A hybrid rises from the old Boston Phoenix
Alternative paper’s longtime publisher adjusts to changing times
As summer approached, staff meetings at The Boston Phoenix grew more frequent amid mounting concerns about layoffs, an announced move to new offices, and the future of the Phoenix itself.
One indication of the meetings’ importance was the presence of owner and publisher Stephen Mindich. He has guided the paper’s fortunes since the 1970s, making it the centerpiece of a youth-oriented media conglomerate, yet he had scaled back day-to-day management duties while his son Brad ran the company.
The outcome of those staff discussions has left many observers wondering if the Phoenix they have known and read for decades — a pioneering alternative weekly paper celebrated for its lively coverage of politics, media, and the arts — will be around much longer.
This Thursday, The Boston Phoenix will formally merge with its sister publication, Stuff, a glossy biweekly, into a publication called simply The Phoenix. As a newsprint entity, the old Boston Phoenix will cease to exist.
Succeeding in a rapidly changing media environment could be a tough challenge for the new magazine. Long-established alternative weeklies in other cities — New York’s Village Voice, the Chicago Reader, and the Washington City Paper among them — have recently been downsized or sold.
Many struggle to survive in a multiplatform world, one offering an array of alternatives to the mainstream media — in print and, much more frequently, online.
The merger of the two publications is one of several recent steps by Phoenix Media/Communications Corp., the paper’s parent company, to trim operations and refocus on its core businesses, company executives say, which include weekly papers in Providence and Portland and the Internet radio station wfnx.com.
This spring, Phoenix Communications unloaded several other properties, among them the Spanish-language paper El Planeta (sold back to one of its founders for an undisclosed sum) and — one of the jewels in the corporate crown — terrestrial radio station WFNX 101.7 FM, for which Clear Channel reportedly paid $14 million.
The company also laid off five Phoenix employees, including two editorial staffers as well as seven of 13 full- and part-time WFNX staffers, and saw the departure of president Brad Mindich, the company’s heir apparent.
Meanwhile, the relocation of the Phoenix headquarters from its longtime home near Fenway Park, announced last winter, has yet to be given a firm date or destination.
According to several ex-employees, none of whom would speak for attribution, morale has taken a hit amid the uncertainty about Mindich’s intentions to either sell the company or keep the Phoenix going. How much he is up to overseeing the operation personally has been another source of concern, they say, although following his son’s departure, Mindich has named longtime Phoenix Media executive Everett Finkelstein as the company’s chief operating officer. For a company in the communication business, said one, there has often been a frustrating lack of communication with employees.
Mindich, 69, who has been working 12 to 14 hours daily in recent weeks, agreed to answer questions via e-mail only for this article.
He said he is convinced the new publication is right for the times. It is a hybrid of the old Phoenix and the more lifestyle-oriented Stuff magazine, which trafficks in food, fashion, party coverage, and local scene-makers. Asked to calculate the ratio of news and culture content to lifestyle and fashion, Mindich said those categories are too narrow. But if “pressed for a number,” he wrote in an e-mail, “I would probably say 65/35 or maybe 70/30 ‘news/culture’ to ‘lifestyle/fashion’ would be reasonable.”
Mindich said he explored several options once his son elected to leave. Those included attracting new investors or finding potential buyers. But with no “workable deal” on the table, he moved forward on several fronts, planning for the new magazine’s launch this month and investing more in wfnx.com, various Phoenix websites, and the company’s custom sports-book business, which publishes the Boston Celtics’ yearbook and Boston Marathon’s runners’ guide, among other projects.
“Brad’s exit forced a decision that Stephen wasn’t anticipating: to sell or fully reengage himself,” said Phoenix editor-at-large Peter Kadzis, adding he believes Mindich has been reenergized by this latest series of decisions and challenges.
“Not many successful people have to face this,’’ he said. “The Phoenix has been Stephen’s life, his identity. One way or another, he wasn’t willing to let it go.”
Brad Mindich, 44, says he was not fired and that his departure from the company after five years as president was gradual, not hasty, the product of lengthy discussions he and his father held.
“The reality was, my entire life I spent watching my father being an entrepreneur,” said the younger Mindich, now a self-employed consultant whose clients include rock bands, mostly in New York and Los Angeles, whom he met while working at the Phoenix. “I wanted to do stuff like he did, frankly. He totally got that.”
While he has no idea who might take over as chief executive now that he is gone, Brad said his father seems invigorated. “Honestly, it’s been great for him. It’s like the entrepreneurial switch got flipped again.”
Like many publications, including The Boston Globe, the Phoenix has suffered financially from the migration of classified advertising to the Web in recent years. Phoenix Media is a privately held company and does not release revenue figures. Twenty years ago, however, the newspaper published four thick sections weekly. Those days are long gone.
The new magazine will appear weekly and be distributed for free, as the paper has been for the past dozen years. Adult-oriented ads, a source of both profit and controversy for the Phoenix, have already migrated to a separate, stand-alone publication called Boston At Nite.
Lifestyle content, including food and fashion, has long been part of the Phoenix’s editorial lineup, Mindich noted, making the new magazine more a change of form than content. The publication’s target audience — young, educated, socially and politically active, childless — is not changing either, he asserted. And although daily newspapers have been struggling to retain readers and advertisers in a belt-tightening economy, local and regional magazines have generally fared better, he said.
“If you’re asking if I would prefer the ‘good old days’ — without question,” Mindich acknowledged. Achieving profitability in a news environment where content is expected to come free of charge is “never easy — perhaps a bit more difficult today, doing what we do — but achievable,” he said.
The Phoenix does not have a readership problem, said Kadzis. “But a sizable number of style-related advertisers — fashion and high-end liquor, for example — prefer glossy pages, and we’re hoping to attract their ads.”
Editor Carly Carioli, who will run the magazine’s editorial operation, says The Phoenix’s commitment to long-form journalism, solid reporting, and sharp-eyed criticism will not change. No one on his staff, he said, is dwelling on what is disappearing but on what lies ahead. “It’s not a surprise this has been portrayed as the sky is falling,” he said, “but that’s not what it feels like to us here.”
Although the Boston Phoenix masthead has contracted noticeably in recent years — from 87 people to 55 since 2008 — no further cuts are contemplated, according to Mindich. The Providence and Portland papers are on “solid” footing financially, according to one company source.
The Boston Phoenix (which began as two other publications) has been a vital part of the local media landscape for more than 40 years. As an alt-weekly with countercultural leanings, it has attracted and nurtured legions of young journalists who have gone on to greater glory, among them Joe Klein, Sidney Blumenthal, Janet Maslin, Jon Landau, Susan Orlean, and David Denby. One popular joke among Phoenix alums asks, How many ex-Phoenicians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Four, goes the punchline: one to screw in the bulb and three to say how much better the old bulb was.
Former Phoenix media critic Mark Jurkowitz, now associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, says the paper established its reputation in three broad areas: arts coverage, particularly the rock-music and movie revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s; media criticism, a now-ubiquitous genre that first emerged in the alternative press; and political coverage, local and national, that seldom took conventional wisdom for granted.
“For those thinking more in terms of long-form journalism, the Phoenix was the place to be in Boston,” Jurkowitz said. Yet the paper has been constantly changing, too, he conceded.
“I don’t think the news component is as robust as it was 20 years ago, and [the new publication] may codify those changes” toward a less news-driven product, he said, adding that he has no direct knowledge of what the new weekly will look or read like.
According to the company, circulation for the three Phoenix weeklies — Boston, Portland, and Providence — has been steady for the past several years at 219,500. Verified Audit Circulation, an auditing and research company servicing the publishing industry, puts The Boston Phoenix’s circulation at 107,000, still a sizable readership.
As for how long Mindich plans to maintain his current level of involvement, he will see what develops.
“I haven’t given it much thought,” he said. His role, he added, which includes building a strong management team and letting it know what he wants, “continues to evolve and adjust as it always has — with no time frame attached.”