Last week, the Boston Phoenix published its final issue, and this Friday its last web edition will go online, ending the four-decade run of the storied alt-weekly where Susan Orlean, Charlie Pierce and David Denby got their start writing the sorts of stories (and frank prose) most other outlets in the city wouldn’t publish.
This has been sorrowful news in writerly circles – particularly, arriving as it has, in the same week as a depressing new accounting of the state of the alt-weekly industry from the Pew Research Center. In 2012, every one of the country’s 20 largest alt-weeklies lost circulation (on top of the circulation they’d been losing for years), with one exception. The Phoenix New Times picked up – a glimmer of hope! – a meager 0.14 percent.
In the collective memory of journalists, these institutions evoke a very particular kind of nostalgia for total editorial freedom, terrible pay and typewriters (“ask your folks, kids,” Pierce suggests). As Orlean told the Boston Globe for its obituary on the Phoenix:
It’s like finding out your college has gone bankrupt and is gone. I am a child of the alt-weekly world, and I feel like it has played such an important role in journalism as we know it today.
Pierce, writing at Grantland, echoed much the same sentiment about coming of age at a paper that was trying to carry on the “outlaw spirit of Boston journalism” that goes all the way back to colonial pamphlets:
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.
Media critic Jack Shafer, writing now at Reuters, recounted this misty story from his own alt-weekly days:
Bob Roth, one of my bosses when I edited Washington City Paper (1985-1995), told me to watch people as they picked it up from a street box and walk away with it: Almost to a one, they would hold it in their hands or fold it under their arms as if to display the paper’s flag so onlookers would know they were City Paper people, whatever that meant.
It’s true that alt-weeklies have been especially valuable as training grounds for an astonishing number of journalists who went on to become great longform, investigative and magazine writers. And for this loss alone, the prospect of their extinction hurts. But the other cry that’s often made about the disappearance of alt weeklies is that, without them, no one will carry on the task of speaking truth to power in cities, covering their unlit corners or their underground cultural scenes.
Alt weeklies have been struggling for years because old revenue streams like the classifieds have moved onto Craigslist, and because the smart phone, as Shafer argued this week, has replaced the tabloid paper as our universal means of staving off boredom at bus stops and on bar stools. But they’ve also struggled because other web-based outlets have learned to do well what the alt-weekly once did all alone in the media landscape: cover cities in a way that’s "alternative" to the fusty daily newspaper.
Look at sites like Homicide Watch, Streesblog, the Ists or even the Eater/Curbed network. None of them existed when Charlie Pierce was dragging his portable typewriter across the street from the Phoenix office to the Eliot Lounge to write a 3,000-word political opus bellied up at the bar. It’s undeniably sad that writers like Pierce no longer get to do things like that, but I'm prepared to make peace with a world where there's also nothing stopping anyone from digitally publishing and distributing their own writing and reporting, and the number of news outlets has actually increased.