More than a year ago when the Gazette asked me to write a column, I jumped at the opportunity. After all, this is a writer’s paper and I am what’s known as an ink-stained wretch. Back in the day, I worked for another paper that promoted and showcased good writing. It was the Boston Phoenix, which ceased publication on March 15 after 47 years of operation.
When I assumed the role of editor of that “alternative” paper in 1968, it was a 16-page weekly called Boston After Dark and featured reviews and listings in the local arts and entertainment scene. By the time I left that job at the end of 1971, it was functioning smoothly as a 156-page honest-to-goodness newsweekly. I was proud and exhausted.
Why did it die? In a perverse way, you could say it died of natural causes. Actually, it was killed by as many adversaries as Caesar had — cable TV, the internet, a bad economy, dwindling advertising, limited attention spans and decreasing desires for what really can be called news. Its demise, however, on another level, can best be summed up by a quote from our late U.S. Congressman Gerry Studds, something I heard him say at a Vineyard gathering. When asked why he quit politics, Studds said, “I went to Congress because I wanted to save the world. After 24 years in Washington, I came to the conclusion the world did not want to be saved.”
The Phoenix wanted to save journalism. It saw itself as a challenger to the accepted world of newsgathering, both in fact and opinion, at least in Boston. The paper was called “alternative” and “counter-cultural.” Both terms were used by some as badges of honor, by others as dismissive swipes. The paper was anti-establishment at a time when there actually was an easy-to-define establishment to rail against.
It pointed out that the emperors were naked. It pierced the halls of secrecy, popped the balloons of misinformation and tilted at some windmills. It served a purpose. For a time, it kept traditional journalism’s feet to the fire.
It represented a change. Changes in modern communication have been roiling the waters since Samuel Morse sent the first message on his brand new telegraph: “What hath God wrought?”
In the beginning we never used editorials. You knew with the phrasing and positioning of each article where the paper stood. This was called advocacy journalism. For a Boston-situated endeavor about to become an institution, the paper was seen as “very Cambridge.” Its attitude was in line with that hell-raiser and case-lowerer, the Cambridge poet e. e. cummings who once wrote a whole poem that went, “a politician is an arse upon which everyone has sat except a man.”
The financial backbone of the Phoenix proved to be the endless supply of college students getting educated in Massachusetts. Bundles of each issue were delivered free to campuses everywhere. To a potential advertiser, especially one wishing to attract youthful buyers, this meant a captive audience. For several decades this theory held water. As the advertising dollar shrunk however, a leak appeared. Also, students became too busy texting to be concerned with things contextual.
Based on all of the publication’s obits I’ve been reading, I have yet to see an accurate biographical picture. So, allow me a few words to set the record straight.
The Boston Phoenix began life in 1965 as the local entertainment supplement inside the Harvard Business School newspaper. It was called Boston After Dark and was started by Joe Hanlon and Jim Lewis. A year later, this four-pager went out on its own. Mr. Lewis took over, joining forces with his advertising director, Steve Mindich, and the paper expanded to 16 pages of things to do in the city’s environs after dark.
In late 1969, Jeff Tarter started up the Cambridge Phoenix, which basically mirrored Boston After Dark (affectionately known as B.A.D.) but with news stories and features. By then I was the editor of B.A.D. and thought we should compete as a newsweekly with the Phoenix. My bosses started quarreling over this idea. And when it looked like they were heading for court, I headed for San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, where I started writing a novel. By the time I reached page 127 and discovered my main character who was in the bathroom on page one was still in the bathroom, I was saved by a phone call. Mr. Mindich had won the battle and the paper. I was coming back to Boston to start a newsweekly.
It was a great time. We now had our own Village Voice in Boston. As editor, I concocted personal ads and letters to kick-start those sections of the new paper. My job status also bestowed upon me free albums, movies, plays, concerts and even meals from restaurants wanting our business.
As the summer of 1972 started, Richard Missner, the Phoenix publisher, tired of wrestling with a potential staff union, sold the business to Mr. Mindich. In the deal, Boston After Dark got the Phoenix name, the circulation and advertiser lists, and sports reporter George Kimball. The staff of what used to be the Phoenix continued publishing under the name of the Real Paper, until it died in 1981.
And so it goes. Eventually, all historic events are reduced to footnotes. Where once perched the Phoenix now sits a pile of ashes. What hath God wrought — indeed.
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.