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.”

The boys (and girls) on the bus, 2012-style

Curtis Wilkie

My friend and former Boston Phoenix colleague David Bernstein has written a terrific piece on the media horde that follows the presidential candidates from stop to stop. Bernstein discovers that the number of reporters on the campaign trail may be as great as it ever was, but that the composition and focus have changed considerably.

Unlike campaigns past, Bernstein writes, local newspapers are barely represented. The New York Times and the Washington Post are on the case, of course. But even the Boston Globe, which has made a significant effort to cover the 2012 race, can’t match what it did in 1988, when it actually established a bureau in Des Moines the year that Michael Dukakis won the Democratic nomination.

So who’s taken their place? Niche organizations devoted to covering politics such as the Huffington Post, Politico, Talking Points Memo, Slate, Salon, Real Clear Politics and the cable news operations. Bernstein argues that the result is coverage that is more insular and insidery than ever, as news aimed at a general audience has been replaced with news for political junkies.

I’m not sure I agree. Yes, the state of political journalism today can be dreadful at times, but it was pretty bad back in the day, too. Inside baseball has always been the stock in trade. Bernstein pays homage to Timothy Crouse’s classic treatment of the 1972 campaign-trail press corps, “The Boys on the Bus.” One of Crouse’s key observations was that few people on that bus dared go off the reservation and report stories no one else was reporting for fear that their editors squawk.

One of the most fun stories I reported during my own years at the Phoenix was the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary campaign, when George W. Bush annihilated John McCain. For two days I rode in the McCain caravan, and then spent two more days driving to Bush events. So I enjoyed Bernstein’s interview with the legendary political reporter Curtis Wilkie, a star of “The Boys on the Bus.” I got to talk with Wilkie on the trail 12 years ago, when he was still working for the Globe. Wilkie has since moved on to the University of Mississippi.

“For the broader audience in the middle of the country, the idea that your local paper does not have a presence there, it’s sad,” Wilkie tells Bernstein.

The problems of political coverage are the same as they ever were: an obsession with the horse race to the near-exclusion of ideas; a pack mentality that makes it difficult for anyone to report stories that are truly different; and an orientation toward inside stories about strategy rather than about how candidates might actually govern.

Bernstein has given us a close-up look at how the good, the bad and the ugly of political journalism has made the transition to the technological, post-newspaper age.

Photo © 2011 by the University of Mississippi.

The company that Charlie Baker keeps

The Hudakmobile

Scot Lehigh has a splendid column in today’s Boston Globe on Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker’s recent close encounter with William Hudak, a political extremist who has flirted with the birther movement.

Lehigh writes that “there are pretty clear signs that Hudak has wandered well north of the border that separates a hyperbolic political hopeful from a poisonous, insidious kook.” Hudak, a Boxford lawyer, is running for Congress against Democratic incumbent John Tierney this fall.

Anyone who has followed the Hudak saga over the past several months will be familiar with the inept shuffle he gives Lehigh as he tries to deny he ever believed President Obama was not born in the United States. More to the point, though, Lehigh criticizes Baker, a purported moderate, for attending a Hudak fundraiser, writing:

Yes, Baker’s camp disavows Hudak’s views. Yet a candidate is also known by the company he keeps. And it speaks poorly of Baker that he’s willing to countenance Hudak to court his supporters.

As Lehigh acknowledges, the story of Baker’s appearance was broken earlier this month by David Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix. Lehigh also credits Media Nation for assembling some of Hudak’s most toxic materials.

You may recall that this all started with Hudak’s claiming the day after U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s victory over Martha Coakley that Brown had endorsed his candidacy. After I posted evidence of Hudak’s extremism, the Brown people made it clear that there had never been an endorsement — and even though Brown is generally thought to be more conservative than Baker, the senator has wisely kept his distance from Hudak ever since.

A big night for my old friends at the Phoenix

This past Saturday, Mrs. Media Nation and I had a great time spending the evening with old friends from the Boston Phoenix at the New England Newspaper & Press Association awards dinner. I was there because Harvey Silverglate and I had been nominated in the right-to-know reporting category for the 2009 Muzzle Awards; we ended up taking second place.

Overall, the Phoenix cleaned up. I was especially pleased to see Mike Miliard win Journalist of the Year, one year after Phoenix political columnist David Bernstein took the honor. There were so many first-place awards that I will just point to this rather than try to list them all. If I may, I’ll just single out one other — Kristen Goodfriend, who won first place in design, and who always makes all of us look good in print.

You can find all the NENPA winners here.

Beating Scott Brown

A lot of Democrats assume they’ll be able to take back Scott Brown’s Senate seat (No! It’s the people’s seat!) when he comes up for re-election in 2012.

But take a look at the list of likely challengers Boston Phoenix political columnist David Bernstein has come up with. Marty Meehan? Vicki Kennedy? Frankly, if Brown can find a way to establish himself as a moderate, Massachusetts-style Republican while not alienating the national party leadership, he could be in for a long run.

The only significant new talent to emerge on the Democratic side in Massachusetts in the past 20 years is Gov. Deval Patrick. He’s had a rough time in office. But if he can somehow win re-election, he might be the best of the Democratic contenders against Brown.

Heavy metal for the Phoenix’s Bernstein

I am going to start demanding more respect now that I can truthfully claim to have once worked with the New England Press Association‘s “Journalist of the Year.”

Congratulations to Boston Phoenix reporter David Bernstein, who also picked up first-place awards in investigative reporting and for his political column, the Phoenix’s venerable “Talking Politics” feature. In particular, Bernstein was singled out for his in-depth investigation into the wrongful conviction of Stephan Cowans, published almost exactly one year ago.

Plenty of other friends from the Phoenix were honored at NEPA last weekend as well. Here is the announcement.