the midst of downsizing following its sale to a company affiliated with the GateHouse Media chain. There is a real gap in Providence, and it’s not immediately clear what will fill it. Perhaps Rhode Island Public Radio can beef up its online local coverage. Maybe the online-only news site GoLocalProv will rise to the challenge. Or something new might come along.

The Providence Phoenix has produced some fine journalists over the years, including Ian Donnis of RIPR and David Scharfenberg of The Boston Globe. And best wishes to editor Lou Papineau, a veteran who started at the paper back when it was known as the NewPaper, and news editor Phil Eil, a more recent hire.

Best wishes, too, to publisher Stephen Mindich, who kept the Boston and Providence papers alive for as long as he could. I hope the future is brighter for The Portland Phoenix — now the only remaining alt-weekly in what was once a vibrant regional chain.

And yes, I plan to rant about this later today on WGBH’s “Beat the Press.”

(Note: I was a staff writer and editor for The Boston Phoenix from 1991 to 2005, and last wrote for the Providence and Portland papers this past July.)

*Correction: The headline originally gave the incorrect year for the founding of The Providence Phoenix, which began life as The NewPaper. As founder Ty Davis writes in the farewell issue, he began the paper during the Blizzard of 1978.

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  1. Jeff Lawrence

    Dan, this seems like a Phoenix problem, not an alt weekly problem. The only weeklies closing in the northeast are from that chain. I realize that it’s hard to recognize us, Dig Boston that is, as still existing in Boston, but we’re still here, thriving and growing. I’m sure you’ll mention that on Beat the Press though… And oh yeah, there is still an AAN paper in Providence, it’s called Motif. Fyi

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Jeff: Connecticut was still part of New England the last time I checked. The New Haven and Hartford Advocates have both been shut down in the past few years. New Haven, in particular, was a crown jewel of the alt-weekly world. Motif is a monthly magazine, not an alt-weekly.

    • Dan Kennedy

      I just double-checked my memory, and the Chicago Reader went under, too. (It’s now owned by the Chicago Sun-Times.) Huge, very influential alt-weekly.

  2. Jeff Lawrence

    While I sometimes question whether or not Connecticut is actually part of New England, the papers there did not die a slow death… the Advocates were sold and renamed CTNow, which is a free weekly in all of those original markets. At least according to their website.

    Motif is a member of AAN (Association of Alternative NEWSMEDIA not weeklies) which relaxed it’s admission requirements to allow for non-weekly members to apply such as Motif, and that was my point, not that it was weekly. The industry has changed and it’s not all bad.

    As far as the Chicago Reader and others that have shuttered, I was specifically focused on New England. I can only speculate as to why some of these papers failed (almost all of it happening after being sold) but the fact remains, in many places such as Denver, Houston, Portland, OR (two papers) and Seattle, to name a few, alts still thrive. In smaller markets, such as 7 Days in Burlington and the Colorado Springs Independent, bring up an an important point about owning a small market presence and therefore – potentially – having an easier go of it then in LA or SF. But that’s not the whole story. Management and operations play a huge part in success or failure. My guess is that Paula and her team at 7 Days earned their success, it was handed to them, and their market is not unlike Portland, ME.

    As for Dig Boston, I don’t expect you to give us credit or to say anything that doesn’t downplay our continued existence and success, but it would be nice. After all, you do write about media, we’re a media success story, and we’re in Boston.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Jeff: I did not mention DigBoston in a rant that was entirely about Providence. I do enjoy some of what you do, and you’ve got a good man in Chris Faraone.

  3. I’ve seen Motif a few times. I think it has some reviews and listings but there’s not much to it and I don’t think it does much, if any, original news reporting. It’s not really comparable to an alt weekly like the Phoenix.

  4. Just a couple of notes:
    1) Esther – if you haven’t seen Motif lately, you should check it out. They do have solid investigative reporting, tons of local music & arts reviews, and a lot more.

    2) As we look at which Alt weeklies are failing (and try to understand why), it’s important to remember that talking about the strength and stature of papers like the Chicago Reader, Boston Phoenix, New Haven Advocate, (or the now defunct SF Bay Guardian!) pre-2009 is akin to ranking military strength based on which countries had the strongest Mounted Cavalry Units at the outset of WWII. The entire existing Alt-Weekly business model (already weakened by lost classified & music industry revenue) was completely destroyed in 2008-09 by the triple-nuke combination of an economic crash, an almost universal shift away from National print media buys by leading brands, and the success of a critical mass of new digital & social media marketing alternatives to advertisers. It’s only what Alt-Weeklies have (or haven’t) done to adapt to the new business reality post-2009 that is determining their individual fates. Those who continued to spend their money on horses have predictably failed, while those who started investing in the development of the tank are prepared to continue the battle to keep independent journalism alive.

    As Dan lamented, the big losers are the cities where these papers close. It’s only after the fact that many people realize just how important their Alt-Weekly was to their local Political & Judicial systems, their Arts & Creativity Scene, & their community in general. That being said, we’re businesses; it’s not their fault when we fail….it’s ours. We have to look in the mirror, resist the excuses, and continue to experiment & innovate along with the ever-changing new business environment that is our reality. Just like everyone else.

  5. This week’s issue of the Portland Phoenix may be its last after a deal to sell the paper to its local management has fallen through

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