Shot Down in Flames: Good-bye, Boston Phoenix

The end of the Boston Phoenix newspaper.

The end of the Boston Phoenix newspaper.

It’s tempting to talk about the possibility of rebirth from the flames of disaster when discussing the sudden demise of the Boston Phoenix, the once legendary alternative newspaper in Boston.

But I’ll spare you.

Because the Boston Phoenix is done.  Toast.  A victim of the ongoing Great Media Collapse that started in earnest in 2009.

It’s easy to dismiss the demise of yet another traditional print newspaper, but the void left behind for a city and a community is significant.  In the case of the Boston Phoenix, the newspaper became part of the fabric of the cultural scene in Boston.  It devoted its pages to art, music, literature and entertainment, but also dove into news stories that were ignored by the mainstream press: from the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church to providing an alternative view to the Occupy Movement.

At its best the Boston Phoenix was bold, daring and cutting-edge.

It was also a training ground for a generation of writers: from Susan Orlean (New Yorker writer and author of The Orchid Thief) to David Denby (New Yorker film critic and author of Great Books).  And one of my favorite media observers, Dan Kennedy, now a journalism professor at Northeastern University and blogger at Media Nation.

The Boston Phoenix fell victim to New Media – like dozens of other publications.  It struggled to find a pay model that worked online while its print publication lost advertisers.  It desperately fought back – going free and then trying to become a glossy magazine style publication.  Nothing worked.  So on March 15 it published for the last time.

A larger discussion for Boston is what is next?  Can the other alternative paper The Weekly Dig, become less juvenile and snarky and take the reins?  Or is this just a peek into the future?  Can print work in Boston or anywhere else any more?

The fact is these are dark days for Boston’s mainstream media, particularly print media.

  • The Boston Globe is up for sale by the New York Times Company.  The Times purchased the Globe for $1.1 billion 10 years ago and will be lucky if it can sell the struggling newspaper for $150 million.  In 1999, the Globe had a circulation of 469,311, but today has a circulation of 225,482 – the very definition of free fall.
  • The Boston Herald isn’t doing much better.  In fact, the Globe is now printing the Herald.  The Herald circulation has been a rapid decline with a daily circulation of 111,234 – which plunges into the mid-80,000s for the Sunday paper.  That’s barely a blip of influence.
  • Even the upscale, Boston Magazine, has dipped down to 91,509 paid subscriptions (although they claim much higher numbers via news stand sales).  Keep in mind that Greater Boston has a population of about 4.6 million people.

The real question, as we mourn the lost of the Boston Phoenix, is whether the up-and-coming generation of adults – those weened on free content on the Internet – will shell out money to buy journalism in print formats.  Or, in fact, even in digital formats.

So far the evidence is decidedly no, especially in Boston.

What do you think?


The Great Media Collapse of 2009

Slate article: RIP, Boston Phoenix


13 Responses to “Shot Down in Flames: Good-bye, Boston Phoenix”

  1. The problem comes when something is offered for free (like internet access to a publication) and then suddenly a person is charged for it. They will react much worse than they would had they charged all along. But of course when this all started they could rely on the print subscription. This is changing. Our hometown newspaper recently started charging for Internet access. This went over like a lead balloon. How long the paper holds out after this will be interesting.

    People do tend to want what’s free, but I think the saying “you get what you pay for” still applies. How can we know what we are getting is high quality? How many people are going to take knowledge and degrees and work for nothing? What will we be left with in journalism if all the good ones give up and go somewhere they can earn a living?

  2. Hi Alice:
    No doubt a tough nut to crack for newspapers. Lots of journalists were already forced out. In 2009, when all the lay-offs in the industry were happening more than 14,000 journalists lost their jobs. Hasn’t been quite the same since.

  3. Don’t laugh! The future of print journalism is ‘Digital Duplicators’ (digital mimeographs!).
    Look at the videos on YouTube. No 4-color process. Grey photographs typical of the mimeograph process. But, it is cheap and anyone can run the duplicators. There is a video of eight of these machines running in a room. The duplicators are controlled by a computer(s). An operator just comes in the room to load and unload paper. Will they make huge amounts of money? No? This is about Freedom of the Press and Print Journalism. No one is jumping in with another expensive paper because they realize they can’t make the money. Paul Revere is riding again and yelling “Get the digital duplicators running”. It’s the only ‘print’ format that can survive now.

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