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The Boston Phoenix closing is another sign that glossing up print doesn’t work miracles

The alt weekly, one of the nation’s best, announced its closure Thursday after nearly 50 years of publishing.

The Boston Phoenix, one of the nation’s most storied alt weeklies, closed yesterday afternoon. Here’s the goodbye letter from editor Carly Carioli.

This is very sad news; a huge number of talented people worked there over the years — Susan Orlean, Joe Klein, Sidney Blumenthal, Janet Maslin, David Denby, Ellen Barry, Tom Scocca, Dan Kennedy, Gareth Cook, Charlie Pierce, Kristen Lombardi; the list could go on — and the Phoenix was an important part of the Boston media ecosystem. (With the Globe up for sale and the Herald in decline, that ecosystem isn’t in the best shape these days.) Others can write better reminiscences of its glory days than I can, but I did want to note one element of interest to the broader print newspaper universe.

Last fall, the Phoenix merged with a sister Boston glossy magazine and switched from being printed on traditional newsprint like this:


to a glossy weekly that looked like this:

Screen Shot 2013-03-15 at 10.18.26 AM

(To be fair, there were many redesigns between 1983 and 2012. I just wanted to show Randy Newman on the cover.)

The goal of the move was to reignite interest from national advertisers by becoming more magazine-like and improving the quality of the print experience. That’s a move that gets talked about with some frequency among newspapers (dailies, too), and the Phoenix closing adds another data point that it doesn’t work.

In 2010, we wrote about the San Francisco Chronicle, which had made a similar investment in high-gloss paper to try to be more appealing to advertisers. Did it work? Here’s Chronicle president Mark Adkins at the time: “I don’t think so…It’s not a good tactical move for other papers…On the ad side, advertisers have not responded to it at all.”

Likewise, the Phoenix saw a temporary rise in national advertisers with its redesign last fall, but that quickly subsided, and that lack of national ad revenue was cited as the proximate cause of yesterday’s announcement.

A shift upmarket in print has long been seen as one potential move for dailies, often in conjunction with cutting print days. (A major metro might decide to cut from seven days a week to three, but make those three days closer to a glossy city magazine in format and form, the idea goes, drawing in some new advertisers and producing a better product that takes advantage of print while letting the web do what the web does best.)

Look, there are bigger factors at play here — alt weeklies, like their rival dailies, thrived in an environment of limited publishing choice, when both readers and advertisers had fewer options available to them. The model is in varying degrees of trouble everywhere, no matter what kind of paper stock they’re using. But the Phoenix’s closing hints that, for advertisers, the issue is less newsprint vs. glossy and more print vs. digital.

What to read next
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
  • Jared Parmenter

    As a Bostonite at heart, I’m sad to see the Phoenix go. But in addition to the article’s important lessons about the state of free media in general, it’s worth noting that the paper’s writing quality dropped sharply in the last few years.

    Chris Faraone, in particular, was positioned as a trendier, more outspoken version of a journalist, which should have fit the paper well, but his shallow opinion pieces and endless Twitter tantrums rotted out the more long-term readership. That his voice became the bullhorned lead for the chorus of other writers certainly didn’t help anything.

  • dougscripts

    “Look, there are bigger factors at play here — alt weeklies, like their rival dailies, thrived in an environment of limited publishing choice, when both readers and advertisers had fewer options available to them.”

    Weak. Why not just say “because internet”?

  • ben knight

    Don’t most alt weeklies still have good revenue from clubs, music, entertainment ads that the dailies failed to get in past decades? Is there something unusual about either the Boston market or the Phoenix business model itself?

  • Matt Robare

    Yes. The Phoenix was only pretending to be an alternative. It wasn’t so much that it didn’t have a niche as it was trying to fill a completely different one.

    This is what I said on the WBUR website: “The Pheonix hasn’t been ‘alternative’ at all in the year I’ve lived in Boston. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s really what’s killed it: while slightly more closely aligned with the Democratic Party than The Globe, its political coverage was hardly edgy and rarely critical; the rest of its coverage and advertising was aimed squarely at the sort of the people who could afford a $50 cocktail — the affluent and comfortable “creative” professionals who were educated entirely in expensive private schools. The Pheonix had nothing to offer anyone making less than about $50,000 a year. I’m not going to miss it.”