The Boston Phoenix’s archives are coming to Northeastern

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Issue of Nov. 17, 2006

In case you haven’t heard, there’s big news about the late, great Boston Phoenix and its related properties — WFNX Radio, Boston After Dark, the Phoenix papers of Portland, Providence and Worcester, and Stuff and Stuff at Nite magazines.

On Friday, The Boston Globe reported that Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich is donating all of the archives to Northeastern University. The performance of the Phoenix’s website, which is still live, should improve over time. The long-term vision is even more exciting: We hope that every print edition of the Phoenix/Boston After Dark going back to 1966 will be digitized in a searchable format.

Mindich’s gift has been in the works for a year (I’ve dropped hints here and there), and we are finally able to go public. The Globe story is more than kind regarding my own modest role. I put Stephen together with Northeastern archivist Giordano Mecagni, and they did the rest. I am so proud of the 14 years I worked for Stephen, and I’m excited that this incredible resource will be available for years to come.

Here is an excerpt from Stephen’s farewell message, published in the Phoenix’s final issue on March 14, 2013:

What I can and will say is I am extremely proud, as all of you should be, of the highest standards of journalism we have set and maintained throughout the decades in all of our areas of coverage and the important role we have played in driving political and socially progressive and responsible agendas; in covering the worlds of arts and entertainment, food and fashion — always  with a critical view, while at the same time promoting their enormous importance in maintaining a healthy society; and in advocating for the recognition and acceptance of a wide range of lifestyles that are so valuable for a vibrant society.

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Can The Portland Phoenix avoid the fate of its siblings?

The Portland Phoenix of Maine may be on the verge of joining its Boston and Providence siblings in Alt-Weekly Heaven, according to Edward Murphy of the Portland Press Herald and Seth Koenig of the Bangor Daily News. Owner Stephen Mindich was reportedly poised to sell the Portland paper to one of its employees (unnamed), but the deal has fallen through.

I suppose it would be naive to say that I’m surprised. But I am, at least a little bit. As recently as this past summer an insider told me that the Providence paper was struggling but that Portland was doing well. And Portland is the sort of small, insular, arts-rich city where alt-weeklies are still hanging on. In fact, as Koenig observes of The Portland Phoenix:

It long appeared from the outside to be the most financially stable of the Phoenix papers, always keeping enough advertising to fill out around 50 pages of content (newspapers get thinner when there aren’t enough ads to justify printing as many pages) and never needing to follow the Boston Phoenix’ desperate, last moment reinvention as a glossy magazine.

Desperate? Maybe. I think you could also make the case that if the Boston paper had gone the glossy route two or three years earlier, it might still be around.

In any case, I’m hoping that this time the story turns out differently. The mere fact that someone wants to buy the paper suggests that, from a business point of view, there’s something worth saving.

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.

The James Foley video and bearing witness to evil

James Foley
James Foley

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The horrifying execution of journalist James Foley raises an uncomfortable if familiar question: Is there anything to be gained by watching the video of his beheading at the hands of an ISIS terrorist?

It’s a question that I explored 12 years ago, when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was similarly murdered. I searched for the video online and found it at a website whose sick operators presented such fare for the entertainment of their disturbed viewers. I shared it with my friends at The Boston Phoenix, who — to my surprise — published several small black-and-white stills of Pearl’s beheading and provided a link to the full video. “This is the single most gruesome, horrible, despicable, and horrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” the Phoenix’s outraged publisher, Stephen Mindich, wrote in an accompanying editorial.

The Phoenix’s actions created a national controversy. I defended Mindich and editor Peter Kadzis, first in the Phoenix, later in Nieman Reports. (At the time I had left the paper to write my first book, though I continued to contribute freelance pieces. My departure turned out to be temporary. And Kadzis, my editor then, is also my editor now: he is the senior editor of WGBH News.) I wrote in the Nieman piece:

Daniel Pearl didn’t seek martyrdom, but martyrdom found him. The three-and-a-half-minute video shows us the true face of evil, an evil that manifested itself unambiguously last September 11…. We turn away from such evil at our peril.

I stand by what I wrote then, but I haven’t watched the execution of Jim Foley. In contrast to the Daniel Pearl footage, the Foley video is bright and clear, in high definition. I’ve watched a bit of it, listened to him speak while kneeling in the desert; but that was all I could handle.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby takes a different view, writing, “The intrepid and compassionate reporter from New Hampshire didn’t travel to Syria to sanitize and downplay the horror occurring there. He went to document and expose it.”

I don’t disagree. But it should be a matter of choice. Gawker, among the first media outlets to post a link to the video, made sure its readers knew that what they would see if they clicked was “extremely disturbing.” By contrast, the New York Post and the Daily News published front-page images of Foley (I’ve linked to a Washington Post story, not the actual images) just before his beheading — in the New York Post’s case, barely a nanosecond before.

It’s a fine line, but I’d say Gawker was on the right side of it, and the New York tabloids were not.

At the time of his capture, Foley was freelancing for GlobalPost, the Boston-based international news organization. GlobalPost co-founder and chief executive Phil Balboni, in a tribute published in the Globe, wrote:

For those of us who knew Jim, the road ahead will be particularly long and trying. As a lifelong journalist, the path forward for me will be rooted in a renewed and profound respect for a profession that for Jim was not a job, but a calling.

And here is an interview with GlobalPost co-founder Charles Sennott, talking about Foley on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM).

We’ve learned a lot since the execution of Daniel Pearl. One of the things we’ve learned is that bearing witness does not necessarily lead to a good result. Years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have not created a safer world.

Do we have a right to view the James Foley video? Of course. Twitter, a private company that has become a virtual public utility, is heading down a dangerous road by banning images from the video. Should we watch the video as a way of witnessing unspeakable evil, as Jeff Jacoby argues? That, I would suggest, should be up to each of us.

Above all, we should honor the bravery and sacrifice of journalists like Daniel Pearl and James Foley, who take risks most of us can scarcely imagine. Let’s keep the Foley family in our thoughts, and celebrate the safe return of Peter Theo Curtis. And let’s send offer whatever good thoughts we can for Steven Sotloff, a fellow hostage of Foley’s who was threatened with death last week.

A pair of heartfelt tributes to the Boston Phoenix

I want to share with you two extraordinary reflections on the Boston Phoenix and what its loss means to the city and the region. There have been a lot of such reminiscences, and many of them have been terrific. But I look at these as putting a cap on it, unless I decide to expand on my own recent effort, which came off as more sterile than I would have liked.

Harvey Silverglate
Harvey Silverglate

The first, by Harvey Silverglate, appeared late last month in the final, online-only edition of the Phoenix. Harvey is a friend and an occasional collaborator. (We are currently brainstorming ways to keep the Phoenix Muzzle Awards alive, and we hope to have an announcement within a month or so.)

Harvey began writing his civil-liberties column for The Real Paper in the early 1970s. When Stephen Mindich, the Phoenix owner, absorbed The Real Paper into the Phoenix later in the decade, Harvey’s column was renamed “Freedom Watch,” the name it carried up until the end. I had the privilege of editing Harvey in the early 1990s. He writes in his final column:

It’s no surprise to me that assaults on freedom — the mainstay of my long-running column — have outlasted the newspaper I could always count on to publish even my harshest critiques of the criminal justice system. Unlike, it seems, the institutions that work hard to subjugate others, newspapers, which are essential to free the subjugated, are not immortal.

Make sure you read the whole thing — and check out the photos, taken by his wife, Elsa Dorfman, a wonderful portrait photographer.

Al Giordano
Al Giordano

The second piece, which I’ve been anticipating since the end of the Phoenix was announced, finally popped into view on Tuesday — a 4,000-word-plus reflection by Al Giordano, who covered politics (among other things) for the paper in the mid-1990s. I was the news editor for the early part of Al’s time at the Phoenix. We struggled over Al’s radical, activist inclinations and the more mainstream direction the Phoenix was then taking, and he describes those struggles accurately and fairly.

I always respected Al, and my admiration for him only grew after he left the paper, moved to Mexico and launched NarcoNews.com, which covers the so-called war on drugs from a Latin American perspective. When Al writes about the Phoenix crusading in his defense after he got sued by “narco-bankers,” he is referring in part to this article I wrote in 2001.

Al’s essay on the demise of the Phoenix is impassioned and, in parts, poetic. It was not meant to be excerpted, but I’ll take a shot at it anyway:

My success at manipulating daily newspapers had stripped from me any sense of myth or magic that dailies had so carefully cultivated among the reading public. I liked reporters but felt badly for them: Their mothers thought they were powerful, but they were really slaves to the daily deadline, which more often than not denied them the time to ponder or think about a story before having to put their name on it. Spared from the popular illusion that anyone could be Woodward and Bernstein if he could just get to a big-enough daily, I pointed my ambition elsewhere: The Phoenix job, for me, was the pinnacle, top of the heap. It was all I had aspired to be.

Al is a force of nature, and had a hugely positive influence on the newsroom and what readers saw every week. By the time he left, I had moved into the media columnist’s slot. I was sorry to see him go. But, as he writes, he “never stopped being part of the Phoenix family.”

The Boston Phoenix comes to the end of the road

I’m not even going to try to write a real post about this today. I’m getting bombarded from all directions, and besides that, I’m devastated. But I did want to note quickly, in case you haven’t heard, that The Phoenix — the erstwhile Boston Phoenix, reinvented as a glossy magazine last fall — is closing down, as is its affiliated Internet radio station, WFNX.com.

The Providence and Portland Phoenixes will continue, as well as a few non-journalism businesses.

Here is Doug Most’s report for Boston.com. [5:07 p.m. update: That report now carries Joe Kahn’s byline.]

The Phoenix gave me 14 great years, and it’s hard to believe that the end has come. There are way too many people to mention, so I’ll leave it at this: Peter Kadzis and Stephen Mindich were great bosses, smart, tough and loyal. Carly Carioli has done tremendous work on the reinvention, and it’s a tragedy that he ran out of time. I rely on David Bernstein for his deep reporting on politics and Chris Faraone for an alternative look at the news. Here is Mindich in a statement to the staff:

What I can and will say is I am extremely proud, as all of you should be, of the highest standards of journalism we have set and maintained throughout the decades in all of our areas of coverage and the important role we have played in driving political and socially progressive and responsible agendas; in covering the worlds of arts and entertainment, food and fashion – always with a critical view, while at the same time promoting their enormous importance in maintaining a healthy society; and in advocating for the recognition and acceptance of a wide range of lifestyles that are so valuable for a vibrant society….

We have had an extraordinary run.

And this is an incredibly sad day.

More: Unlike many who got their start at the Phoenix in their early 20s, I was 34 years old and thought my journalism career was over. In the late 1980s I had tried my hand at launching a regional lifestyle magazine in the suburbs northwest of Boston following some years at the Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn. The magazine failed, and I was doing what I could to survive.

I was picked up on waivers in 1991 from the Pilot — yes, the Catholic paper — where I had been doing layout and production. The Phoenix hired me as a copy editor, but I kept an eye out in case something better came along. Yes, I had grown up reading the Phoenix, Boston After Dark and the Real Paper, but any romantic notions I’d had of the alternative press had pretty much dissipated.

Gradually, though, I got sucked in. And when I inherited the media beat in late 1994 from Mark Jurkowitz, I became a made member of the Phoenix family. It was the most formative experience of my career. Without the Phoenix, I can’t imagine what I’d be doing today — PR for some politician? Ugh.

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.

Stephen Mindich on the future of the Phoenix

Watch 1 Guest: Stephen Mindich on PBS. See more from Greater Boston.

Boston Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich sat down with Emily Rooney last night on “Greater Boston” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) to talk about the future of the Phoenix and his own legendary career in Boston media. Well worth your time.

A blow to independent radio

This is very sad news indeed: Boston Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich has announced that WFNX Radio (101.7 FM), one of the few big-market independent rock stations in the country, is being sold to Clear Channel.

The Phoenix has posted Mindich’s email to the staff here.

I remain part of the Phoenix family, and my best wishes go out to everyone affected. Mindich has fought hard to keep his media holdings out of the clutches of corporate chain ownership. But economic conditions remain miserable.

The FCC must approve the sale.

Clear Channel owns 850 radio stations in 150 cities. Its Boston stations are WJMN (94.5 FM), WXKS-FM (107.9 FM), WXKS-AM (AM 1200) and the Spanish-language station WKOX (AM 1430).

Update: Lisa van der Pool of the Boston Business Journal has more details.

Still more: Donna Goodison has a very good, thorough story in the Boston Herald. D.C. Denison has a briefer account at Boston.com.

Real Paper alumni get together this Thursday

Veterans of the Real Paper, a Boston-based alternative weekly in the 1970s, will get together in a Ford Hall Forum event this Thursday to discuss what they learned and what lessons that might hold for the future of journalism. The event will take place in Suffolk University’s C. Walsh Theatre from 6:30 to 8 p.m. You can find out more here.

As we old-timers well remember, the rivalry between the Real Paper and the Boston Phoenix was intense during the decade or so that they both published. The Real Paper was formed in 1972 after Stephen Mindich, the founder of Boston After Dark, bought the Phoenix, which was sometimes known in that earlier incarnation as the Cambridge Phoenix. Mindich called his new paper the Boston Phoenix.

The former staff of the Cambridge Phoenix, rather than going away, founded the Real Paper, which during its first few years operated as an employee-run collective. The paper ceased publication in 1981.

This Wikipedia article on the Real Paper strikes me as an accurate summary of those years.

The Ford Hall Forum event brings together a number of well-known former Real Paper staff members: Harper Barnes, Jan Freeman, Mark Zanger, Laura Shapiro and Paul Solman, assembled by Monica Collins, herself a Real Paper alumna who’s also vice president of the Ford Hall Forum.