Eulogy for the Phoenix

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If you don’t live within spitting distance of Boston, maybe you missed the sad news that the Boston Phoenix abruptly quit publication last month. This alternative newsweekly began in the heyday of the sixties, and quickly became the go-to source for more than just the other side of the story, spawning dozens of nationally recognized writers and critics along the way. For decades the Phoenix had the best and most comprehensive arts and entertainment reporting in Boston—even according to the Boston Herald and Boston Globe, who poached many Phoenix writers over the years. The Phoenix also had a pit bull approach to reporting that’s required when you’re breaking stories like the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal.  This foundation of excellent and intelligent reportage and writing was made possible in large part because—in addition to their desire to get to the heart of every story they published—the Phoenix had a paid staff.

Writers at the Phoenix didn’t get paid much, but they were able to hone their skills so finely because writing was all they did—or, rather, writing was all they had to do.  Writers sure didn’t live in the lap of luxury, but they also didn’t need to teach high school English, they didn’t need to bartend or work construction or temp in a high rise office—they only needed to write.

Former Phoenix writer Charles Pierce (Esquire, Grantland, Boston Globe) explains perfectly what he learned writing for the Phoenix:

Because, for most of my tenure, I was writing for my rent, I wrote everything they asked me to write. I wrote 6,000 words about lobsters and 5,000 words about raccoons. I covered the 1980 presidential campaign, and a weird trial where a bagman testified that he had been extorted by a state senator who’d been paying him off for over a decade, and the endless legal battle over the only porn house in Chelsea, which caused me to watch an X-rated movie with a 70-year-old judge and a bunch of jurors who may not have recovered for decades. I honed my chops. I became a generalist. I learned everything I know about being a journalist, and almost everything I know about being me in the world.

When I first picked up the Boston Phoenix at sixteen, almost everything I knew about being “me” in the world was pretty much limited to my northern New Hampshire hometown. I listened to the albums my brother ordered from Columbia House records, I went to whichever movies played at the Colonial Theater in downtown Laconia, and I read the Boston Globe that my grandmother bought outside Our Lady of the Lakes every Sunday after Mass.

In terms of culture—pop or otherwise—I wasn’t all that well-rounded or well-read, and most journalism I did manage to read—Rolling Stone, Spin, the Christian Science Monitor my parents subscribed to—seemed distant or unattainable or hopelessly dry.

But the Phoenix was practically in my backyard, and its bizarre mix of art house film reviews, music scene exposés, and articles I never would have seen in my grandmother’s Sunday Globe completely transfixed me. The columns alone were a revelation—there was opinion and humor and outrage—and even if I didn’t know what they were writing about half the time, I still was amazed writing like that was even allowed, much less published.

If you lived in Boston the Phoenix was free, but I had to pay a $1.50 mileage fee to buy my copy at the only store in Laconia, New Hampshire that carried it—the legendary Laconia Spa, nicknamed the “dirty book store” for its wide selection of paper-wrapped pornography. In addition to smut, the Spa also sold cold beer and soda, snacks and candy, and even single cigarettes that sat in a cup by the register which were 5 cents each, same price as the pretzel sticks.

The Spa was seedy and my parents weren’t thrilled I went, even though in addition to the girlie magazines the store also carried enough literature to rival the public library across the street, packed into an annex that stretched almost the length of the block. Mark Twain and James Baldwin, Joan Didion and Edith Wharton, Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe and everything else in-between and far beyond.

My parents were less thrilled I came home with the Boston Phoenix, in part because the very thing that supported the Spa—sex and beer and single cigarettes—was also kind of what kept the Phoenix afloat. At least half the newspaper was full of ads for liquor and cigarettes as well as the massage parlors and strip joints that littered Boston’s Combat Zone, plus pages of personal ads written by people with highly specific and intriguing proclivities. Half the time the personals were nearly as interesting to me as the columnists and the front page news.

But like the Laconia Spa, the Phoenix was far more valuable than its questionable financial foundation, a truth echoed over and over by the writers who rose through its ranks. Former Phoenix writers moved on to the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Gawker, and Esquire. Former Phoenix writers won the Pulitzer Prize (both at the Phoenix and elsewhere), published best-selling novels and memoirs and exposés, then watched those best-selling books turned into acclaimed and Oscar-nominated films.

I could namedrop forever, but instead I’ll focus on two of my favorite former Phoenixes. First is Susan Orlean, New Yorker staff writer, obsessive researcher, and author of The Orchid Thief and the absolutely incomparable Rin Tin Tin, a book you’ll love even if you’re not already enthralled with dogs or old Hollywood or both. Second is Caroline Knapp, a longtime Phoenix columnist who wrote the heart-wrenching and brutal memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, and also Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs, a book I basically sobbed through because Knapp, at 42, had already died of lung cancer. If these were the only two writers the Phoenix had ever nurtured, that would be legacy enough.

Susan Orlean, like other former Phoenix writers, lit up the Internet in the past several weeks bemoaning the Phoenix’s demise, but many other writers also saw it as a natural progression thanks to the power of the Internet.

After all, how could a paper continue to pay and publish writers in an age where so many online sites either don’t pay at all, or don’t pay enough to help anyone really earn a living? And how can a paper continue to claim legitimacy as an alternative source of news when there are so many alternative sources of news daily clogging the Internet? It’s tough to make an argument for the seemingly antiquated newsweekly that you have to venture out to pick up at your nearest street corner, especially when I’m making that argument in an online blog, but I’ll use one of the Phoenix’s last big news stories to prove my point that printed newsweeklies must remain relevant.

As one of the last staff writers for the Phoenix, Chris Faraone wrote about hip-hop, class war, and social justice (a nice grab bag, right?), and spent a great deal of the recent past relentlessly covering the Occupy movement nationwide. While it’s true Faraone and the Phoenix can thank the Internet for spreading the message of the 99%, that message can only spread online if we have a dependable source of electricity, if our signals don’t get jammed, and if our computers and cell phones aren’t felled by a virus.

Remember Occupy Oakland when cell phone signals and the Internet were shut down to prevent protesters from organizing? We have the ability to reach millions over the Internet almost instantaneously, but that’s only if no one surreptitiously pulls the plug. So while I celebrate the legacy of the Phoenix and its writers, there remain more than a few reasons to hope something tangible rises from its ashes.