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Opinion

Opinion | Joe Keohane

Voice of Boston

At its best, the Phoenix was edgy writing with a colorful sense of place

PETER ZIERLEIN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

NEW YORK

I hated the Boston Phoenix.

When I was 19, I applied for an internship there. I remember being in the elevator on the way up, pouring sweat, without the foggiest idea of what you’re supposed to do in an interview. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and it was an article of faith that the Phoenix was the paper I should go to. This was partly because I assumed it would have looser standards than the paper you’re currently reading, but mostly because it was just the Phoenix.

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Before I hated the Phoenix, I loved it. During my teen years it was like a kid’s guide to the underworld. Just walking past the distribution boxes gave you a seedy contact high. Its writers were hanging out in places I didn’t know existed, fighting for causes I didn’t understand, throwing bombs with a surety I couldn’t — and still can’t — fathom. It was gritty, noisy, messy, and, best of all, angry. But a good kind of anger, the anger of kids flabbergasted by the world’s continued refusal to recast itself in their image.

I tried to explain all this in the interview, but not well. I do recall a moment where I wondered, shining with flop-sweat, “Am I supposed to be talking right now?” — which, green as I was, I understood as a sign that this was not going well. I didn’t get the job, rightly, but I wasn’t rejected outright. Instead I was sent to a remote corner of the office to work at one of the company’s smaller magazines.

I did my tour without any measure of distinction and moved on. And in the years that followed, I cooled on the paper whose cred I always took for granted. It came to feel thick-tongued and comfortable, its politics rote and Cantabrigian. It’s not that it wasn’t doing good journalism, because it always did, right until the end — especially at the end, under Carly Carioli. It was that the voice that bound me to the paper had come uncoupled from the sensibility of my own cohort.

Which is no small thing. An alt-weekly, unlike a daily, can speak to kids in their own words and in their own voices. Its central function, even beyond reporting, is more akin to music or literature than journalism. It is to let underserved young readers feel that they are understood, that they’re not alone. Not in a dreary “giving voice to the voiceless” sort of way. Something more intimate than that. The voice is all.

A few years after my internship, I wound up editing the Weekly Dig, the chief competitor to the Phoenix, and for the next four years we hit them with piratical zeal where we thought they were weakest. We spent less time riding liberal hobbyhorses and more on wreaking havoc. We tried to be as funny and abrasive and exuberant and reckless as possible, because that kind of writing appealed to us, and because that kind of anger was our anger. And for the most part, it came off. We developed an avid following, and I always hoped the Dig meant to those people what the Phoenix used to mean to me.

When I heard the news that the Phoenix was closing, my thoughts turned to the concept of voice, how funny it seems in retrospect that if your local paper didn’t speak to you, your only option was to start another one. Much has been made of how the Internet, particularly Craigslist, destroyed print and salted the earth behind it, and it did, certainly on the business side. But the Internet’s corrosive effect on the centrality of voice in print publications has gone unremarked upon.

Today, with the Web, there’s no shortage of places people can go to seek catharsis with others like them. Voice is as plentiful as cheap plastic. Gawker’s comments sections alone are as reflective of youthful angst, energy, and hilarity as most alt-weeklies are today. The deficit of voice that served as the greatest advantage to the alternative press, in other words, has been turned into a surplus.

In many ways that’s good. The superabundance of edgy writing is a boon for people who live in the boondocks — the punk kid in the cowtown, the gay kid in the Southern suburb — who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it. And the world is positively littered with good writing. It comes in short bursts, and it doesn’t pay, which is bad news for people like me, but it’s there and it’s spreading.

But it is also a loss for cities, because it’s good writing without a sense of place. It exists in the cloud, it doesn’t rise up from the sidewalks, it doesn’t speak in a familiar dialect. And the Phoenix at its best did just that. It was so intertwined with Boston that it can’t be removed without doing permanent harm to the city. I hate to see it go, not just out of existential professional concerns (the bell tolls for thee, print journo), but for reasons deeper and more meaningful. When I think of the Phoenix, I can practically smell Boston. Even from here.

Joe Keohane, an editor at Esquire, lives in New York.
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