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Alternative Media Won?—Remembering The Late Boston Phoenix

“The Phoenix Burns Out" panel at MIT featured (from left) Anita Diamant, 
Carly Carioli, Charles Pierce, Lloyd Schwartz, and Seth Mnookin. (Greg Cook)

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Last night, the old gang—the alums and the refugees and the orphans of The Boston Phoenix, the alternative publication that folded last March—gathered once more to celebrate the old days and pick over what went wrong.

“I just distrust nostalgia. And this is getting into nostalgia for me. Oh, the good old days of the head shops,” Anita Diamant, a former Phoenix writer and subsequent author of the bestselling 1997 novel “The Red Tent,” said at one point during “The Phoenix Burns Out: Remembering A Boston Institution,” a panel discussion at Massachusetts Institute of Technology yesterday.

But nostalgia was inevitable as the group recounted the newspaper’s glory days—which they seemed to define as the 1970s and ‘80s.

“We were sort of the first generation produced by the long-form narrative nonfiction that came out of New York in the 1960s,” said Charles Pierce, who like Diamant worked at the Phoenix from 1978 to ’83, now writes for Esquire.com, and is a regular guest on WBUR programs Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me and Only a Game. “We covered almost everything the Globe covered, but we did it at length and we did it with attitude.” (Pictured at top: “The Phoenix Burns Out” panel at MIT featured, from left, Anita Diamant, Carly Carioli, Charles Pierce, Lloyd Schwartz, and Seth Mnookin.)

“Subsequently a lot of that got absorbed into dailies,” Pierce added.

“The alternative media won,” said Carly Carioli, who joined the paper in 1993, rose to become its final editor, and is now executive editor at Boston Magazine.

A funeral for the paper—open to all—is scheduled to begin with a procession at 7 tonight from the Phoenix’s 1980s offices at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Newbury Street in Boston to the final offices as 126 Brookline Avenue. Mourners will then retire to Arc at 835 Beacon St. where “We will also be getting quite drunk.”

(Kristen Goodfriend illustration)

(Kristen Goodfriend illustration)

The news last March that the paper would be shutting down came suddenly, but was not unexpected. After years of declining advertising revenues, a year ago the newspaper relaunched in a magazine format.

“We were given the ultimatum over the course of six weeks to turn this 46 year old newspaper into a glossy magazine,” Carioli said at last night’s event. “As a kind of last ditch idea to revive the brand, we came up with this idea to combine the Phoenix with Stuff, our glossy lifestyle magazine.”

“We understood that it was an experiment and we had a limited time to make it work,” Carioli said. “It was getting thinner and thinner. The advertising wasn’t there,” Carioli said. The situation was precarious, but he thought he had more time.

The Phoenix was a child of the ’60s alternative press movement, which combined the era’s liberal activist sensibilities with serious coverage of rock music and other pop culture. It grew out of the merger of the Phoenix and Boston After Dark, and in the early 1980s swallowed up rival The Real Paper.

“In the ‘60s, the Village Voice [in New York] was really the first alternative weekly,” said Seth Mnookin, a Phoenix alum and MIT professor who moderated last night’s panel. (Check it out at the Twitter hashtag #phoenixmit.) “The Phoenix was really the second big alternative weekly. And a lot of innovations in the form came out of Boston.”

The group praised their arts critics and political reporting, their feminist writing, coverage of the Occupy movement, and groundbreaking exposure of Boston’s clergy sex abuse scandal. “This was a story that the Phoenix was writing about for months before the Globe picked it up” and won a Pulitzer Prize for the coverage, Mnookin said. (Disclosure: I wrote for The Boston Phoenix for several years and continue to write for its sister newspaper The Providence Phoenix.)

“I do think the alternative media won in terms of adding more voices to the mainstream press,” Diamant said. She described her feminist approach during her years at the Phoenix: “I think what I was doing, what a lot of us were doing, was reinventing the women’s pages. … Soft stuff … women’s health to fashion to politics and the way women were discussed in the media. … I’d take stories that the women’s movement and feminism had identified and actually elevated them by making them well-reported. … They weren’t screeds.”

Diamant added, “We had to do the work. We had to do the reporting. The facts had to be there.”

“We were gifted with tremendous editors,” Pierce said. “Nobody worked me as hard as those guys did.”

Lloyd Schwartz, who wrote for the Phoenix from 1977 to the and, and won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his classical music coverage, said when he started, “No one was given a space limit and it was an amazing kind of freedom to have. … Along with Rolling Stone, we had the best rock critics in the country.”

“There’s a Phoenix review of the first Sex Pistols show in America,” Carioli noted.

“Current rock music was certainly the center and always got the most attention in the Phoenix arts section. … But there was always room, there was always the desire to cover the high culture,” Schwartz said. “Even when the Phoenix was shrinking in those last days and the number of people reading classical music coverage was also shrinking, that [owner] Stephen Mindich and the editors still wanted classical music coverage was a real testament to the commitment to the coverage of the arts in Boston.”

It wasn’t perfect. Mnookin noted the Phoenix staff’s lack of racial diversity—it was white alternative culture. And the pay left something to be desired. “It wasn’t enough to live on for more than a couple of years,” Diamant said. “We were given a chance and an opportunity in exchange for not being paid a lot.”

“That was why there was so much turnover at the Phoenix,” Schwartz said.

Over the past decade or so, the Phoenix maintained an alternative attitude, but often seemed to have less of an edge. It aimed at a smart, young, arty crowd, but wasn’t quite of them the way it had been early on. And as mainstream newspapers hired former alt weekly journalists and incorporated many of the form’s innovations, a question arose: alternative to what? Passionate coverage of the Occupy movement during the publication’s last year signaled a reembrace of the Phoenix’s outsider, activist roots, but the late switch to the glossy format signaled to many a loss of grit.

Last night, Diamant admitted that she’d stopped regularly reading the Phoenix. “I didn’t see the Phoenix any more. When it stopped being sold [in the mid-1990s and went free] I didn’t see it anymore.”

The rise of the Internet shook the paper’s footing. The loss of paid classified advertising—apartment listings, seeking band-mates—to free online directories like Craigslist.com was a blow to the bottom line of newspapers in general. “It was the dropping out of national advertising which seemed to be more of a body blow than losing classified advertising,” Carioli said.

And then the Great Recession hit.

Alternative papers in smaller communities seem to be having an easier time surviving than those in big cities because, Carioli said, “less competition.” Of course, most newspapers are struggling—in recent years The Boston Globe has repeatedly laid off staff by the dozens.

“Everything is shrinking,” Diamant said. “There’s no time. There’s no space. There’s no money to pay the reporters.”

Diamant said the demise of the Phoenix meant a loss of one-stop shopping for comprehensive arts coverage as well as politics. “How do we create a Phoenix-like thing on the Internet?” she asked.

“Almost all my work is done on the Internet now,” Pierce said. “I work in a world of very young people. … I haven’t had an [online] editor who’s older than 30 years old yet.”

The alternative press ain’t dead yet in Boston—see Dig Boston. Diamant praised public radio, which Carioli said “could be a new base” for some of what the Phoenix did. He added that Boston.com—one of the Globe’s main websites—hired him immediately after the Phoenix died to help them launch a Phoenix-like publication that’s due to start in October.

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