[this is an edited summary, and not a verbatim transcript]
By Jason Martin Lipshin, CMS '14
Anita Diamant, Carly Carioli, Charlie Pierce, Lloyd Schwartz, and moderator Seth Mnookin. All photos Greg Peverill-Conti.
In the first Communications Forum of the year, former staffers of The Boston Phoenix, the city's storied alt-weekly, gathered six months after the publication shut down to discuss its legacy and its role in Boston's intellectual and cultural life.
"I don't want this to be a funeral," said Carly Carioli, who started working for the publication in the mid-1990's as an intern and eventually worked his way up to be The Phoenix's final editor. But nostalgia and eulogizing seemed all but inevitable, as both panelists and audience members affiliated with The Phoenix from over the years recalled its glory days.
Seth Mnookin, associate-director of the Communications Forum and an assistant professor in MIT's Comparative Media Studies/Writing program, began by asking the panelists what made The Phoenix different from more mainstream publications like The Boston Globe. Charlie Pierce, a political blogger for Esquire and a staff writer at grantland.com, who worked at The Phoenix from 1978 to 1983, offered a response that was part history lesson and part anecdote.
"The Phoenix was part of the first generation to come out of the long form, narrative non-fiction of New York [Magazine] in the 1960s…We covered almost everything The Globe covered, but we did it with voice, we did it at length, and we did it with attitude," he said.
Pierce went on to explain how many Phoenix stories had their roots in counterculture of the 1960s. In one revealing anecdote, he recalled reporting on a legal battle over the last porn house in Chelsea, in which he visited the theater and watched an X-rated film along with two jurors and a seventy year-old judge.
The novelist and essayist Anita Diamant, who started at The Phoenix as an assistant to the editor in the late 1970s, talked about how she went from answering phones and filing paperwork--which was, she said, "how most women got into the newsroom at that time--to writing her own, first-person column.
"It was like journalism finishing school," said Diamant. "I had the opportunity to really rethink the women's pages…everything from women's health to fashion to the way women were discussed in the media…I'd take stories that the women's movement and feminism had identified and elevate them into something that was well-reported."
Inevitably, much of the discussion focused around The Phoenix's much-celebrated arts and cultural coverage. Poet and classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his Phoenix work, pointed to the unique way the paper mixed high and low culture.
"Current rock music was always the center and got the most attention in The Phoenix arts section," Schwartz said. "But there was always room, there was always the desire to cover the high culture." Small, unknown operas might not have the same mass appeal as a piece about the first Sex Pistols's show in America – an event which, Carioli pointed out, The Phoenix covered – but Schwartz said the paper's editors always made room for both.
For Schwartz, the freedom to write honestly, without worrying about offending powerful players on the city's arts scene, was another thing that made the paper a special place to work. "[It seemed that] there was a kind of pressure from the higher-ups at The Globe … you had to be very careful about what you said about the major institutions. But this was not the case at The Phoenix," said Schwartz. "There, it was important to say that the emperor had no clothes."
The panelists agreed that The Phoenix retained much of this un-intimidated, outsider's attitude even in its last days. Carioli cited Maddy Myers' work in feminist video game criticism and Chris Faraone's coverage of the Occupy movement as examples of journalism one cannot find in the major newspapers.
Mnookin, picking up on a column by former Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy, asked whether the paper's demise was representative of the sheering off of some of the city's rougher edges: With head shops and used-record stores being replaced by Starbucks and Pinkberrys, were there still a critical mass of advertisers who were willing to pay to reach the Phoenix's young, alternative readership?
Carioli disagreed with the premise of the question, saying that Boston's alt-culture continues to have a strong activist base and a thriving underground music scene. He praised public radio and scrappy publications like Dig Boston which to provide a space for non-mainstream voices, despite the terrible economic climate for the industry.
And, despite the fact that he recently took a job as the executive editor of Boston Magazine, Carioli will forever miss the outlet that launched his career. "There was no greater place on earth to learn your craft," he said. "That sort of apprenticeship…. where people tell you what to read and what to listen to…really helped me become the critic that I am today."
Questions and Answers
An audience member suggested that its transition at the end from newsprint to glossy magazine signaled the death of The Phoenix, as it became more of a "yuppie" publication. Portland and Providence versions of The Phoenix continue to run in their original format and are doing well even today. Why is that?
Alt-weeklies in smaller cities seem to have an easier time surviving than in big cities, said Carioli. There is less competition and less pressure to adhere to new advertising models in the context of a smaller community. "You see this trend in the south, you see it in Portland, and you see it in Providence," said Carioli.
Forum director David Thorburn asked the panelists to talk a bit more about the ways in which The Phoenix differed from The Boston Globe and other mainstream publications. One important difference, already mentioned by the panel, was The Phoenix's openness to popular culture. What other features made it truly alternative?
Pierce said The Phoenix's alt-quality was located in both its literary, New Journalism-inspired style and in the kind of stories covered. He cited George Kimball, Dave O'Brien, and Neil Miller, who covered the AIDS epidemic before any of the other major newspapers, as examples of writers who wrote pieces on edgy topics and in an edgy style that you would be hard-pressed to find in a major newspaper.
Diamant added that The Phoenix ethos encouraged writers to take the time they need for reporting and research and gave them "a lot of space to say what we wanted."
Rekha Murthy, a Comparative Media Studies alum now working in public radio, said she believed there was an audience for local, community-based media. She wondered if radio and the Internet are potential spaces where a Phoenix-like publication could live on.
Diamant replied that she's very excited about the potential of local media, and thinks that radio tailored to a specifically Boston audience, like WBUR, continues to play an important role in the life of the city. She also thinks that venues like WBUR are important as a source of minority voices.
Nothing has replaced The Phoenix, she said, but if its experimental and iconoclastic spirit does rise from the ashes, it will happen not in print but in cyberspace.