Goodnight & Goodluck: Behind the Boston Phoenix’s Collapse

On Thursday March 14th, Scott Schultz, a Boston Phoenix account executive, headed to work at the Phoenix office. Because he hadn’t been online the night before, he didn’t know about the mandatory town hall meeting scheduled for that day. If he had checked his email at 8 p.m. the previous night, any lingering suspicions would have been confirmed: the Phoenix was going under.

Shaula Clark, one of the Phoenix’s managing editors, read the meeting announcement in the office the night before. Town hall meetings usually foreshadowed layoffs and pay cuts, so Clark joked around with the senior web producer in the break room to ease the tension.

The next day, they continued to distract themselves by working on the Phoenix’s annual “Best of Boston” issue. In the afternoon, publisher Stephen Mindich called the meeting to order. The size of the staff forced the meeting out into the middle of the newsroom, circling intern and Tufts senior Scott Sugarman’s desk. Sugarman was resizing pictures for the website and prepping for a concert review when he noticed people gathering. He took off his headphones in time to hear Mindich announce the immediate closure of the 47-year-old publication. The terse statement affirmed the worst possible scenario, something Schultz had predicted but others, like Clark, had only laughed about.

“There was a silence throughout the room,” Sugarman remembers. “I can’t comprehend what it must have felt like [to the others] because I haven’t had a job that I’ve depended on and then lost in a moment.”

After the news broke, Clark regrouped with the editorial staff and the sales team went out for lunch to say goodbye. Rather than joining them, Shultz headed to Government Center and sat by the waterline. He had told himself last October that the Phoenix would be the last publication he’d ever work at. It was the end of an era.

Alt-weeklies became popular in the 1960s and 70s after cultivating a reputation for rabblerousing commentary. Printed once a week on low-grade newsprint, alt-weeklies used the temporary medium to report on the shifting winds of community politics and art.

Clark started working in alternative media in 2001. As an intern at the Weekly Dig (now DigBoston), Clark did the “drudgiest editorial scutwork” to become the managing editor seven years later. During those formative years for Clark, Schultz started selling ads for alternative media companies in southern Florida. In 2005, he left for Los Angeles and started work at the LA Weekly.

That same year, Craigslist doubled their annual revenue from the year before; the attraction of free, online ads had been siphoning off the demand for print classifieds since 2000. Over the past decade, print advertising, the main source of revenue for alt-weeklies, plummeted from $60 billion to $20 billion. Shultz’s favorite publications shrank to a quarter of their original size. He was convinced the industry was on its way out, but delayed his own exit when he saw a position open at the Phoenix. Despite the industry’s shifting landscape, the appeal of working at the legendary paper was too strong. Six months ago, after the Phoenix underwent a re-design, Schultz joined their sales staff.

As one of the industry’s older alt-weeklies, the Phoenix’s switch from classic newsprint tabloid to a glossy magazine represented a sea change in the field. While the transformation was heralded by some as the savior of the Phoenix’s weakening model, it was dismissed by others as a last-ditch attempt to attract national advertisers. For those working at the Phoenix, the re-design was a welcome divorce from a decades-old printing process.

“I don’t know shit about advertising, but I thought it sounded promising,” said Clark. “It was exciting to give ourselves over to a more visually-minded magazine. We knew it was risky. It felt like everyone was saying ‘the Phoenix is gonna close if we don’t put on the best damn show in town.’”

“I loved the new design,” Schultz said. “I thought if it worked, it would save alternative media across the country. I liked being a part of that revolutionary moment.”

The hope for a revolutionary moment dissipated after the Phoenix’s financial misfortunes became the spectacle. Editor-at-large Peter Kadzis claims the paper was costing the publisher $1 million a year, which has accrued $1.2 million in debt. Over 50 people were left unemployed without severance pay and Clark’s “Best of Boston” issue will never be published. The Phoenix’s smaller, younger rival, DigBoston, is now the city’s only alternative media company.

“You can point out what went wrong from a purely business standpoint,” DigBoston editor-in-chief J. Patrick Brown said. “It’s like having a sick uncle. We weren’t surprised because we knew it was coming.”

The slow bleeding of funds from alt-weeklies comes as no surprise to those in the industry. But when observers liken the Phoenix’s financial problems to the death knell of alternative print media, Brown thinks it’s a bit premature.

“People use this as a springboard to wax philosophical on the end of alternative media and print media in the 90s,” he said. “But the causes of the Phoenix’s end are capable of being identified. It’s like someone catching pneumonia and everybody saying they died of a broken heart.”

Hilary Hughes, a former Phoenix contributor, remains optimistic about alternative journalism in the Boston area. “This is a city where people come to cultivate their genius,” Hughes said. “If anything, this gives people a kick in the ass and an opportunity to start writing their own material and begin their own beat.”

As an English major at Tufts, Sugarman is not so sure. “There are greater implications for me and people interested in journalism,” he said. “This is gonna keep happening to some extent.”

The Monday after being laid off, Schultz and Clark went back to the office to clean out their desks. A rapid response team employed by the state assisted in the transition into unemployment. They passed out St. Patrick’s Day cookies and tried to crack jokes. “Tough audience, huh?” the presenter quipped.

In the weeks that followed, both Schultz and Clark found employment. Schultz was offered an advertising position by a long-term client. Clarke is now the online editor of the Non-Profit Quarterly.

“I love it,” Clark says of her time working in alternative media. “It’s a holding tank of total weirdos who you’ll never meet anywhere else. I’ve done really fun things but I don’t think I could do it again. There’s too much heartbreak.”

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