The Last American Newspaper

By Al Giordano

 

Nostalgia is a particularly Bostonian pastime, and now almost anyone who ever set foot in that city over the past half-decade has another trigger for melancholy. The Boston Phoenix is dead, boys and girls. Weep for your little town. It will never be as good as it was without that scrappy weekly newspaper that was undervalued in life and now is lionized from the tomb. Boston’s greatest – often its only – motor of culture has now gone the way of the brontosaur.

I am one of its orphans, one of hundreds who entered the doors of the weekly Phoenix as literary rug rats and wannabe writers and came out – after the hard pounding that took place every seven days inside its furnace – as steely men and women of letters. Its long roster of alumni includes the film critics Janet Maslin and David Denby, and many, many other journalists and authors who have shaped American culture and politics.

The Phoenix wasn’t merely the newspaper where I worked in my thirties. It was the place that gave me the time, space and freedom to evolve into who I would become for the rest of my life.

From the moment I landed in Massachusetts at the age of 17, that thick wad of newsprint was something I reached for weekly to find out what was going on, especially with music, but also with politics.

By my early twenties, as I was organizing the anti-nuclear movement, the Phoenix newsroom was ally and booster of our efforts, the go-to place to send manila envelopes of damaging information about our evil adversaries.

In my late twenties, then-editor Richard Gaines took my first published piece – an anonymous submission about the dedication of a park in Lowell, Massachusetts, to its native son Jack Kerouac. I had sent it to him with only the byline “S.J. Santino.” Its references to bemushroomed hallucinations and smoking pot with the bard’s daughter would not have been the best PR for the statewide anti-nuclear referendum I’d launched for that year’s ballot. Gaines gave it a big spread on the cover of the paper’s Arts section, and soon after he published some my first stories under my real name, including one that nobody else wanted to touch, about my friend Barbara Curzi, then a federal political prisoner. When the leadership at the Valley Advocate newspaper in Western Massachusetts, where I lived, saw my byline in the mighty Phoenix, they snatched me up and gave me a staff job in Springfield. I spent four years there cutting my teeth and at war with the dirty politicians who’d been entrenched in the region’s halls of power for thirty years.

One of the inspirations for my salad days in Springfield, and for my weekly assault on the Hampden County Courthouse, was attorney Harvey Silverglate’s “Freedom Watch” column in the Phoenix. In his own requiem for the publication where he wrote for more than four decades, the great civil libertarian wrote:

“I began my long-running Freedom Watch column in the early 1970s, covering all manner of injustices committed by cops, prosecutors and judges. I considered myself an antidote to reporters too cozy with a power structure they saw more as good news source than good reporting target. Before long, a lawyer told me that he was walking in a courthouse corridor in Boston one morning and peered through an open door of a judge's office and found the judge reading one of my columns. Back then the traditional press was too gentle on prosecutors and judges, and the Phoenix was the outlier, a voice in the wilderness crying out against unfairness and injustice. I realized then that lawyers were right when they told me that my coverage of their cases had consequences…

“My beat at the Phoenix allowed me to combine my two loves – law and journalism. Because I was a practicing trial lawyer, and because my fields of specialization were criminal defense and constitutional law, my legal work put me in touch with endless cases and controversies about which to write. It was a perfect symbiosis, and it resolved my inner conflict over having gone into law rather than journalism.”

I was not a barrister like Silverglate. With 27 arrests under my belt at the tender age of 28, I was more outlaw than lawyer, but I had dabbled in pro se law: I’d acted as my own attorney in court, and at times I’d filled the role of jailhouse lawyer, poring over dusty textbooks in the legally mandated prison libraries and helping my fellow inmates file their appeals. My inner conflict mirrored Harvey’s in a way: It drove me into journalism instead of staying the course as a community organizer. Silverglate’s example suggested to me that one could do two things at once, that I could use my pen as an organizing tool. The rest may or may not be history, but it’s my story, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

Once I had begun to make waves at the Advocate, Richard Gaines called me up one afternoon and offered me the job I’d always coveted, political reporter for the Phoenix. It was a dream come true: the paramount gig for a politics and organizing junkie in the northeastern United States, with opportunities to change policy and history. The very next day, though, Richard was fired, it was apparently a messy divorce, and my dream deferred.

Some years later, the Advocate brought in a tightly buttoned corporate mercenary to take over the publisher’s tasks from the owners, and she set about daily making my life miserable. I was saved when the Phoenix was looking for a political reporter again. I applied for the job and headed to Boston for interviews – calling in sick to work – with then-editor Peter Kadzis, news editor Dan Kennedy and publisher Stephen Mindich. The hiring process lasted weeks, and shortly before the second Phoenix interview the Advocate sought to restructure my contract to pay me less money for more work (something that was unheard of back then but would soon happen to media workers everywhere). I defiantly declined and made a deal with its new corporate raider: “I’ll leave quietly in thirty days as long as you embargo that information for the next month.” I figured it could hurt my chances to land at the Phoenix if the folks there heard I’d just been canned by a lesser publication. Then I added, “Oh, and pay my $400 tab at the Green Street Café with free ads. You do that,” I told her, “and I won’t denounce you for the soulless douchebag that you are.”

After the second interview in Boston, I knew that my hiring at the Phoenix was imminent. After years of organizing, one knows when he’s made the sale. On the drive home to Western Massachusetts I wept with joy and relief. I still remember the Tom Verlaine soundtrack on the tape deck during that drive up Interstate 90, back into the mountains. My life was about to change profoundly.

When the Advocate witch learned I had landed on my feet at the Phoenix, she was livid. “Why didn’t you tell me they were interviewing you? Why didn't you give us a chance to make a better offer?"

I had never wanted to work at a daily newspaper and have never sent a resume to any. The demands to fill the daily “news hole” whether or not there is news being made had, by the 1990s, had already turned dailies to mush.

As a community organizer, a good part of my work had been seducing and manipulating daily news reporters. Richie Davis, a great reporter for the solid small-town newspaper Greenfield Recorder used to wince when I’d barge into his newsroom. “No!” he’d declare. “I can see your little fingers trying to enter my brain and type through me!” I had made a study of the demands of the reporter’s job – to publish every day, despite whether there was a story – and had appointed myself as their prep chef, creating my version of the news for them. Organizing had turned me into a kind of a remote-control newspaperman, and I had some fantastic coaches – Charles F. McCarthy, Abbie Hoffman, Leslie Desmond, Bruce Berman, Richard Asinof, Wes Blixt, among others.

My success at manipulating daily newspapers had stripped from me any sense of myth or magic that dailies had so carefully cultivated among the reading public. I liked reporters but felt badly for them: Their mothers thought they were powerful, but they were really slaves to the daily deadline, which more often than not denied them the time to ponder or think about a story before having to put their name on it. Spared from the popular illusion that anyone could be Woodward and Bernstein if he could just get to a big-enough daily, I pointed my ambition elsewhere: The Phoenix job, for me, was the pinnacle, top of the heap. It was all I had aspired to be, and I was about to get my greatest wish.

Be careful what you wish for: My plan, that summer of 1993, was to enter the Boston Phoenix at full swashbuckling gale force and take the state capital by storm. After all, my complaints about management aside, I’d been able to do whatever I wanted at the Advocate. I had one of those rare and valued editors who considered it her job to let me be me. (That editor, Kitty Axelson, protected me from her superiors as best as she could and never took it personally when I fought for a controversial story.)

Having published just a few freelance pieces for larger publications – the Washington Post, the American Journalism Review, and the Phoenix in 1988 and ’89 – I started at the Phoenix not knowing that there was a difference between “copy editing” and “story editing.” I had been story edited at the Advocate but not copy edited. (I’m still a bit amazed the Phoenix took me on: I didn’t know what a copy editor was, but there I was, in the job interview, barking arrogantly to owner Stephen Mindich, “I smoke marijuana medicinally! If that’s a problem don’t hire me!”)

Copy editors were the heart and soul of the Phoenix experience, and I’ve long since thought that separating the two kinds of editing was at the core of the paper’s genius. Let me explain: A story editor checks your facts and challenges you on them, and you debate with him or her and fuss over the content and substance of your story. A copy editor is another species altogether. The copy editor pounds your typing into literature. The typical copy editor could give a crap about your political or cultural opinions or whom (“whom” is a word I learned from copy editors) they may offend. Copy editors just want to make your words beautiful, and have them be proper English.

My first weeks at the Phoenix were hell. I’d gone from being the big fish reporter in the small pond of Springfield and Western Massachusetts to a mere guppy in the shark-infested waters of a top-ten media market. In Springfield, I had my own office, and the Advocate’s receptionist, Patti Thompson, considered it her favorite part of the job to help me topple the local courthouse regime – her sons were harassed every day by the city police. At the Phoenix, I was just another employee in a vast sea of cubicles. I had come to Boston with a list of corrupt, greedy and reactionary state politicians I planned to take down, just as I had with a district attorney, a county sheriff, and other ham-and-eggers out in Hooterville. Some of those guys ended up in jail, and they deserved every minute spent there for having ruined the lives of so many decent but poor people. And I thought I could repeat the same show in Boston. In one of our first shouting matches, Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis yelled: “Do you think that is all that journalism is? Taking people down?” We eventually reached a happy medium. “You do what I ask you to do for the next year,” Kadzis told me, “and after that you can do whatever you want.” I accepted the challenge and bunkered down for a longer haul.

What Kadzis and the other Phoenicians understood about me that I did not then know about myself – and they knew it because they had been through the same thing with so many other writers before me – was that while I may have been “strong with the force” in terms of the moral imperative of crusading journalism to make justice where the rest of society’s institutions would not, I had never had the chance to develop the craft of my work as a writer. Journalism as literature is what the Phoenix taught. That has never been taught in any university’s journalism school, or at least not taught well.

There, at the Phoenix offices at 126 Brookline Avenue, in the shadow of Fenway Park, I went back to school for the first time ever. I struggled to learn the difference between a pronoun and a preposition. I banged my head on the desk until I figured out what a “nut graph” was: the sentence or paragraph early in the story, but after the “lede,” that explains to readers why they should care about the matter. Some of this I still don’t fully understand – I am a “results” person, not a “process” person. But at some point at that desk I began to love writing as much as I love music, and I began to see the keypad as another musical instrument that I could tame and master.

While I wrote for the paper in the news section, I remained its consumer on the music side. Brett Milano, Matt Ashare, Ted Drozdowski, and Carly Carioli, a scrawny little guy who entered the building with hair down to his ass and sporting a “NAPALM DEATH” T-shirt, were the music writers who would introduce me to the thriving Boston music scene, featuring the likes of the late Mark Sandman of Morphine (“When they find a cure for the pain,” he sang, “that’s when I’ll put my drugs away”) and Joan Wasser, the sizzling, time-and-space-cutting electric violinist of the Dambuilders (now better known as Joan As Police Woman). I spent my nights at The Middle East and other clubs getting to know these talents and falling in love with their music.

I met an artist, Lydia Eccles, on one of those nights in the basement of The Middle East. She opened my world to critical theory and Situationist praxis, and involved me clandestinely in an insane “Unabomber for President” write-in campaign (the fugitive mail bomber’s 30,000-word manifesto had just been published in the New York Times and Washington Post). My collaborations with Eccles ushered me through other passages from the passive nihilism of career to the active nihilism of, well, something else that would make who I am today. I eventually fell out of love with staff journalism, but since a video tells a million words, perhaps this archived moment with my Stratocaster from 1996, produced by Eccles and recently digitalized from VHS tape, captures my mood toward the end of my Phoenix tenure better than my own memory could:

Three years after getting the job I’d always wanted, three years of being paid better than I’d ever been paid and of being treated well by my employer, what was I so angry about? The job of a journalist had changed. The carpet had been moved out from under us – this was a national trend, and would soon become an international one.

Newspapers had been the glue holding a community or city together: People of different economic, racial and other groups all read the same stuff every day. Americans talked with one another maybe not in daily life, but we did through the newspaper.

At some point in the late twentieth century, “market research” became king of the newsroom: Polls and focus groups came into vogue in commercial media, which began to target only some of those people, the ones with expendable cash. Advertisers stopped caring about reaching people who couldn’t afford their products. Newspapers and other media outlets began tailoring their product to upper-income readers and viewers, and the rest of the city or community could pound sand, because advertisers began placing their ads not on the basis of overall circulation but on reaching that higher-spending minority.

And so newspapers became high-class hookers for that kind of reader. And that changed the content of newspapers and destroyed their role as the assembly hall of democracy.

The Phoenix had always been a newspaper that primarily served younger people, who had become bored with the conservative mores of daily newspapers. It was part of a national trend in the US that became known as “alternative newsweeklies,” and those papers eventually started a trade association. But when advertisers wanted to reach only those youngsters who had more money to spend, the “alterna-weeklies” had to adopt to the dominant commercial media model, meaning that certain themes would bring them the readers that advertisers wanted.

This meant great opportunities for the “alternative” market. The daily newspapers –with vestiges of conservative, easily offended readers and still having to show strong total readership, couldn’t use the word “fuck” or talk about gay rights or marijuana in any meaningful way. But when the alterna-weeklies turned to market research and realized that gay male households had twice the spending power as hetero households, and four times that of lesbian households – this in a country where men earned twice as much as women for the same work – the concerns of gay men became paramount. I was happy to do my part in the championing of this bona fide civil rights cause, and it became the wedge through which a lot of unrecognized, less-talked-about freedoms could also come through the door. But my editors seemed far more interested in my stories on gay rights or marijuana legalization than those about mandatory-minimum prison sentences for those convicted on drug laws or extending rent-control laws for poor and working people. (The late, great Phoenix managing editor Clif Garboden was a glorious exception: He fought tirelessly for the underdog stories in editorial meetings.) It meant nothing to most of my superiors that then-speaker of the Massachusetts State House – a good man named Charlie Flaherty – was championing an end to mandatory-minimum sentences (something that today many states have started doing because it makes economic sense). If the Boston Globe was targeting Flaherty over mere misdemeanors of the sort that most reporters were also guilty of (things like accepting a free dinner from a source), I could defend him from time to time, but could I please do another story on the new pro-gay mayor instead?

From inside the media, I began to develop a critique of the commercial model of media. The political beat was mine, but seeing it up close was making me lose interest in the beat. Democracy as we knew it was already dead. Elections barely mattered any more. Something else was afoot.

And this is what I mean by “be careful what you wish for.” I had never wanted to be anything else than the political reporter for the Phoenix. That job gave me unfettered access to the halls of state power to be able to move the chains forward on all that I cared about. One of those things was, and remains, ending the drug war.

The Phoenix let me do front-page spreads on that topic, one calling for the legalization of marijuana, another telling the anti-tobacco Nazis to “Butt Out.” One day I scheduled an interview with then-governor William Weld, who had been US Attorney in Boston and years prior had weathered a scandal in which an embittered ex-colleague had accused him, the prosecutor, of having smoked pot. I grilled Weld for about ninety minutes, asking him, as a liberal Republican who supported abortion and gay rights, how he could not take a similar libertarian position on the drug war.

After that encounter, Weld walked down the hallway to his weekly meeting with the legislative leadership, and in front of the others he griped to Senate Republican leader Brian Lees, “You told me to meet with Giordano. He just came into my office all coked up telling me I should legalize drugs!”

Speaker of the House Charlie Flaherty interrupted: “Governor, don’t be ridiculous. Cocaine would be a sedative for Giordano!” Everybody laughed – I know this because most of the people in that meeting called me after it happened to tell me about it. That was the kind of institutional pull that came with the Phoenix political reporter job.

But when Flaherty announced his sudden retirement under a swirl of media speculation about “ethics investigations,” the bill to end mandatory minimums died with his political career. That was a “teaching moment” for me. And there were two more that year: One was called the Internet, and the other was named Patti Smith.

The Phoenix’s restaurant critic, Mark Zanger, an old friend of some of my late mentors – including Andrew Kopkind, who had died too young in my first months at Phoenix – invited me to lunch one day to talk with me about “the Internet.” He offered me a night gig moonlighting for the Delphi Internet Service, then the fourth-largest online provider on the earth. The experience was new and crazy, and best of all, I knew that thanks to this new technology soon I’d be able to do my work from anywhere, maybe even Mexico, where I’d been some years prior and to where I dreamed often of returning.

Of all my Phoenix experiences, it was when Patti Smith invited me on the bus for eleven days with her band, on tour with Bob Dylan, that something shifted in me. Watching Patti up close, I got the idea that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks; a person can do whatever he or she wants to, and an artist’s work isn’t to become a commercial success but to develop a body of work that tells a deeper story over a lifetime. When my tour diary hit the front page of the Phoenix, its business manager Barry Morris told me it had been the biggest selling issue in the paper’s history. Some said that my time on that tour bus turned me into a prima donna overnight. I said I had become the ruler of my world. And I came to see that as the best thing that could happen to me, or to anyone.

When I told Kadzis I was leaving the newspaper, he asked, “What will you do now?”

“I’ll return to New York – the scene of the crime of what went wrong with the media – max out my credit card, live off that for as long as I can, and start a revolution against the media. And if that doesn’t work out, I suppose I can always move to Mexico…”

In the days after the paper’s closing last month, an email from the Phoenix’s owner Stephen Mindich made me weep with the same intensity with which I wept when he gave me, twenty years ago, the job I had always wanted:

“And Al – and you should know, it is because with the Phoenix gone now, there will be one less place from which special journalists like you can emerge – you are one of the best.”

Maybe I’m one of the best, or maybe not. I just do what I do, largely because the Phoenix taught me who I was, and it made me a better writer. To think that it no longer exists hurts more than I have words to tell. But the great burden that it shouldered – engine of culture! – falls upon those of us who can still do it, and those yet to come.

My journey with the Phoenix began with a story on Jack Kerouac from his hometown. Let me please borrow from him when I say:

“So in América, when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long long skies… and nobody, nobody, knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of the Boston Phoenix, I even think of the Old Boston Phoenix, the father we never found, I think of the Boston Phoenix.”

I left the Phoenix in June of 1996, but never stopped being part of the Phoenix family. Four years later, when I was living in Mexico and narco-bankers sued me in the New York courts, the Phoenix crusaded in my defense.

Last month we learned that The Phoenix isn’t here anymore to defend the next person who needs it.

That’s our job now.

Comments

Well said, well written.

Thank you for this. I left the field of print journalism in 1994 for precisely what was going on at the time in national media. It's depressing to think about it still. However, you are correct. It takes a sling shot. We just have to pull harder.

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About Al Giordano

Biography

Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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