In a poignant signal of a fast-changing media landscape, The Boston Phoenix sent out a short and simple tweet Thursday afternoon: “Thank you Boston. Good night and good luck.”
With that terse dispatch, the groundbreaking Boston alternative weekly, which only six months ago reinvented itself from tabloid newspaper into glossy magazine, put a final punctuation mark on its 47-year history. Its current issue, dated March 15, will be its last.
New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean, one of many prominent journalists whose careers started at the Boston Phoenix, said: “It’s like finding out your college has gone bankrupt and is gone. I am a child of the alt-weekly world, and I feel like it has played such an important role in journalism as we know it today.”
Employees at the Phoenix were told of the closing by owner and publisher Stephen M. Mindich Thursday at what evolved into a tearful, emotional meeting. It is expected that about 40 employees will be let go within the week and another 10 or so soon after, according to executive editor Peter Kadzis, who described the general reaction among Phoenix staffers as “shell-shocked.” Several people were crying during the meeting, according to one person who was there.
Employees will not get any severance pay.
“We’ll get paid for this week and if we’re owed vacation time, but no severance,” said staff writer Chris Faraone. “It’s sad, but also not. It’s not an anger thing. Everyone’s really proud. We went as hard as you could to the end.”
The Phoenix established its alternative reputation in the 1970s through its coverage of the local arts scene, especially rock music and movies, as well as with aggressive media criticism and coverage of local and national politics. Its target audience, even after its recent shift to a glossy magazine, never shifted: young, educated, active both socially and politically, and childless. You were more likely to find a sex column than a parenting one in the Phoenix.
Sister publications in Providence and Portland, Maine, will stay in business, but WFNX.com, the Phoenix Media/Communication Corp.’s online radio station, will not continue in its present form, its fate to be decided shortly. The company’s custom publishing unit and MassWeb Printing operation, based in Auburn, will remain open.
The online edition of the Boston Phoenix, slated to appear March 22, will be its last, too.
There had been widespread apprehension about a shutdown on Wednesday, when the meeting was announced, Kadzis said.
“Keeping the Phoenix afloat was costing Stephen more than $1 million a year,” Kadzis calculated. “He’s performed an incredible service to the community, and I don’t think most of the employees here realize how committed he’s been to keeping the paper going.”
The Boston Phoenix’s owner and publisher does not plan a formal bankruptcy filing, but the company has hired The Gordon Law Firm in Boston to liquidate the paper’s assets and distribute the proceeds to creditors.
Stephen F. Gordon, who will oversee the process, estimated the business had $1.2 million in debt, but said it is likely the assets will fetch significantly less than that. The company’s main asset is roughly $500,000 in promised services and goods the Phoenix received in exchange for advertising, but it’s not clear how much a buyer would pay for the bartered goods. It also has some intellectual property and furniture.
Gordon first plans to pay any taxes, employee wages, and fees related to the liquidation process then distribute any remaining cash evenly to other creditors. In addition to employees, the company owes money to roughly 40 other creditors, including law firms, accountants, utilities, landlords, and suppliers.
According to Kadzis, the switch from tabloid to glossy last October won favor with readers and local advertisers. At the time, Phoenix editor Carly Carioli said, “It’s not a surprise this has been portrayed as the sky is falling, but that’s not what it feels like to us here.”
Six months later, however, the end came. There were not enough national advertisers to make the glossy weekly economically viable. Providence and Portland have been better able to sustain themselves with local advertising, Kadzis noted.
Last spring, Phoenix Communications sold its interest in other media properties, notably the Spanish-language paper El Planeta and terrestrial radio station WFNX 101.7 FM.
News of the Phoenix’s closure only six months after the format change blindsided even alternative media insiders.
“It was shocking to me,’’ said Tiffany Shackelford, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia in Washington. “I was not expecting this at all. My understanding was that the new format was successful, and that the glossy was starting to attract national advertisers.”
Local media critic Dan Kennedy, a former Phoenix staff writer, wrote on his Media Nation blog that he was “not even going to try to write a real post about this today.”
“I’m getting bombarded from all directions, and besides that, I’m devastated,” Kennedy wrote.
Orlean, too, was reeling, saying in a telephone interview that she received her education as a writer at the Phoenix when she worked there in the 1980s. Others who started at the paper include Joe Klein, Sidney Blumenthal, Janet Maslin, and David Denby.
The weekly’s closing, Orlean continued, “Removes one more venue for a certain kind of writing that I know was very important to me.”
Shackelford said that despite the loss of a storied brand like the Boston Phoenix, the alternative news industry remains healthy.
“Many of our papers are actually improving circulation,” she said. “This [closure] is not indicative of the larger health of the industry. I don’t think any of our other publications are in danger of closing.”
In general, however, alternative newspapers in large markets, like Boston, are not flourishing at the level of their counterparts in smaller, less competitive cities, Shackelford said. It makes sense, she said, that the Portland Phoenix will remain open, as will the Providence Phoenix, which plans to add four full-time reporters.
The question that worries Shackelford is whether another news outlet will “speak truth to power” in the same way as the Boston Phoenix, which started in 1966 as Boston After Dark.
Mindich, in his statement to employees, said he was “extremely proud, as all of you should be, of the highest standards of journalism we have set and maintained throughout the decades in all of our areas of coverage and the important role we have played in driving political and socially progressive and responsible agendas; in covering the worlds of arts and entertainment, food, and fashion, always with a critical view, while at the same time promoting their enormous importance in maintaining a healthy society; and in advocating for the recognition and acceptance of a wide range of lifestyles that are so valuable for a vibrant society.”
He thanked all who’ve worked for the Phoenix over the decades — “our staff has been our soul,’’ he averred — and all the readers and advertisers who have supported the publication.
“So, that’s it,” Mindich concluded. “We have had an extraordinary run.”Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Todd Wallack, Mark Pothier, and Callum Borchers of the Globe staff contributed to this report.