Newspapering Is a Business: The Death of the Legendary Boston Phoenix
Yesterday, the Boston Phoenix announced that the alternative-newsweekly would stop publishing after 47 years. I learned this by phone, from someone who'd been a colleague of mine there, while the paper was experimenting with editors, before its final stretch of apparent stability.
I called Carly Carioli, the paper's last editor ever and someone I'd worked with closely. He'd been at the Phoenix for 20 years, quitting college to take a job there and working his way up. When I reached him, he and some of the staffers had been drinking whiskey in the office's online-radio studio and blasting Lana Del Rey's Born To Die. "I feel like someone just killed my best friend," he said.
The Phoenix was historically important, as everyone is saying today: a breaker of stories, a model for a certain kind of loose-jointed newspaper journalism, an incubator of talent. Charles Pierce of Esquire and Grantland, who is one of the standard entries—Susan Orlean, Charlie Pierce, David Denby—on the list of distinguished graduates of the Phoenix, wrote that it was "where the soul of newspapering came to reside," which was largely as true in fact as it was false in sentiment.
That is, the Phoenix was a business operation, whose owner, Stephen Mindich, showed few signs to most observers that he gave a fuck about its soul. There was an endless cycle of alienating people and selling out—and being denounced for selling out—once Mindich wrested the Phoenix name away from an idealistic countercultural collective and crushed the Real Paper, the idealists' subsequent bid to compete against it. Sex ads paid a lot of the freight. The publication produced such an impressive roster of ex-employees mostly by buying them cheap and working them till they jumped up the professional ladder to get away. But while they were there, grumbling at the business side, they were writing, in ways and at lengths that better-funded journalists couldn't touch. There was a paper to fill.
Not everyone left for bigger or ostensibly nicer things. A core of misfits saw what the deal was—that it was, in fact, a more blunt version of the deal on offer everywhere—and built their lives around it. The Phoenix was not a post-collegiate journalism boot camp, for them, or an object of distant and fond (but distant) nostalgia. It was their newspaper.
There was the rail-thin cop reporter who cursed like a sailor and left work daily with the janitor, a cartoon of a Boston sports fan who sold pot while he emptied trash cans. The prototypical vampiric music editor who was immeasurably aloof and, pretty much, proudly, a giant know-it-all raving asshole. The bitterly meticulous arts editor, a man who, it was widely reported by the males on staff, would mutter "motherfucker" violently to himself at the urinal, a man who once broke down into a high-pitched screeching fit because someone had absconded his veggie-burger sandwich from the communal fridge.
And there was Clif Garboden. Until 2009, Clif was the Phoenix's senior managing editor, and he had been on staff for more than 30 years. He sat in a corner of the Phoenix newsroom, hunched at his computer with the posture of a question mark. His face had no angles. He wore sweaters over collared shirts and khaki pants. He enjoyed smoking and grumbling. His 1989 Buick Park Avenue, which he bought for $6000 with 43,186 miles on the odometer, was named Jerome. (I know this because he devoted an entire essay to the car.) He once received a death threat from a mime.
From 1973 until 2009, Clif wrote something called Hot Dots, a weekly column buried in the back of the arts section that ostensibly annotated television listings, but evolved into a far more extraordinary collection of one-liners, political and social commentary, and running jokes. Many weeks, the best writing in the paper was buried in tiny type. A few selected listings:
4:00 (56) Harvey (movie). Nobody ever said anything small in a bar.
8:00 (2) Nova: Why Planes Crash. Because nobody bothers to catch them.
11:00 (38) The House That Screamed (movie). Stayed on the market for three years.
Clif didn't see the alternative press as a professional gateway. It was his destination. Where he sat, the paper's supposed purpose and ideology were real things. As a student of Boston University, he'd protested Kent State. He'd seen Coltrane live in 1966, and as office lore repeated, he'd even once smoked a joint with the Rolling Stones. He came from the days when being a part of alternative media Meant Something: being able to ridicule mediocrity, challenge convention, and say "Fuck you" without asterisks. This wasn't an affectation, or a style, or a posture—as it is with Vice or with roughly 90 percent of the voices on the internet—it was to him the way a smart person with a sense of justice and a moral conscience could sleep at night.
To Clif, the collection of people around him, for all their faults and foibles, was something very special. They could see the hypocrisies in the world and felt an existential obligation to do something about them—and more than that, to nurture and to recruit people who could do the same, his kind of people.
By that, he meant a few things: Smart People Who Gave a Fuck, People With a Work Ethic, People With Talent, but also, in some cases, People From Blue-Collar/Low Income Families. People like Clif himself, a kid from the bad neighborhood in Pittsburgh, who once likened his socio-economic escape to sneaking across the tracks and under barbed wire. People like Chris, a brilliantly witty British writer who'd spent years working as a mover and started his entry-level writing job answering phones as an editorial assistant at the age of 32. People who otherwise would've ended up restaurant staff or retail employees or other assorted cogs because they didn't have parents who could help with the rent while they struggled to become writers. People like me.
Growing up, I was not raised to "follow my dreams." I was told, in very clear terms, to limit my expectations because of money. Only one of my eight older siblings graduated from college. I was specifically instructed not to apply to my top choice of college because we couldn't afford it—the rationale being that if I did get in, I would just be disappointed, so I shouldn't even bother. When I finally did go, I was told every semester was my last. We just didn't have money and that was it.
So it never occurred to me that a regular person like me could be a writer or a journalist or anything otherwise creative. There was no familiar precedent. Clif, in some ways, became my precedent, after a day at an internship fair, I approached the Boston Phoenix table on a whim and just said: Hey, I have no experience, but I love this newspaper and would like to intern for you. It was a longshot, like asking out someone you've crushed on for years. But the Phoenix had a soft spot for free labor, and I was offered an internship under his wing.
This did not immediately unlock a supply of warmth. When Clif acknowledged someone's existence at all, he was bluntly honest. Once, when I was still an intern, trying so desperately to impress that I devoted my senior-year winter break to badgering operational hours out of hostesses for a hopelessly outdated Dining Guide, I came into the office after a visit to Supercuts. "You cut your hair," Clif said. He shrugged. "We like longer hair, but that's OK." He walked away.
So if you didn't understand Clif's affectionately gruff sensibility, you probably wouldn't last, and if you somehow did last, he ignored you. But if he thought you were "smart"—in his mind, intelligence was next to Godliness—he would do everything within his power to praise you and to support you and to emphasize your strengths publicly and anecdotally, though also noting matter-of-factly to you, your colleagues, and anyone else within earshot that you would never get what you deserved. Because, well, that's why we were all here: The world was fucked and the good guys never got what they deserved.
For whatever reason, Clif protected me. He kept making excuses to keep me in the building and giving me projects until the powers that be could finally offer me a full-time job, which led to me getting to write. He sensed that my life would turn out very differently if they let me fend for myself.
One time, I went to a writer's conference in Chicago, where a prominent journalist Clif knew was the speaker. He handed me a white envelope. "Make sure he gets this," he said. On the first night, after ingesting gallons of alcohol, I worked up the courage to deliver it and walked away. He called me back: Did I know what was in there? I did not. He showed me a note that said: "The person who gave you this is smart and very talented. Treat her well."
In the end, the cold business caught up to Clif too. In 2009, the Phoenix laid him off, after his three decades of service, in the first of a series of cost-cutting measures that would point to the end. Less than two years later, Clif died of complications from cancer, at the age of 62. The good guys never got what they deserved.
Susan Orlean told the Boston Globe about the Phoenix's closure: "It's like finding out your college has gone bankrupt and is gone. I am a child of the alt-weekly world, and I feel like it has played such an important role in journalism as we know it today."
Enough people had believed in this mentorship and nurturing and idealism that the paper lasted 47 years. Carly, who admired Clif's mission deeply, believed in it so much that he stuck with it longer than nearly anyone else. He was the family member who stayed back home to nurse a dying relative while the rest of us selfish pricks took off and left him saddled with the bills.
When I took over as editor in chief, a job I'd dreamed about for nearly 20 years, I made a solemn oath uttered only to myself that I would not be the last editor of the Phoenix. To my colleagues, past and present: I'm sorry I wasn't able to see it through. I first set foot here in 1993, still in college, and I've spent half my life in the service of this particular way of making journalism; it's been a blessing to spend that long among the most talented, creative, and passionate people I've ever met. I can't begin to describe how much it hurts to lose this.
So yes, yesterday, we lost the paper whose name appeared on so many imposing resumes. We lost the paper that bred Pulitzer Prize winners, that was responsible for breaking the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal. But we also lost a place where kids who were never supposed to be writers and reporters and photographers and illustrators and storytellers could start out by refusing to leave the building, people whose parents didn't have the money to help with rent while they struggled to make their long-term pathways better, and try, however minutely, to change things.
What we lost Thursday was Clif Garboden's dream. The world is a far worse place without it. Fuck.