R.I.P. Boston Phoenix: Future Doom For Alts?

The Boston Phoenix, the city's venerated 47-year-old alternative weekly, abruptly shut down on Thursday, leaving many Bostonites lamenting the newspaper's death and some industry experts questioning the long-term viability of alt-weeklies' business model.
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The Boston Phoenix, a 47-year-old tentpole of the alternative newsmedia world, abruptly announced its end on Thursday afternoon, leaving readers and publishing insiders in the same state of shock that usually accompanies the death of a friend or beloved celebrity.

“It’s a shock, and I’m very sad,” said Tiffany Shackelford, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. “I was surprised as anyone.”

Dan Kennedy, the paper’s legendary former media critic whose name still appeared on the masthead, was equally stunned at the sudden announcement. “I think we all knew when the Phoenix relaunched as a glossy magazine last fall that this was an experiment and maybe it would work out and maybe it wouldn’t,” Kennedy, now a journalism professor at Northeastern University, said. “But I was among the many who were cautiously optimistic picking it up every week.”

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The Phoenix’s move to shed its newspaper skin for glossier pages last October was met favorably by readers and advertisers, yet the latter apparently didn’t materialize in sufficient numbers to turn the Phoenix’s fortunes.

“Apparently they had great hopes for national advertising that just didn’t come through,” Kennedy said.

According to a Boston.com report, employees learned of the paper’s fate at a 2 p.m. staff meeting. Approximately 40 staffers will be laid off within the week with another 10 to follow shortly after.

At 2:51 p.m., the newspaper tweeted its farewell to Boston and the world, borrowing Edward R. Murrow’s signature sign off: “Good night and good luck.”

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“Sad for the staff and not particularly good news for the industry,” said Tim Keck, publisher of Seattle’s The Stranger and Portland’s The Mercury, via email.

Keck said it was a reminder of the precariousness still felt by many papers in the alternative strata of the newspaper world.

“It is a helpful reminder for those running media companies that you have to constantly be innovating, finding new revenue sources and holding on to your community or you, too, will be dead,” he said.

Kennedy, too, cautioned of grim prognostications with the Phoenix’s fall. “I think that the outlook for alternative weeklies is pretty grim,” he said. “You’re talking about a paper that was free with a free website, and free is just not working at the moment because the ad scene has changed so much.”

He said that the Phoenix never really recovered from the collapse of its classified revenue with the Craigslist disruption. “It would be page after page of a band needs a bass player, I need a roommate or I want a boyfriend or a girlfriend,” he said. “That’s just all gone to Craigslist and it’s not coming back.”

But Shackelford said no one should start a deathwatch on other alt weeklies just yet.

“We’re seeing that alt weeklies are still really thriving in small to medium markets where they’re an important voice for their community,” she said. However, “in larger markets, there’s more competition for advertising.”

Shackelford said the fact that the Phoenix’s publishers are not shuttering their publications in Providence or Portland is evidence of the alts’ ongoing strength in those smaller- and medium-sized markets. “I’m not concerned about this being a larger statement on the industry,” she said. “I know there’s a natural inclination to want to cry that this is the beginning of the end, but I really don’t think that’s at all what this is.”

Regardless, Boston will now be without a vital journalistic conduit, and Phoenix alum Kennedy is among those who will feel its loss.

“The intelligence and deep reporting really can’t be replicated,” he said.

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