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Sept. 16, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

Anatomy of a media meltdown: Four takeaways from the loss of the Boston Phoenix

At an event at MIT, a group of old Phoenix hands mourned the alt weekly and considered what broader implications its demise might have.

The post-mortem for the Boston Phoenix hosted by the MIT Communications Forum Thursday evening was in turns both spirited and sad. Representing the alt weekly in its heyday were Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Lloyd Schwartz, political columnist and Esquire contributor Charlie Pierce, former writer Anita Diamant, and editor-in-chief at the time of close Carly Carioli.

originalTo be fair, the event was called The Phoenix Burns Out: Remembering a Boston Institution, so a certain amount of reminiscing was to be expected. But, as Diamant argued forcefully at one point, nostalgia can hide harsh realities. Here were a few of the major takeaways for where the spirit of alt weeklies like The Phoenix might be headed.

1. Why did the Phoenix fail when alt weeklies are still doing okay in other cities?

Carioli answered this question in short order: competition. The lack of it is one reason you see papers like 7 Days in Burlington, Vermont, thrive while, in New York City, the Village Voice is listing toward bankruptcy. In small towns, alt weeklies can serve as papers of record. In Boston, the Globe and the Herald filled the daily space, DigBoston provided competition as an alt weekly, and online competition was plentiful. That made the battle for advertisers tough.

2. What do we lose when we lose institutions like the Phoenix?

The most resounding chorus of the evening was the praise heaped on the quality of the editors at the Phoenix in its heyday. Pierce, Schwartz, and Diamant emphasized the thorough and exacting nature of the editing they each received as young writers.

Diamant went so far as to compare the experience to grad school — nobody makes any money, but everybody learns a lot. Or finishing school:

As Diamant recalled, many writers had to take second jobs to support their writing careers at the Phoenix — a scenario not unfamiliar to young people with aspirations of becoming journalists today. Think, for example, of the many debates over the web’s impact on the market for freelancers. What the panelists seemed to say is that while the sacrifice is the similar — expectation of financial stability — the reward — an educational relationship with a strict editor — has evaporated in the press to create reams and reams of web content.

3. Who stands to gain?

One of the more forward looking topics of the evening was a look at what media brands the former Phoenixers saw as having the capacity to move into their former market in Boston. Audience member and PRX employee Rekha Murthy said that when it comes to delivering local news that the audience can really engage with, public radio was the best bet.

At the Globe, there’s the Ideas section, which has featured ex-Phoenix staffers. A former Phoenix employee, Liz Pelly, started a free online publication called The Media, which picks up some of the Phoenix’s underground and music coverage where if left off, as does the website Vanyaland, by former music editor Michael Marotta; other ex-Phoenix writers, like Chris Faraone, are cobbling together freelance careers, though Faraone said as a freelancer he doesn’t have the ability to do the kind of reporting and produce the kind of work he did as a staff member at the Phoenix.

But as interesting as this fragmented new work — what he called the metastasizing of the Phoenix — is, Carioli wasn’t comfortable dubbing it a laudable next step. (For his part, Carioli did a post-Phoenix stint at Boston.com before joining Boston Magazine as executive editor this summer.) “These are people who were getting paychecks from the Phoenix, and now they’re not,” he said. The best part about what The Phoenix offered, he said, was that it, like a daily, was a bundle — good journalism, listings, classifieds, and ads that people would actually read, all in one package.

The glossy transformation the paper underwent in 2012, six months before its closing, was an attempt to revitalize that package after what Carioli referred to as the “bodyslam” of 2009. To his mind, the closing of the Phoenix means there’s an opportunity for someone else to fill that bundled gap, but says media brands that could be competitive in that space — like Dig — are not currently sustainable.

4. Whither profitable long-form writing?

In the course of the evening, it was Diamant who first seriously raised the question of how to create a sustainable, Phoenix-like environment for the web.

Unfortunately, despite the high talent grade at the table, nobody felt comfortable talking about how someone might go about doing that. Carioli pointed out that, historically, long-form writing has never been thought of as a money maker. It’s not too much of an abstraction to say that Pierce’s career now, in which he combines some long-form writing for Esquire with blogging, a regular political column, pieces for Grantland, and radio jokes, shares some of the bundle-like characteristics of the old model — only without the structure of the Phoenix. A career has to bundle itself these days.

There was some attempt to have a robust discussion of the experimentation that is happening around monetizing longform. Moderator Seth Mnookin mentioned Atavist, a company working on tools for better online storytelling, and Byliner, where you can subscribe to magazine-like content; Carioli brought up Kindle Singles; I recalled the recently announced Epic, a website that aims to help writers turn their longform into profitable screenplays.

But in a room full of long-time journalists with more than a little out-of-turn shouting, nobody seemed in the least excited by these ideas.

For those interested, here’s a full recording of the evening:

POSTED     Sept. 16, 2013, 10:02 a.m.
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