Boston Phoenix: RIP

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THE PHOENIX CLOSED AND WHY YOU SHOULD CARE 

by Sally Cragin

After 47 years, the Boston Phoenix, one of the earliest alternative newsweeklies in the country closed on March 14, 2013. This has been devastating to hundreds of writers and staff, many of whom came of age writing for the paper.

 

HISTORY

The Phoenix had had many incarnations during its long run, beginning with Boston After Dark (“B.A.D.”) in 1966. B.A.D. covered theater, movies, and the arts in greater depth than the three dailies in Boston at that time (Boston HeraldRecord-American—the Hearst paper, and the Boston Globe). In 1972, publisher Stephen Mindich acquired the Cambridge Phoenix and merged the two.

 

A CLOSER LOOK

I started writing for the Phoenix in 1979, when I was a typesetter at the 100 Mass. Ave. office (former warehouse, now chi-chi boutique). The Phoenix at that point had had notables like Janet Maslin (longtime New York Times writer) editing for it, and was a place where you could write long, wildly and floridly about topics that made you crazy with excitement. The bank that sustained this operation included a widely-read classified section, with pages of “personals.” The Phoenix of the 1980s covered music in greater depth, starting with James Isaacs’ local music column, “Cellars by Starlight.” Those of us who worked at the paper prided ourselves on responding instantly to any cultural event—working late to get out an expansive and elaborate tribute issue to John Lennon, the week after his death. It may be hard for folks growing up with the Internet’s instancy to realize how “underground” much pop culture was. If it was covered in a daily paper, the stories were short and often dismissive. The Phoenix gave free reign to writers to write what they wanted with the only caveats being: make it informative, entertaining, and have a specific point of view. As I spent my time with the critics and the folks who wrote “lifestyle” pieces (we were among the first to devote a newspaper section to that now ubiquitous term), I got to know a lot of fabulous characters. Yes, there would be a piece in the paper, but there would also be lengthy and impassioned arguments in the newsroom, among writers or with writers and editors.

 

THE MUSIC PERSPECTIVE BACK THEN 

If you were in a band, there were a few places that might write about a tape (pressing a 45 was expensive)—cassettes ruled. The PhoenixBoston Rock, owned by Newbury Comics’ czar Mike Dreese, and T Max’s then-new the Noise. Those were the outlets where your band might get print coverage, leading to wider exposure, leading to more and better gigs. So many bands came through during my tenure, and so many more came through after I left. Sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was evident that movie ads and music ads were the dominant support of the arts section. The Phoenixshifted perspective, and started covering more bands.

THE EXPANDING EMPIRE

The Phoenix acquired a great local music station, WLYN, in the early 1980s, and changed its name to WFNX. It also set up satellite newspapers in Worcester, Portland Maine, and Providence (the latter two still exist). I left in 1990, but returned to write a column about small-town characters, “Tales from Tritown” for the Worcester Phoenix, edited by the Phoenix’s supreme utility player editor, the much beloved Clif Garboden. I also started writing “Moon Signs” as Symboline Dai in 1998. The Phoenix grew larger. It had always been sustained by the classifieds and a regular series of supplements about everything from automotive technology to the Bands Guide, to the gargantuan Summer Preview. The Internet immediately eroded the ad base at the turn of the century, but frankly kids, we always thought our newspaper might be in a perpetual state of dying. But not dead.

 

POSTSCRIPT

As I write, editors and publishers for the Portland and Providence Phoenixes are talking about how they will continue the mission of covering their regions. Stay tuned.

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