The Death Of The Boston Phoenix And The Alternative-Weekly Journalism Pipeline

I’ve been in a state of nostalgia since yesterday when word came down from publisher Stephen Mindich that the Boston Phoenix, which any teenager growing up in Boston or the suburbs thereof worth her or his salt should have loved, will no longer publish. The Phoenix was distributed for free rather than on a subscription model, and the reasons for its demise are correspondingly probably different than the ones that have contributed to the long decline of the Boston Globe, which is currently up for sale. It’s one thing to ask people to continue to pay for home delivery of a product, which is a significant investment of money to bring in something that takes up space in the home. And it’s another to have people get out of the hobby of picking up a paper even when it’s free, because they’re reading on devices or their phones, and the idea of

But there’s something sad about the idea that Boston, a metropolitan area that prides itself on its literacy and its history of contributions to journalism and literature, as well as on its high concentration of academics, students, and other brain workers, couldn’t keep an alternative weekly alive. It’s sad, too, that the parts of the Globe worth reading have essentially been whittled down to their Sports and Ideas section. We can’t count on local culture, or literate pride, to save alternative newspapers, much less to support non-alternative publishing.

Over at Vulture, David Edelstein, who started his career as a movie critic at the Phoenix, makes a point about what else we’re losing other than a vibrant media environment when alternative outlets close:

There wasn’t a single hack at the Phoenix when I was there — no one who didn’t care deeply about his or her prose. My first editors, Carolyn Clay (theater) and Stephen Schiff (film) still rank among the best I’ve ever had. The Phoenix (and Real Paper) had been a place for critics like Janet Maslin and David Denby and Jon Landau to shine. Lloyd Schwartz was and is brilliant on classical music. Charlie Pierce — now a superlative political blogger for Esquire — was there, along with writers I deeply admire such as Gail Caldwell, Caroline Knapp, Laura Jacobs, Michael Sragow, Scott Rosenberg, Josh Kornbluth. I’m forgetting many others, but not my colleague on the film desk, Owen Gleiberman, who was among the most generous and convivial I’ve ever known.

In his writing about blogging for free, Ta-Nehisi Coates has also talked about the importance of his work on the Washington City Paper in his future career. Alternative outlets are critical incubators for people with ideas, perspectives, or interests that don’t fit neatly into the slots national publications have available. Those papers provide not just opportunities for those people to write, something that remains available on the internet today, albeit for less money, but opportunities for those people to write and get edited by strong editors. Probably the most critical place I worked in my career before coming to ThinkProgress was Government Executive, a trade publication where I covered federal personnel policy, and got edited by people like Anne Laurent and Tom Shoop. Even though I’m not still writing about the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (which: shockingly interesting), I still rely heavily on their lessons about everything from which kind of music is most conducive to writing features to what kinds of details grab readers. But I’ve spent a lot of time learning culture writing on the fly, and by doing, and without the oversight of a former critic. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing it that way, or with anyone else starting your own blog, or writing for Tiny Mixtapes, or whoever else will have you. But I do think that it’s a real loss when outlets where people can get extensive editing and professional training in criticism, in local reporting, and in a lot of other skills, close. Diffusing the structure by which people get opportunities has a lot of advantages. But removing places where it’s possible to get a lot of professional education and improvement isn’t one of them.