Giusti: Fall of the Phoenix
Bob Giusti, WBOB Features Editor
Yes, print media in general has been dying for quite some time. It didn't take a genius to see the impact that electronic media had on how quickly and in real time the public would consume the quicker way. But a part of me believed that there was still a relevance to the introspective and deep reporting that could be found inked to the tactile experience of the printed page. So, it is with great dismay and a heavy heart that I come here to praise (not bury) The Providence Phoenix.
Lets do a quick history lesson. The original version of the Providence edition was a small independent weekly called The NewPaper found by an ex Journal Bulletin music columnist; Ty Davis. He recognized that the boomers had a large demographic brought up on the kind of alternative journalism of rags like the still controversial Rolling Stone (before it was a magazine). It was by no means an original concept; free city weeklies were already all the rage in most of the major cities. This included Boston After Dark who would fall to a management vs staff mutiny only to rise from the ashes as, you guessed it, The Phoenix.
Shaping the music scene
The NewPaper played an integral role in the shaping of a then burgeoning original music scene in Providence. It became a respected news source by both the political and music and arts community. This was during a time where the drinking age was eighteen, there was zero social media and live music was a primary attraction in all the clubs. The city was slowly under construction for what would be the moving of the rivers and the beginning of what would become the Renaissance City. Small entrepreneurial businesses like record shops and bistros popped up in different nooks and crannies along the perimeters. Everyone was ready to take advantage of the lower advertising rates available and the paper actually evolved to two sections; news and arts and entertainment. It became the definitive guide to what was happening in the community.
Because of it’s status and editorial content along with its free copy distribution, Davis’s enterprise became somewhat profitable thanks to a hard working core full-time staff and a score of hip young writers who were paid a small stipend for every piece published.
A growing empire
In the meantime over in Boston, The Phoenix empire was growing and expanding and looking to establish satellite editions throughout the region. Publisher Steven Mindich had built a strong nationally known group of editors and contributors and expansion could justify the expense of talent. The Phoenix was even able to break a cardinal rule in weekly tabs by charging a cover price. The paper was not without it’s controversy. An expanded adult entertainment section primarily fueled by the then popular 900 number pay to play calls was consider sexist and anti-feminist by many of their core readers.
So it became inevitable that The NewPaper, keeping afloat in a high stakes game of what was now an established national format became an attractive investment opportunity for the Phoenix media group which had also expanded to include an FM radio station (WFNX) along with its editions in other cities around New England (Worcester and Portland). When an offer was made to Davis to sell the paper or face possible competition from a Providence edition anyway, he agreed to sell with the stipulation that most of the core administrative staff would be given the chance to retain their positions.
However the climate at the now named Phoenix’s NewPaper was a drastically different culture in comparison to the old administration. There was a resistance to fight off the corporate mindset and many of the core staff resented the prospect of being retrained in jobs they felt they already had the competency to perform. A group defiantly left the company and started their own weekly called The Nice Paper.
For a while (several years) the two weeklies co-existed to an extent with the now renamed Providence Phoenix catering to an audience who had grown in socioeconomic status away from the nightclub scene while The NicePaper championed (with deep coverage ) the very local artists and musicians who felt a kindred spirit to be defiant against what was perceived as the invasion from the out-of-towners.
Ironically, very critical members of the NewPaper core staff remained at The Phoenix, (e.g. Managing Editor Lou Papineau, Sales Staffer Bruce Allen, writers Bruce McCrae, and Chip Young) and insured that everything was done to produce true Providence content. It also helped that publisher Steve Brown was becoming an adopted favorite in the media and cafe society.
After struggling to compete against the bigger pockets of The Phoenix (but not before seriously prolonging any needed rate increases that a for profit requires) The NicePaper felt squeezed out of the available advertisers to support even a “labor of love” income and had to cease publication.
The Providence Phoenix would prevail and the character of the content would maintain a local flavor. They would become strong media partners with other news outlets (local radio and television) and good neighbors, by paying tribute to the locals with The Phoenix Best Of Awards and countless charity events.
It is hard for a person of my generation to accept the economic reality associated with the fall of the Phoenix. The end of a Providence weekly hard copy paper. Yet the way we all demand real time news events through our phones and laptops and tablets has made print go the way of the buggy whip.
I will miss picking up printed pages on Thursdays, but I will stay informed seven days a week through a medium like this. The challenge will be in the content.