Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Boston Phoenix is shuttered, and despite the best efforts of the publisher and staff, little could be done to save the situation when readers have moved on

Is there anything scarier to a newspaper or magazine pro than the news that so-and-so publication has been shuttered? Unfortunately, many titles close each year, some because they were launches that never stood a chance anyways, and others that were mismanaged into oblivion.

But nothing scares a print pro like hearing of a name-brand title being shuttered, one that is familiar, even admired, or something just 'respected'.

For most newspaper pros between the ages of 40 and 60, alt-weeklies are especially important. I never worked at an alt-weekly, but competed with many of them. The closest I ever got to working at one was an interview at the San Francisco Bay Guardian where the owner probably thought of me as too corporate for the job – if he'd seen my record collection he'd probably come to the conclusion that I was too out-there for the weekly.
Old & New Boston Phoenix, both closed now
Today the Boston Phoenix was shuttered and you can read all about it on the The Boston Globe website or at Jim Romenesko's new site (you can still call it new, right?). This long piece that appeared in Boston Magazine will provide the background.

For alt-weeklies, the past decade have been about as bad as it's been for B2B magazines – and both are struggling with the move to digital media with the same slow speed and with the same success. That is, not very well.

The problem for alt-weeklies is that their very reason for existing seems to have disappeared. Journalists will talk about the quality of journalism at some weeklies and they are absolutely right, but it's irrelevant.

Here is a story from the mid-eighties: while attending a classified ad conference somewhere wonderful I ran into the CAM (classified advertising manager) from the L.A. Weekly – we talked and joked and and drank for a while. He told me a story of a recent manager's meeting:

At the meeting he stood up to make some point about resources, telling the publisher, the editors and the other ad managers that he thought that half of those that read the Weekly did so for the back of the book classifieds and listings.

The editor was furious and said the CAM was crazy. The publisher backed up the editor: "you're absolutely right, he doesn't know what he is talking about," the publisher said. "Our research shows that 75 percent of the readers pick up the Weekly for the back of the book classifieds and listings." That ended the conversation, the CAM was king, and everyone knew it.

In the eighties if you wanted to go to a movie you picked up the weekly, to a club the weekly, find an apartment the weekly, etc. Alt-weeklies were packed with ads in the front of the book, as well as the back because... everyone picked up the weekly.

Now everyone wants to talk about quality journalism and how if only we would return to the glory days of whenever readers would return. But it's not true now because it wasn't true then. Sure there was plenty of great journalism, but that didn't drive the readers

When I started writing here at TNM, before the launch of the iPad, I talked about the opportunity to reclaim some of the back of the book readership through mobile apps using geo-location services, maps and databases. Three years on few newspapers have bothered to do much more than build RSS feed news apps – and many, including the Digital First newspapers, didn't even do that, they outsourced everything. Frankly, I'm tired of beating that drum because no one is listening anyways.

But no mobile app, or no tablet edition, can change everything. For alt-weeklies these are scary times.

But the only thing that is more frightening than a shuttered title is the knowledge that little could have been done to prevent it. For someone who looks at dozens of new mobile and tablet apps each week, new websites and new eBooks, the only thing I can conclude is that the media world looks a lot rosier for digital start-ups than it does for the legacy print titles, even those aggressively pursuing digital.

That was true for the web ten years ago, it's true today for the new digital publishers, as well. And that has to be very scary for a lot of media pros.

Below the jump I've reposted the publisher's staff memo in case you didn't see it elsewhere and the Phoenix's site crashes again:

This statement from Phoenix publisher Stephen M. Mindich was circulated to staffers earlier today:

I can state with certainty that this is the single most difficult communication I've ever had to deliver and there's no other way to state it than straightforwardly -

As of now the Boston Phoenix has ceased publishing and will not continue as it is.

As everyone knows, between the economic crisis beginning in 2007 and the simultaneous radical changes in the media business, particularly as it has affected print media advertising, these have been extremely difficult times for our Company and despite the valiant effort by many, many past and current staff to attempt to stabilize and, in fact, reverse our significant financial losses, we have been unable to do so and they are no longer sustainable.

Because of their smaller scale of operations and because we believe that they remain meaningful publications to their communities, with some necessary changes to each, it is our intent to keep the Providence and Portland Phoenixes operating and to do so for as long as they remain financially viable. The same is true for Mass Web Printing Co.

I cannot find the words to express how sad a moment this is for me, and I know, for you as well, so I won't try.

What I can and will say is I am extremely proud, as all of you should be, of the highest standards of journalism we have set and maintained throughout the decades in all of our areas of coverage and the important role we have played in driving political and socially progressive and responsible agendas; in covering the worlds of arts and entertainment, food and fashion - always with a critical view, while at the same time promoting their enormous importance in maintaining a healthy society; and in advocating for the recognition and acceptance of a wide range of lifestyles that are so valuable for a vibrant society.

And finally, at least for this moment, I want to thank all of you - and the literally thousands of women and men before you, for lending your talents to our mission over the past 47 years - as I have always said - our staff has been our soul.

And obviously as well, my sincere gratitude to our millions of readers and tens of thousands of advertisers without whom none of what we did accomplish could have been possible or meaningful.
So, that's it. We have had an extraordinary run.