FROM GREEN TO RED
So what happened? Some of it is pretty obvious. About a dozen years ago the Phoenix switched from paid to free distribution, which might have made sense at the time but which proved disastrous given the advertising collapse that was to come.
Craigslist, of course, had a devastating effect on a paper that depended on pages and pages of classified ads -- college students looking for roommates, bands looking for musicians and, yes, people from all walks of life looking for sex. National advertising from cigarette companies and record labels dried up.
But beyond those factors, the community that sustained the Phoenix has passed from the scene. At one time the Boston area was awash in concert venues, record stores, guitar emporiums, independent book stores, head shops -- the kinds of businesses that reached their customers by advertising in alternative weeklies. Now they are almost entirely gone. There was very little to offset the costs of producing a free magazine and a free website. It's no wonder that Mindich personally had to subsidize the Phoenix to the tune of $30,000 a week, according to a report in Boston magazine.
On the surface, it might seem odd that Mindich will continue to publish the Portland (Maine) Phoenix and the Providence Phoenix, much thinner alt-weeklies that are still printed on newspaper stock. Yet many smaller cities have maintained the sort of community that can sustain such papers. Indeed, Tiffany Shackelford, the executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, told the website NetNewsCheck that the relative health of the Portland and Providence papersreflects broader trends.
"We're seeing that alt-weeklies are still really thriving in small to medium markets where they're an important voice for their community," she said. "In larger markets, there's more competition for advertising."
With the Internet taking away the Phoenix's classified-ad revenue and with the passing of its traditional base of display advertising, Mindich really had no choice other than to try something completely different.
It failed, but it was a noble failure. Sadly, some 50 people are losing their jobs. I've lost a touchstone that had been an important part of my life for the past 40 years. And Boston has lost an intelligent, vital, irreplaceable voice.
Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and a panelist on "Beat the Press" a weekly media program on WGBH-TV. His blog, Media Nation, is online at www.dankennedy.net. His book on the New Haven Independent and other community news sites, The Wired City, will be published by University of Massachusetts Press in May 2013.