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Notes on the Phoenix funeral / by Liz Pelly

Two weeks after I moved to New York, I already found myself on a Bolt Bus back to Boston. The Phoenix’s former editor-in-chief Carly Carioli had organized “a funeral for the Phoenix.” It was something I didn't want to miss; various Phoenix alum from around the Northeast traveled to Boston for it. A procession of about 50 or so former Phoenix employees and friends walked from the corner of Mass Ave and Newbury to where the office used to be at 126 Brookline Ave. Pallbearers (a/k/a Carly and the Phoenix’s former managing editor Shaula Clark) carried a red Phoenix box like a coffin. A saxophone player followed the procession playing funeral songs. We walked down Boylston street as the sun went down. Then we all signed the Phoenix box, and went to a bar. At the bar, Shaula walked around with a tape recorder and collected former Phoenix staffers’ memories and stories from working at the paper; we’re told these will all be online as a podcast at some point. In general it was really cool to see so many Phoenix people in one room again.

The night before, the funeral was preceded by a panel discussion on the history and legacy of the Phoenix at MIT. The panelists included Carly, who first worked at the Phoenix as an intern and decades later became the editor-in-chief; Anita Diamant, who worked at the Phoenix in the 70s and wrote a feminist opinion column; Charles Pierce, a staff writer during the 80s and 90s who now works for Esquire and NPR; and Lloyd Schwartz, a classical music critic who won a Pulitzer for his work at the Phoenix. Seth Mnookin moderated the panel.

To start, Mnookin asked Carly if he was surprised when he learned about the Phoenix folding. “In September of 2012, we were given the ultimatum to over the course of 6 weeks turn this 46-year-old newspaper into a glossy magazine,” Carly explained. “The finances were not great, the finances of newspapers in general had not been great. We’d survived a lot of downturns in the industry. But the Phoenix was by all accounts still losing a pretty big amount of money. So as kind of a last-ditch attempt to revive the brand, we came up with this crazy notion to combine the Phoenix and our glossy lifestyle magazine Stuff into a single publication, that would be weekly and try to keep as much of the Phoenix’s identity as we could … We understood that was an experiment and we had a limited amount of time to make it work.”

Then the panel shifted to discuss the sort of ‘golden age’ of the Phoenix, the 70s and 80s when the paper was a hub for New Journalism, long-form profiles and creative nonfiction and some of the best rock criticism in the country. (Someone reminisced about when Kit Rachlis, now the editor of American Prospect, reviewed first Sex Pistols show in America for the Phoenix.) I found it particularly interesting to hear from Anita, who talked about her experiences working for the paper as a woman in the 70s.

“I started out answering the phone and filing photographs, which was pretty much how women got into the newsroom,” she said. “I had been a freelancer and a writer for Equal Times, which was a women’s bi-weekly. I wrote everything in there under many names, and I learned a lot … I think what a lot of us were doing then was re-inventing the women’s pages, the ‘soft’ stuff, which the women’s movement had identified as core, important stuff that needed to be covered. And that included everything from women’s health to fashion to politics and the way women were discussed in the media, covered with humor and with attitude. And also with integrity in terms of reporting.”

Anita and Charles both talked about the ways in which the Phoenix would allow them to express distinctly leftist politics, but everything they wrote always had to be backed up by solid reporting. Anita talked about “taking stories the women’s movement and feminism had identified” and then making them into stories that were “well-reported, and not screams … I wrote opinion pieces, but I had to support my opinions with reporting and citations. I don’t see that very much anymore.”

Some may have criticized this panel for being overly nostalgic -- about half of the discussion was spent reflecting on the golden 70s/80s period, and the revolutionary sort reporting and criticism that the Phoenix brought to Boston during that time. But I actually thought hearing about the early Phoenix was the most interesting point of this panel. I sort of wish more people from the 60s era would have shown up.

Naturally, though, the conversation ultimately shifted into the present and the future, discussing what role the Phoenix was filling during its final years, and how the local media in Boston should be responding now to fill the gaps left. Audience members wondered whether or not the Phoenix was actually even alternative in the end. Some wondered whether there is even an alternative culture to still be covered, that’s not covered by the mainstream media? (Editor’s note: LOL.)

Some attendees of the panel commented on the decline of alt-weeklies by pointing out that mainstream publications are much more alternative now than they used to be, and suggested this is a sign that “the alternative press has won” by showing the MSM how its done. Someone brought up the Globe Ideas section as an example of a local media entity playing a similar role that the Phoenix once did. I think that is sort of a flawed argument though due to how the two publications vary in very fundamental ways. For one, I think something that made the Phoenix’s reporting interesting was the way it allowed for writers to be very entrenched and involved in the communities they wrote about. For example, the Phoenix’s reporters covering Occupy (myself included, plus Chris Faraone and Ariel Shearer and some others) were arguably some of the most embedded reporters there. We even held a Phoenix editorial meeting at Dewey Square once. The lines between writer and activist were pretty blurry for us, I think. Wen Stephenson, who wrote some incredible climate articles for the Phoenix during the paper’s last months, was a climate activist himself. Michael Marotta, the Phoenix’s last music editor, runs a record label, books shows, and DJs around town; he is very entrenched in the local music scene. What I mean to say is – the Phoenix’s writers were totally submerged in the stories and communities they reported about in a way that most mainstream publications would see as a conflict of interest – but the Phoenix was a sort of place where being close to a topic just made you that much more of expert on it, so long as the reporting and critical perspective and disclosure was there. At least, that’s part of what I always saw as really valuable about the Phoenix’s sort of journalism, and what differentiated it in my eyes from places like the Globe.

Phoenix-like journalism is not happening at the Globe, and as much as I appreciate the shout out “The Media” got during the panel, I also acknowledge that it’s not happening here either. At MIT, many of the panelists spoke about the valuable experiences they had at the Phoenix working with editors, and how a huge part of the value of the Phoenix was the way it served as a sort of training ground for young writers. I don’t really think those are shoes can fill – at least not yet. In Greg Cook’s report on this Phoenix panel for WBUR’s The Artery blog, he wrote that it was attended by “alums, refugees, and orphans of the Phoenix”. I think I we are probably like bratty Phoenix orphans who don't want anyone to tell us what to do, but also deep down are really sad about not having editors anymore. (OK maybe just me.) Dan Kennedy, a former Phoenix writer, media critic, and professor summed it up pretty well in a tweet: “Is @BostonGlobe Ideas section a successor to the Phoenix? asks @sethmnookin. I’d say no … The sensibility is too different. Nor @fvckthemedia, for that matter ... Maybe the Phoenix existed at the midpoint between @fvckthemedia and @GlobeIdeas."

After the panel, I tweeted something sort of snarky, about how the Phoenix grew out of underground/radical culture in the 60s, and how a conversation about keeping that spirit alive was not going to happen at a place like MIT. I stand by that to an extent. But the truth is, a conversation about keeping the spirit of the Phoenix alive isn’t really going to be productive anywhere. I think this panel made it clear how badly people still want answers, and still want someone to just sort of step up and make the Phoenix re-appear. I don’t think anything exactly like it will ever exist again, though.

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