The Boston Phoenix was the survivor of a proud journalistic tradition dating back to the alt-weekly wars of the ’70s, in which the Phoenix battled against its former staffers on The Real Paper. The fight was over authenticity, and which paper best reflected the values of its audience. That audience was young people, war protesters, fans of the counterculture, rock music lovers, and feminists. Really, it was anyone who believed that powerful institutions and other engines of society deserved a kind of scrutiny that went beyond mere reporting, and who wanted to see the fundamental ills of the social order exposed.
Alternative journalism was brave and daring, and it eventually began to seep into the more-mainstream media. Still, the Phoenix, like New York’s Village Voice and the Chicago Reader, dedicated itself to social justice at the street level, a subject that didn’t fit easily into other journalistic formats. Over time, changing attitudes, even among young people, made the Phoenix’s offerings seem less urgent and compelling. Web-based competition for readers and advertisers intensified. Cutbacks ensued.
Now, with Thursday’s announcement of the Phoenix’s demise, much will be written about the paper’s impact on local politics, music and film criticism, and the various journalistic careers it launched. It’s a substantial legacy, by any measure. But better to focus on the careers that might not be launched, the questions that might not be asked, and the stories that might not get told.