Thanks to Boston magazine's Peter Vigneron for mentioning me in his piece on the end of the Boston Phoenix (see my earlier post). Vigneron wonders whether some of us are too quick to write off new media:
There has already been a great deal of hand-wringing today, and I think much of it is warranted. Boston is poorer without the Phoenix, no doubt, even gloss-ified and short on writers and editors. But this is mourning for the Phoenix of 1972, or 1982, or even 2002: the Phoenix has not been the only smart, subversive kid on the block for a decade, at least. Earlier today, a journalist named Robert D. Sullivan wrote that with the Phoenix, an “alternative route to journalism disappears,” and strictly speaking he is right, but he misses the story for the news: in 2013, there are only alternative routes to journalism, and some of them are great, for journalists and for readers, and some of them are not. I’m sorry to see the Phoenix go, but its demise is one among many, and it’s been leaving us for a long time. I just have no idea, for Boston, what comes next.
I don't know what's next, it might be great, but different types of personalities thrive in different environments. The people attracted to journalism in, say, 1988, are not the same people who would choose to enter the profession in 2013.
Shy as I am, working alone is another kind of torture. Now I do copy-editing work for several clients, along with some freelance writing, and I do it all on a laptop in my apartment. Some of the work is fun and challenging (such as writing for the A.V. Club, which is vintage Phoenix-like in the depth of its arts coverage), but it takes a lot of self-confidence to plug away when feedback is mostly limited to emails and pageview counts.
The Phoenix was a perfect middle ground, an immersion class in journalism akin to learning French by living in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. I could do my job with quiet efficiency while observing every facet of the editorial and production process. I could overhear reporters putting tough questions to public officials on my left, and two editors discussing whether to split an infinitive on my right. By asking questions and volunteering for various tasks ("sure, I can write book reviews!"), I figured out my niche, and I went from writing arts listings to copy-editing stories to writing my own essays. When I got stuck or my confidence flagged, I could bounce ideas off colleagues or get some guidance from editors who saw things I couldn't.
For me, the Phoenix was big enough so that I could make friends with many colleagues, reach a wide audience, and write about just about anything I wanted. It was small enough that I could get to know everyone there and pick up all kinds of skills — say, by looking over the shoulder of the art director, which that probably wouldn't happen at a major publication where everyone didn't work on the same floor.
There are a few places left like the Phoenix (Boston magazine may be one of them), but it's the kind of place that seems most jeopardized by the shaking out and consolidation of media outlets that pay a living wage. There are certainly new alternative routes to journalism; I just have trouble thinking of many that fit the on-site, learning atmosphere of the Phoenix, or ones that reward qualities other than brashness and indefatigability. The "back to downtown" movement is being fueled by the idea that innovation depends the serendipity of people in the same profession bumping into each other in corridors and on city streets. So it's ironic that journalism still seems to be on a path toward lonely suburbanization.
I hope I'm very wrong about this. Examples of good, collaborative journalism outlets that are friendly to people who need to make money are welcome.