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Defining and saving the spirit of alt-weeklies / by Liz Pelly

Six weeks ago, I lost my job at the Phoenix. I was sitting in my friend Jordan's kitchen in East Austin, taking refuge from the soulless corporate chaos that so largely consumes South by Southwest. I was working on a review of The Punk Singer, a new documentary about Kathleen Hanna, for the Phoenix's music blog, when I received a text message about some conference call. I thought about skipping it because I wanted to perfect my piece and get to this Merchandise / Waxahatchee show. "It seems important," Michael Marotta, the Phoenix's music editor, texted me. Ok, sure.

Exhausted on three hours sleep, I dialed in late. But I got on the line just in time to hear Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich: "This is the hardest decision I've ever had to make," he said. "As of today the Boston Phoenix will cease publication. The issue on newsstands will be the last issue."


First I was in shock, then denial. I had lost the coolest job in the world-- one that let me report on underground music and radical activism, that taught me to write clearly and thoughtfully. I found my voice at the Phoenix in a way I never could at journalism school. Once I'd returned to Boston, my days dragged as the shock and denial just turned to sadness. I teared up at more than one downtown bar that week. Phoenix editor-in-chief Carly Carioli, speaking with Gawker, offered an apt analogy: "I feel like someone just killed my best friend."

I didn’t get the closure of being in the newsroom when everyone else got the news, cried together, drank whiskey in their cubicles, and blasted Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die in the WFNX studio. So in the weeks that followed, I made a few bullshit excuses to hang around the empty offices at 126 Brookline Avenue a few more times. One day I went and blasted Grimes’ Visions while I slowly packed up my desk, taking hours to meticulously organize two years of transcripts and notes into subject-specific folders (i.e. "street medics," "Captured Tracks," "Occupy Boston," "house show crack-down," etc.) Then next day I stuck around for an impromptu DJ set on the abandoned stream (though my send-off set was not nearly as epic as Marotta’s decision to play "Become What You Are" on repeat for an hour )… On my last visit to the Phoenix newsroom, Carly agreed to let me use office’s photocopy machine to print thousands of pages of a zine I’d been working on for months with my sister. That was awesome. I didn’t want to leave the building.

From Gawker's obituary of the Phoenix also came one quote that's resonated most intensely with me as of late. It's by former Boston Phoenix staff writer Camille Dodero; she's writing about Clif Garboden, who was the senior managing editor until 2009 and worked at the paper for over 30 years:

"Clif didn't see the alternative press as a professional gateway. It was his destination. Where he sat, the paper's supposed purpose and ideology were real things. As a student of Boston University, he'd protested Kent State. He'd seen Coltrane live in 1966, and as office lore repeated, he'd even once smoked a joint with the Rolling Stones. He came from the days when being a part of alternative media Meant Something: being able to ridicule mediocrity, challenge convention, and say ‘Fuck you’ without asterisks. This wasn't an affectation, or a style, or a posture—- as it is with Vice or with roughly 90 percent of the voices on the internet-— it was to him the way a smart person with a sense of justice and a moral conscience could sleep at night."

This quote has been haunting me. I never met Clif, but I've read this quote out loud to nearly every person who has inquired as to why I am starting The Media. I've read it every time I need to explain "the spirit of alt-weeklies" and why, with real urgency, it feels worth saving. I think the quote speaks for itself.

After my sadness, then came anger. As I read the obituaries and reflections on the 60s and 70s hey-day of alt-weekly journalism, I grew frustrated thinking about the important and exciting experiences that young journalists in Boston might never have again. Journalism students I barely knew came to me upset because they'd planned to apply for internships at the Phoenix. It didn't seem fair. Was "the spirit of alt weeklies" just fucking dead? Could it be resurrected? This literally kept me up at night. It stressed me out.

When I began to consider maybe starting something new, I thought hard about the specific voids left by the decline of alt-weekly journalism as well as pre-existing online publications. Some feel that the role of alt-weeklies is now carried out by blogs, but it's not. There is a specific rhythm to putting out a weekly, a thoughtful pace that the speed of the Internet diminishes.

It was a great privilege to be a part of the last generation working in the newsroom of one of the country's best alt weeklies. There was something special about how the Phoenix connected the dots between arts and music and alternative perspectives on news, politics, and activism. Recently on her Tumblr, Claire Boucher a/k/a Grimes wrote what many called a "feminist manifesto" (though it was more a personal essay about resisting oppressive behavior that is often normalized in music). "I don't want to have to compromise my morals in order to make a living," she wrote, and many of her words resonate in media just as much as music. But what really struck me came eight grafs down: "I'm sad that it's uncool or offensive to talk about environmental or human rights issues."

In the music world it's too often deemed cliché, naïve, idealistic, or straight-up uncool to talk about politics, news, activism, or environmental and human rights issues. The Phoenix was a breath of fresh air from that; a place that approached music and film with the same sort of critical contextualization it did news and politics. The alternative media world is lacking new publications like this, where folks can go for the experimental music coverage and stay for pieces on the climate crisis and feminism and weed and Occupy. This is the sort of publication I hope The Media will be.

The Media is not the Phoenix. I worked at the Phoenix for two years, as Editorial Assistant and then as Assistant Music Editor. Faye Orlove, Creative Director of The Media, worked at the Phoenix as a Production Artist for a just few months. We learned a lot but we were skeptical enough to see the paper’s shortcomings and to regularly scheme things we would systematically change if given the chance. Faye would design the advertisements, and we’d later stare at the pages in the break room and joke:

"Not very alternative for an alternative weekly, right?"

The Media is not trying to hide. We want to offer a supportive platform directly to the most radical voices, the most challenging artists. People who have something to say whether they are "qualified" or not. We know the media still needs more feminist, queer, and youth perspectives, more voices from people of color and those who are generally disenfranchised and overlooked. Expect these voices here.

In our first issue you'll find a celebration of "the underground press" in Boston as well as an awesome conversation between punk legend Larry Livermore and Don Giovanni artist Laura Stevenson. Phoenix writer Ariel Shearer continues the badass writing on weed and media reform you may have already come to expect from her. Former Phoenix editor-in-chief Carly Carioli writes about his experiences watching the Boston Marathon events unfold without his Phoenix family, about listening to Allo Darlin' every day on the drive to his new job, about what it means to transition from an old home to a new one. You can also now for the first time see the fucking amazing design that has been created by Faye and her brother Matt Orlove, which I believe is groundbreaking in its radical simplicity, with each issue coded on its own to serve specific articles and artwork.

And soon you'll find photo essays and video footage documenting creative communities around Boston; zine reviews from librarians at the Papercut Zine Library; a forward-thinking "Know Your Rights" column covering everything from dealing with bad landlords to throwing house shows. We'll have horoscopes, comics, and mixtapes.

We are enthusiastically doing this ad-free because we are not interested in starting a business. We are interested in being sustainable though, and paying writers. On the bottom of this page you’ll notice a "donate" button. We’re trying to do this through donations, microgrants, and fundraisers because we believe there’s a way to be sustainable and community-funded without guilt tripping our friends into giving us money via Kickstarter. This might work, it might not. For now it doesn’t matter because regardless of whether anyone ever makes a cent off of this website, we wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if we weren’t trying to do it. Not like we’re sleeping much now that we have a paper to get online every week...

In her reflections on the Phoenix for the New Yorker in March, Susan Orlean wrote the following:

"The thing that I learned at the Phoenix, which I feel is essential for a writer to learn, is to be enterprising. I’ve never worked on staff at a regular newspaper, and I imagine you learn lots of valuable lessons from their tradition and stature, but what I loved about being at a place like the Phoenix was the sense that we were sort of making it up as we went along. The Phoenix felt like a handmade thing, and that made me feel like I ought to be inventive with my story ideas and my thinking and my writing, even if it didn’t always turn out perfectly."

Making it up as we go along? Sounds spot on, and fun, and we’re pretty excited about it. It does, after all, serve "the spirit of alt-weeklies."


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