Alternative weekly colossus Boston Phoenix cracked and fell yesterday, ceasing publication after 47 years. According to a Phoenix executive quoted in the obituary in today’s Boston Globe, the alternative weekly was losing more than $1 million a year, and a format switch last fall from newsprint to glossy had failed to attract the sort of national advertising it desired.
Once one of the leading alt-weeklies in the nation, the dead paper leaves behind $1.2 million in debt and roughly $500,000 in assets. The fact that its owner didn’t — or couldn’t — sell the publication to cover some of its debt signals the illness of the greater alternative weekly market.
Like its daily newspaper counterpart, the alt-weekly has enjoyed a terrible half-decade of plummeting revenues, circulation and page counts in the 100-plus markets currently served. One large chain that owned papers in Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Charlotte and elsewhere filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and was eventually spun apart, but that financial disaster was as much about clueless proprietors overleveraging themselves as it was the decay of the alt-weekly business model.
The formula, pioneered by the Village Voice in the 1950s, finessed by the Phoenix in the 1960s and perfected by the Chicago Reader, the Phoenix New Times and others in the 1970s, became such a cinch that know-nothing bar owners and recent college graduates (or dropouts!) eventually made millions off it. Some papers, like the Phoenix New Times, built immense chains from the links they forged and acquired. The formula connected underserved readers with overcharged advertisers in both compact, urban settings like New York and Washington and sunbelt expanses like Phoenix and Dallas. In 2005, the two largest alt-weekly chains, anchored respectively by the Phoenix New Times and the Voice, combined to create a company valued by the participants at $400 million, with annual revenues of $180 million. Newspapers started in bar booths had become big business, but like many of the daily newspaper merger and acquisition deals going down during same period, this deal also proved too rich.
Many former alt-weekly editors would like to persuade you that their cutting take on city politics and the arts combined with their dedication to the feature form won readers. Actually, it was the whole gestalt that made the publications work. Comprehensive listings paired with club and concert ads to both entertain and help readers plan their week. Classified ads, especially the personals, often provided better reading than the journalistic fare in the front of the book. No better venue for apartment rentals existed; even people who had long-term leases used the housing ads to fantasize. Even the display ads, purchased mostly by local retailers and service providers, were useful to readers.