When the last issue of my favorite paper, The Boston Phoenix, comes out on March 22, I won’t read it.
If you grew up in an urban area and had an interest in counter-culture, The Boston Phoenix is -— or, rather, was -— the same kind of tabloid weekly that you read. If you don’t know what I mean, imagine the Village Voice with more impressive arts coverage or LA Weekly with better articles. It was a publication that really believed it “spoke the truth to power” and turned out to be a proving ground for a list of stellar and acclaimed journalists so long there’s probably a book in it somewhere.
Yesterday, when the Phoenix — it dropped the ‘Boston’ a few months back — announced that it was ceasing publication after 47 years, instant elegies started cropping up on various news and social networking sites. Writers, artists, and Bostonians of every profession and age shared special memories of the Phoenix, stories of articles they read or classifieds they loved. My special memory comes from 2004, about two weeks before my fifteenth birthday. Someone had left a copy of the Phoenix on a Riverside-bound Green Line train, and, leafing through it, I spotted a listing for a music open-mic taking place at a pizzeria near my house and wondered if they would let me try stand-up comedy. As it turns out, they would, and I went onstage for the first time that night. I did horribly.
Nine years later, I’m still doing stand-up comedy — it’s my full-time job — and in some way, I owe a big part of it to the newspaper. The closing of the Phoenix means the end of so much. Especially for culturally-inclined Bostonians. Readers will miss Pulitzer-winning music crit. Writers will miss the grungy, gritty kind of journalism that was a real trip to read. Boston-based musicians and comedians, I’m guessing, will miss the support and coverage that is hard to find in cities not named “New York” or “Los Angeles.”
I’ll miss it too, but, even though it kills me to say this, the Phoenix that will close this week is not the same Phoenix it was in 2004. I left the city in 2007, but because of the Internet, I’ve still been able to follow its demise, which has been predictable and painful. The rise of the web took a huge chunk out of the classifieds revenue that had been the tabloid’s lifeblood, and over the last few years, the publication had slowly but surely started to hemorrhage money and staff.
About six months ago it changed from newspaper to a glossy magazine, dropping the word ‘Boston’ from its title. The trenchant, vigorous, and socially conscious writing that had been its trademark for so long seemed to lighten a touch in its new format and other news outlets noticed. In October, I found myself nodding in agreement as I read an article entitled, “Goodbye, Alt-Weeklies,” on Salon.com. Will Doig, commenting on the changes, declared that the Phoenix’s reincarnation as a magazine “glossy as the new condominium buildings sprouting in once working-class Southie,” was a symptom of its sharp decline into stodginess.
The Phoenix, for all its troubles, still had enough life in it to respond to the article with a sharp and funny open letter from editor Carly Carioli that dismissed Doig as one of “the writers who are eager to throw us in with the Village Voice, a paper which has spent years sloughing off its heritage, slaughtering its staff, and eating itself alive.” The Phoenix’s quality was as alternative as ever, Carioli insisted. Stodgy? Far from it. The first two features in the new magazine from staff writer Chris Faraone “were an account of the DNC as recorded through the haze of five hits of LSD, and a report on how he was singled out by police, assaulted, and jailed… while attempting to cover the one-year Occupy Wall Street anniversary protests.” Halfway through the letter, I couldn’t believe I had ever doubted the Phoenix, and by the end of it I had already printed it out for posting on my fridge, and convinced myself the death of the Phoenix was an exaggeration.
Looking at that printout right now, Carioli’s letter seems less like an epic ‘fuck-you,’ and more like macho posturing. It ends, at least in the version that’s sat in various places around my New York City apartment, with “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, motherfucker.” That seems pretty typical. The content that the Phoenix’s editors liked to put out had a penchant for reference. Yesterday, forty-five minutes before tweeting a link to a statement from the publisher, Steven Mindich, @BostonPhoenix made first mention of closing announcement with “Thank you Boston. Good night and good luck.”
The terseness of the tweet is as appropriate as it is saddening. The Phoenix never really belonged online. At its core, this is another in a parade of internet-kills-paper stories — actually, this is the ultimate internet-kills-paper story. First it took the Phoenix’s revenue and then it took the Phoenix’s edginess. It’s not just what killed the paper, it’s also where it will die: gallingly, when the last Phoenix is published on March 22, it will be the paper’s first web-only offering. To me, that’s the saddest part of this whole deal. I’ll assiduously avoid that “issue,” and choose to remember the version of a paper that should’ve died as it lived best, as crinkled newsprint left on the seat of a Green Line train, in the off-chance that a kid might pick it up, and happen upon a listing he wanted to read.