Say “the Phoenix” to anyone with a counterculture bent and non-mainstream musical leanings who lived in greater Boston between the early ‘70s and early ‘00s. They’ll know exactly what you’re talking about, just like they would if you said “the Rat.”
A free alternative weekly that delved into the city’s arts, culture, current events, politics and even sports, The Boston Phoenix’s music section stood shoulder-to-shoulder in terms of influence with The Village Voice’s and Rolling Stone’s. Over its 41-year existence, the paper helped develop the sort of writing and criticism – fresh, tough, edgy, important – that’s become the journalistic gold standard.
While other free publications in and around Boston covered music during its run – The Real Paper, The Beat and Fusion among them, with ‘60s folk bi-weekly The Broadside predating them all – the Phoenix was the granddaddy of the group. With a weekly circulation of 253,000 at its peak, it dwarfed its competitors in terms of reach and was the area’s go-to source for concert and album reviews, artist interviews and profiles and show schedules.
But its focus stretched far beyond arts and entertainment. Just two years after its founding in 1972, the paper added current events and politics to its pages, thus becoming an editorial check on the area’s two dailies, the generally left-leaning Boston Globe and the generally right-leaning Boston Herald. “Who was holding the Globe and the Herald accountable back then? Only the Phoenix,” said Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University journalism professor and one-time Phoenix columnist, in Northeastern Global News in 2021. “And now there’s nobody doing that.”
The Boston Phoenix‘s history begins in September 1965, when Joe Hanlon, a former editor of MIT’s student newspaper, The Tech, founded The Phoenix. New York City’s The Village Voice had been publishing for 10 years by then, but The Phoenix was the first of its kind in Boston. The paper’s first editions were four pages of arts coverage and ads circulated as an insert in The Harbus News, the Harvard Business School’s newspaper.
Boston After Dark
In March 1966, Hanlon founded Boston After Dark (BAD) with Larry Stark – later known as “the dean of the alternative-theater critics” – contributing theater reviews. When being an insert in The Harbus News became untenable, Hanlon, Stark and Advertising Manager James T. Lewis – a Harvard Business School student who took a 50% share in the new venture – continued BAD as a weekly.
In a savvy move indicative of his high-brow education, Lewis increased circulation by 50% by distributing BAD at off-campus locations at 15 cents per copy while keeping it free at colleges and universities. By 1969, it could be found on 129 campuses.
About a year after the launch, Hanlon sold his half of the business to Lewis and for the next three years BAD ran the four-page format with a core team of four: Lewis (publisher), Jane Steidemann (editor), Stephen Mindich (advertising) and Stark (theater critic and copy editor). Deac Rossell, who later became head of programming at London’s National Film Theatre, contributed film reviews.
Expansion, Stephen Mindich, Publick Occurrences
From November 1968 to November 1971, BAD expanded dramatically (from 16 to 156 pages) and ad man Mindich acquired a 50% share in the paper. Born in 1943, he was raised in the Bronx, graduated from Boston University’s School of Theatre in the College of Fine Arts in 1965 and earned his master’s at BU’s School of Public Communications in 1966, intending to become a theatre critic.
By 1970, Lewis and Mindich’s relationship had become tenuous and Mindich sued Lewis for mismanagement. With a lawsuit ongoing, he started another paper, Publick Occurrences, which ran for two issues before merging with BAD, after Lewis agreed to sell his stake to Mindich, making him the sole owner.
The Boston Phoenix
In July 1972, following a two-week writers’ strike, Mindich purchased The Cambridge Phoenix and folded it into BAD, naming the new paper The Boston Phoenix. Its arts and entertainment section was called Boston After Dark and that remained the name of the edition distributed on campuses. On month later, some former Cambridge Phoenix staff established The Real Paper, which Mindich acquired in 1981.
In a major editorial shift, Mindich also added politics and current events to the coverage. During the ‘70s The Boston Phoenix ran hundreds of articles on the Vietnam War, women’s rights movements and school desegregation; in the ‘80s, it covered the AIDS epidemic in depth; and in 2001, the paper’s Kristen Lombardi broke the story of decades-long sex abuse with the Catholic church with her cover story “Cardinal Sin.”
Mindich always encouraged bare-knuckles coverage, which was controversial at times such as when the paper ran photos and a hosted a video of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s execution by beheading in 2002.
Mindich’s vision of expanding The Boston Phoenix to other metropolitan areas began materializing in September 1974 when he founded The Miami Phoenix in Florida, though that venture closed the following September.
In 1988, the ever-entrepreneurial Mindich acquired Providence, Rhode Island-based The NewPaper through his company Phoenix Media Communications Group (PMCG). In 1993, he renamed it The Providence Phoenix and it ran until October 2014. Also in 1993, PMCG opened The Worcester Phoenix in Worcester, Massachusetts, which lasted until 2001.
Other PMCG publications included The Portland Phoenix in Maine, which ran from 1999 to 2014; Stuff magazine, a lifestyle and arts glossy purchased in 1990; Stuff at Night, a bi-weekly that operated from 1997 until 2011; and the Spanish-language weekly El Planeta, which PMCG bought in 2008 and sold back to its original owner in 2012.
WFNX, “Boston Phoenix Radio”
In February 1983, PMCG acquired Lynn, Massachusetts-based WLYN-FM and turned it into WFNX, called “Boston Phoenix Radio.” From its debut broadcast on April 11 that year – The Cure’s “Let’s Go to Bed” – through the ‘90s grunge revolution and until the station went off air in July 2012, ‘FNX was the Boston area’s premier alt-/indie-rock commercial frequency.
Writers’ Stepping Stone
Like The Village Voice, The Boston Phoenix developed a reputation as a writer’s paper. “It was unique in its function,” the publication’s former media critic Mark Jurkowitz told Boston magazine in 2012. “It was clearly a place you wanted to go if you were thinking about long-form journalism.”
This was particularly true for budding critics, who had seen a top talent such as Jon Landau and Bill Flanagan contribute to the paper before moving on to major national publications. Janet Maslin, the Phoenix’s music and film critic in the early ‘70s, landed at The New York Times and her successor, David Denby, ended up at The New Yorker. His successor, Stephen Schiff moved to Vanity Fair, but only after training David Edelstein, future film critic for New York.
In pre-Internet 1989, knowing that the Phoenix’s classifieds were invaluable to younger people – for an apartment, a date, a bandmate, whatever – Mindich founded Tele-Publishing Inc. (TPI), which allowed people to answer personal ads through voice mail. He licensed the TPI system to weeklies all over the world and for a time in the 1990s – before the Internet decimated the business – TPI provided one of the company’s largest revenue streams.
Redesign, Management Change
In 2005, the Phoenix underwent a major redesign, switching from a broadsheet to a tabloid format and introducing a new logo in order to increase its appeal to younger readers.
In late 2006, the Phoenix’s longtime president, Barry Morris, stepped down and Mindich’s son Brad, then 38, took over day-to-day operations. His strategy was, according to comments he made to Boston magazine in 2012, to transform the Phoenix from a group of independent companies into a unified one by offering to promote advertisers’ products simultaneously across the company’s various formats.
The plan worked well at first, according to Lance Gould, a Phoenix editor from 2007 through 2010. “There was a game plan that made sense, a decent idea of creating a synergistic media empire,” he told Boston. Music writers expanded their collaborations with WFNX deejays and the younger Mindich, previously a professional musician, gave the station a wide berth in terms of programming and staffing.
Struggling to Survive
By 2009, however, the Phoenix was struggling to survive. After losing its most profitable revenue source, classified ads, to the Internet – as well as its virtual monopoly on the Boston media’s alternative ethos – the paper was slow in building a well-designed, profitable website, like thousands of other papers were.
Mindich acknowledged to Boston magazine at the time that the Phoenix and ‘FNX had “cash-flow problems that resulted in some of our vendors not being paid on a timely basis,” noting PMCG was “no more immune” to the [2007/8] Great Recession than anybody else.”
In April 2010, Stephen Mindich hired an outside consultant to analyze the state of the operation and in May he laid off three top executives his son had hired. The moves were seen as a repudiation of Brad’s plan and by late 2011 he had stopped coming to the office. In spring 2012, the younger Mindich left to start an entertainment consulting firm.
Selling WFNX, Going Glossy
In May 2012, Mindich sold WFNX to Clear Channel Communications (later called iHeartMedia) for $14.5 million. Three months later, he announced that he was taking a stab at renewing the Phoenix’s profitability by reinventing it as a glossy.
The new magazine, called simply The Phoenix, hit the shelves on September 20, 2012, and was a flashy hybrid of the Phoenix and Stuff. The first issue was 118 pages, but the next six were just 90, roughly a third of those devoted to ads. That ratio, according to people with knowledge of the Phoenix’s advertising rates and dire financial situation, was not nearly enough to keep the magazine in the black.
Just six months later, upon publication of The Phoenix’s final issue (March 14, 2013), Mindich announced that the magazine would fold the next day, March 15. In a statement published in that issue, he blamed the 2007/8 financial crisis and gigantic changes in the media business, particularly the downturn in print advertising revenue, as the reasons for the closing.
In October 2014, The Providence Phoenix closed up shop and the next month Mindich sold The Portland Phoenix to the Portland News Club LLC, publisher of The Portland Daily Sun. In 2019, The Portland Phoenix ceased publication.
Northeastern, Internet Archive
Shortly after the publications shut down, Mindich signed the copyrights for The Boston Phoenix, The Phoenix, The Portland Phoenix, The Worcester Phoenix and Stuff over to Northeastern University to be included in the institution’s archives and special collections. The university considered digitizing all the material but found that it was cost prohibitive, according to Northeastern’s head of special collections Giordana Mecagni.
In 2021, however, the Internet Archive, an independent nonprofit library that owned the master microfilm for The Boston Phoenix and The Phoenix, put all 2,100 issues of those two publications online in a collection called The Boston Phoenix 1973-2013. At first, they were only available for one person to check out at a time but Northeastern soon extended rights to the Internet Archive to allow unlimited viewing and downloading.
“All of a sudden, it was free to the public. It was wonderful,” Mecagni said at the time. “We get tons and tons of research requests for various aspects of the Phoenix, so having it available online for free for people to download is a huge help for us.”
The Boston Phoenix won the Penny-Missouri Newspaper Award, the American Bar Association Gavel Award, the Michael J. Metcalfe Diversity in Media Award and the ASCP-Deems Taylor Award, among others, in addition honors from the New England Press Association.
In 1994, Phoenix classical music writer Lloyd Schwartz won a Pulitzer Prize for musical criticism. Mindich was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2016.
Stephen Mindich Death, Legacy
Stephen Mindich passed away May 23, 2018, at age 74. “He was one of the most important figures, if not the most important figure, in the alternative press after Norman Mailer and The Village Voice,” said Northeastern’s Kennedy. “He knew it was a very, very tough business, and he was brilliant at it for a long time.”
(by D.S. Monahan)