Transcript of Open Media Boston Interview with Boston Phoenix Editor Carly Carioli
Transcript of the Tate Williams interview with Boston Phoenix Editor Carly Carioli for Open Media Boston. Transcribed by Tate Williams.
Carly Carioli: It’s been a roller coaster. Yesterday was pretty rough but I think we’re all incredibly proud of the work that we were able to do, in my case for the past 20 years, but even for people who had been here a much shorter time.
We all felt that we were really going out at the top of our game.
Tate Williams: It seemed very shocking to a lot of people. Why was the closing so sudden?
CC: It was one of those overnight things that looks more overnight that it probably actually was.
The reason we switched to the magazine was because the newspaper format was in trouble, just in terms of ad sales. Ad sales for the entire industry have been catastrophically bad, and the idea of going from the newspaper to the magazine was that there would be efficiencies to realize. But it was a move that was undertaken when we were already losing money and in danger of going out of business.
The hope was that we could salvage something, and start something new, and turn around the decline. In that sense, we’d had this sort of crisis 6 to 8 months ago where we turned around and launched a magazine. And then we sort of knew that we had a limited amount of time to make this work. And although it certainly seemed to take a fairly big jump at the beginning, it had begun to taper off…
What it comes down to businesswise is that the national advertising market has sort of evaporated. And even though we did better and captured more local advertising it wasn’t enough to make up for what has been a historically bad national advertising market. That’s not something that’s limited to the Phoenix or to weeklies; it’s pretty much across the board. It’s definitely a big part of what’s taking down so many news outlets.
I’d also say that the idea of doing a so-called glossy, there were other efficiencies. There were things that made the idea of doing a magazine more efficient than doing a newspaper that even if you weren’t seeking national ads…obviously part of the equation was that you could charge more for ads on glossy paper than you could otherwise. But there were other things too, just about formatting and some of the tricks of the trade that go with publishing and print.
It was slightly more expensive to publish that way, but it was also a little bit more efficient in terms of words per page. It also allowed us to do a lot of stuff that we’d wanted to do for years design-wise.
We had always sort of had, for the past six or seven years, had a sort of magazine-like layout in a newspaper. We’re much more magazine-like layout wise. And those things were things that I think we were really eager to do, and we were really proud of the way they came out. I don’t think there was ever a 10,000-word story, or there hadn’t been a 10,000-word story in the newspaper version of the Phoenix in a number of years. That was a fairly rare thing, and we were regularly publishing 4,000-6,000 word pieces in the magazine, which is definitely comparable to if not better than what we were doing in newsprint.
TW: As far as the timing of the announcement, was it really a surprise to everyone, or did people know?
CC: The timing of it was a shock. It’s tough to say. In the back of all of our minds, we all felt an increasing burden just in terms of the amount of work that it took to put out the magazine. There were slightly fewer of us than there had been before we reconfigured for the magazine. It was a Herculean effort every week to put that magazine out. Essentially an 80-page magazine. I don’t think Time is 80 pages. It was a ton of work, so there’s a sense in which I’m not sure aside from the economics of it being unsustainable, it took a lot of work by a lot of people and my staff worked around the clock basically to put that out.
There was no sense of, oh this is going to go away right now, but I think after we all stopped yesterday and were looking at each other, we were sort of going, “How the hell did we do that for so long?”
Maybe that’s another way of saying it probably should have been more obvious to us, but for whatever reason it wasn’t.
TW: Was there was a growing sense that this arrangement was untenable?
I think that’s something I’m only thinking in retrospect, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that we were thinking that three days ago, but looking back.
TW: Was there a sense of frustration or anger at the suddenness of it? You had reporters in the field…
CC: Oh absolutely…I definitely would have liked to put out one more issue. And it’s still a little up in the air about what’s we’re actually going to release. At this point it’s a labor of love.
Bill McKibben has written us a piece that I think is a really important essay about the Markey-Lynch race and I got that piece literally an hour after we got the news yesterday. I talked to Bill and he’s gracious enough to say that if we could get it up online he was happy to give it to us, so I believe I’m going to try to put that piece up either today or tomorrow…
There will be a few more things that will trickle out. We have an issue that we would have shipped on Monday. A lot of that copy is in, that’s one of the things I’m trying to do today, just try to get it online…
TW: The entire alt weekly market is struggling. But were there discussions of doing different things to keep it going? Such as shrinking the paper, or selling the paper?
CC: One thing I will say is the alt weekly market is interesting to me. I was on the board of the trade organization the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. To me, I think I’ve been saying this for a few years, that a lot of the big market alt weeklies are struggling, but the medium and small market alt weeklies are thriving, and thriving in ways that I think are really heartening. Oddly that’s reflected in what we did. The Portland and Providence Phoenixes, which are smaller operations, are going to continue to publish, and I don’t see any reason for them not to do well. In bigger markets there’s a ton more competition. But if you look at not just Providence and Portland Phoenixes, but an alt weekly like Seven Days in Vermont, it’s a real sort of national model for how to build an alt weekly into what is essentially a paper of record.
That’s happened to other alt weeklies too where the dailies in those markets if they exist are shrinking where the alt weeklies are growing. I do think ultimately there would have been things that we could do to try to keep the Phoenix going in some form or another, but I do also think there were historic factors against us.
We did look at shrinking. I submitted a proposal to Steven that would have shrunk the paper…which he rejected, and it still by our internal calculations would have lost almost a million dollars a year. So I don’t think we were close and I don’t think there was a sustainable model for doing what we did on a smaller basis.
In terms of selling it. I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but my understanding is that there were extensive negotiations over a period of probably years where they tried to sell it and couldn’t.
TW: Do you feel like there were missteps that could have been avoided that could have saved the Phoenix?
CC: I don’t think that there were any huge managerial lapses or anything like that. I think the thing you have to understand about Steven is that he started this thing in 1966. He built it when there was no model for it. He profited from it, and then after it ceased to be profitable, he bankrolled it.
So it’s impossible for me to see how you criticize somebody who essentially acted and treated it like a nonprofit that was funded out of his own pocket. I’ll always be grateful to him for doing that and I don’t think people have any understanding of the level of commitment he showed in publishing the Phoenix for all these years.”
TW: Will you be involved in the Phoenix company further, at the other papers?
CC: I’m here literally for maybe a week, maybe two tops to help wrap things up and then I’ll be moving on.
TW: What are your plans?
CC: Don’t know. I’ve had, like, less than 24 hours to think about it. I love being in the media and hopefully I’ll get to stay in the media.
TW: There have been talks of trying to save the Phoenix, and some kind of Kickstarter. Do you have any intentions to continue to publish the Phoenix in some form?
CC: Me personally, I don’t think so. People have been extraordinarily generous with offering to do a Kickstarter. I’m not exactly sure what that would mean. Part of that is, we don’t own it, Stephen owns it. In terms of continuing the Phoenix under some other name. I don’t think that’s likely. I really do think there’s a huge need and a huge hole now in Boston for an independent media outlet like the Phoenix. Part of the sort of sadness that I feel about it is completely removed from myself and even taking me and this particular iteration of the Phoenix out of the equation. I can’t imagine what Boston’s going to be like without the Phoenix. I say that as somebody who treasured it long before I worked here. I just think it’s filled such an important role.
It’s really putting such a burden on sites like Open Media (Boston). It’s really going to bring an awful burden to do a lot of the expensive reporting that we were doing. It’s going to have to fall into other hands.
I think there are a lot of people doing great reporting, but the Phoenix did not experience a dwindling audience, and I think that’s important to remember. You hear about the Globe’s problems, the Globe’s problems for instance, they were seeing declining circulation numbers. We don’t have paid circulation, but our distribution numbers were steady this entire time, and I think what that tells you is there’s still a real appetite for what we’re doing. We didn’t lack relevance. For somebody to get into that market and figure out a model is really the challenge. And to speak to that audience at a wide level. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of people a week, who are reading that stuff.
Although I’d love to see somebody fill that niche, I don’t know that a Kickstarter will be enough to do it. I heard people talking about a Kickstarter just to put up a last issue, and I think we’re more likely to try and throw something together online.
Maybe it’s because I’m just 24 hours from it and I feel exhausted, but I don’t see a way of saving it.
TW: What will Boston be like without the Phoenix? What things did the Phoenix do that were unique?
CC: I’ll name a few. I think it was widely understood that David Bernstein was the best political reporter in the state. That and we regularly beat the Globe and the Herald to local political stories, a both a municipal and a state level. That’s not to say that those places don’t do good reporting, but I also think that there’s so much of it to do that there was a real niche for us there that we were happy to fill.
The extension of that is that…we were breaking national stories because we had the goods on Mitt Romney from when he was governor. Bernstein’s coverage of that stuff was sort of invaluable.
You could argue that he played a role in taking Romney out twice. The first time around, he broke a story that ended up being a weeklong nuisance for Romney about whether or not his dad marched with Martin Luther King. He claimed he did and we proved he didn’t. The second time around, while everybody was going nuts about binders full of women, Bernstein broke that he actually hadn’t asked for a binder full of women; it had been given to him by women.
Those are isolated examples. I certainly think local politics is a big one. If you look at what Chris Faraone has been working on, certainly his Occupy coverage that was sort of shared with him and Liz Pelly and a few other writers. We owned that story. I think if you look on Twitter now, some of the Occupiers are giving us props for that, which I’m really proud of. I’m extraordinarily proud of the work that we did for that.
I do think oddly enough we probably could have done more labor stuff. But I think some of that stuff we could hang our hat on. Certainly arts coverage, regional music, dance, film, theater. We had a Pulitzer-Prize winning classical music critic. Carolyn Clay’s probably the best theater writer in New England. Jon Garelick on jazz, the list goes on and on.
So all of those things are pieces of it. I could think of four of five more.
TW: Aside from talent, what specifically about the approach The Phoenix took?
CC: I think the alt weekly voice has created a much wider diaspora in the past decade. I think the alt weekly voice became the voice of the Internet really. Not just in the fact that you can curse, but also in the fact that the idea of alt weekly reporting began as an alternative to the straight-laced, supposedly objective voice of mainstream media. And was a media where everyone was encouraged to develop their own voices, and distinct voices, and write with a point of view, a strong point of view.
I do think that’s part of the new landscape of media. I don’t think people are wrong when they point out, well what are you an alternative to? As I’ve often said, part of the expansion and democratization of media over the past 10 years was a victory for the alternative media that I’ve always encouraged the alternative media to embrace.
And now the AAN is sort of embracing online only media outlets. I do think we have distinctive voices. I think that is somewhat easier to replace, just the voice component, than the commitment to progressive values, progressive politics, to arts coverage that won’t necessarily always pay the bills. To really have the commitment to those things even when they’re not profitable. I think that’s going to be hard to replace.
TW: What about the depth of reporting you mentioned? Are we still seeing these kind of long pieces anywhere else?
CC: I think you do, but they are coming in less popular media. You take a magazine like CommonWealth, where the writing is fantastic but it’s also for a niche audience. I think what we were able to do was have this platform where people would come to find out what movies are playing or what bands are playing, and they’d find out what the new restaurant is, which was always part of the Phoenix. They would also get as part of that package hard-hitting investigative pieces.
You can still find that stuff, it’s just not in a fantastic newspaper or magazine that’s in a big red box every Thursday on your corner. Or on a website that’s getting somewhere in the neighborhood of a million to 2 million page views per month.
I hesitate to say the work isn’t being done, I think realistically, the change is that it was a really great platform for exposing great stories and over the span of time, great writers, great editors to the public and have those people be able to come up and have careers.
TW: The Phoenix has covered a lot of disenfranchised communities; communities perceived as more marginal that might not get as much attention in the mainstream media. What does this mean for them?
CC: I think it’s troubling. I really think there are only a handful of reporters like Chris Faraone and David Bernstein who are really dedicated to that kind of coverage. It was, I have to say, doing those stories was some of the stuff that we were most privileged to do. And that we were probably most proud of.
I was seeing some Facebook messages from Joanna Marinova from presspass TV and we did a project with them called Anonymous Boston, which I loved to death and thought was amazing and I don’t know who else would do that kind of project or would be able to do that kind of project. I hope Chris stays in Boston and I hope he finds a home somewhere. I think people would be crazy not to give him a job, but I also know that I loved letting him loose on the city. I hope somebody else is brave enough to do it.
TW: Are there specific issues, I’m thinking of climate change, that you think the Phoenix focused on that others didn’t as much?
CC: There’s tons, and there’s tons that we didn’t do. Climate change is a perfect example of something that we lacked. The climate stuff we did was a direct result of the efforts of Wen Stephenson…He had been badgering me just online to do more about climate. Finally I asked him to come in and he came in with some activists and just sort of made this presentation that made us all realize that we had been covering it all wrong and not really giving it anywhere near enough attention.
Then he proceeded to write two sort of groundbreaking pieces for us. Certainly I think we are as guilty at certain points in time, the Phoenix is smaller than it was 10, 15 years ago, so we probably haven’t covered issues as much as we would have liked to because we had to make decisions about which things to cover.
In terms of things we covered extensively, I do think that activism is under-covered generally in Boston. If Wen was on the call he would point to a lack of coverage in the Globe of the Westboro protest that happened last week. Specific things? I do think the foreclosure crisis is completely underreported.
In some ways, I’m less interested in criticizing other media outlets for not doing stuff, because I know how heavy the challenges are for all of us.
TW: True, it’s not as though the Globe is sitting high on the hog and just not paying attention.
CC: No I think there are certain things they do very well, and there are certain things they do that can also get lost. The Globe is so big that they can do something and nobody notices.
TW: What about the criticism from places like Boston Magazine and Salon saying the Phoenix wasn’t what it used to be or had been declining? Or that people are just being nostalgic. What’s your response to that?
CC: I found those arguments so shallow that it was sort of hard to respond to.... The facts were just not accurate. I didn’t think the Boston Magazine piece was very accurate. The truth is that our audience provably was not lacking. There are a lot of so-called media experts who actually don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. They would sort of assume that because there was an advertising falloff that there’s an audience falloff, and those are actually two entirely different things.
The frustration for somebody on the editorial side is that we were putting out a really strong magazine, and we kept the audience, and that we could not come up with the ad sales that should have gone along with that.
I think we were all really proud of the stuff we’d done, and anybody who had actually paid attention to the magazine and the newspaper over the years…I sort of came into the newspaper and told everybody we were going to sort of shift this thing back to being a much more progressive political entity than it had been previously under the past couple of editors. Which is not a criticism of what those editors did because I really love what they did. But to me I just felt like we needed to get back to some of the classic Phoenix stuff, which was what I was raised on and what I admired most about the paper. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of substance to the argument that we had gone soft.
TW: I know you’re not a media critic, but what do you think this means for the media in general? Is this symbolic? The Phoenix played a really big role for a long time, so what do you think this means for the general world of media?
CC: I’m not a media critic but I do spend a lot of time by default trying to strategize and trying to keep tabs on what the media’s doing. And partly because I’ve been here for so long and know so much I would caution against—
The Phoenix is definitely an end of an era because the Phoenix was one of the great alt weeklies…
That said, I would not necessarily say that that is the inevitable fate of any publication. I think there are things we did really well, and I think there were also—Boston is an extraordinarily competitive media market. If you talk to people about the market in Boston for music or books or any of those things, it’s an outlier. It operates under weird physics. So I think the most you could probably say is that it is part of a trend where the bigger market alt weeklies are continuing to struggle and will continue to struggle. The Village Voice is obviously a piece of that.
There are some though, I’m not sure how the LA Weekly is doing, although it looks really nice. But I think maybe you could say the big market alts are going to have a tougher time.
At the same time, I do have a lot of respect for a lot of the smaller and mid-market alt weeklies whose publishers and editors I’ve come to know and admire a lot. A lot of those guys are doing really great work.
TW: Is the difference between the markets just competition for advertising?
CC: That’s it. It really is. It’s competition for advertising, but also for talent. One example I tend to cite a lot when talking about this difference between the big market alts and the small market alts, is the Jackson Free Press in Jackson Mississippi, which is run by a couple of really smart people.
They opened at a time when alt weeklies were already struggling in the early 2000s I think, they started an alt weekly, online only, in the reddest state in the union and became a beacon of progressive politics in a really Republican state. They have done an amazing job of community building and turned the online site into a print, so they sort of went backwards. I think they should be a model. I wish they were a more influential model for how alt media was thinking about itself.
I think that’s a more interesting model that the mission is still vital, and the audience is still clamoring for that kind of coverage, but we have to get out of our old media boxes. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do print, but it means you have to be really smart about how you do it.
TW: What has it been like to see the outpouring of support on social media, including from former writers saying how much it meant to them?
CC: It’s not something that was a secret to any of us. A lot of those people are people I worked with. That was part of what made this such an attractive place to work, that there was this extended fraternity, and it’s a real thing. There’s a fraternity of ex-Phoenix people all over the country doing amazing things, and it’s part of what we love so much about it. It’s part of what makes it so hard that we didn’t—that I wasn’t able to keep this afloat, is that I was so blessed to work with so many great editors who taught me how to write and gave me great opportunities. The thing I mourn the most is that this fantastic generation of writers and not just the ones that are here now but the ones that we knew would come along, won’t have that same opportunity, because it was really invaluable.
I don’t know that there’s anything else quite like it.
TW: What do you hope the legacy of the Phoenix will be?
CC: I hope they think of it as a writer’s paper. One of the things we’re working on is making sure the archives are preserved both online and off. There have been efforts over the years to put things in more digital form and I hope that will continue. There are already people scraping the site, just to grab the archives, which I keep assuring them there’s an easier way to do that, we have an API, talk to me we’ll figure it out.
There are some really great archivists who I hope are going to help us to make sure that, even these fantastic old bound-by-year volumes of the Phoenix going back to 1965, make sure that those are preserved in some way that people can still have access to them 50 years from now.