It was difficult to walk through the Square last year without being verbally accosted every ten feet or so by a hawker's cry of "Phoenix--Boston After Dark." No one could have spent a term in Cambridge without knowing about Boston's two weekly newspapers. Each had its own distinctive style, and each was quite well read.
The hawker's cries have changed this fall, reflecting major upheavals during the summer months--upheavals that may be traced to The Phoenix's spectacular springtime crisis, which gained prominence if for no other reason than its sheer complexity.
In May, publisher Richard Missner fired editor Harper Barnes; the staff formed the Phoenix Employees Union to protest that action and to obtain other demands, including the formation of a community-based executive board and threatened to strike.
Missner apparently didn't like the idea of a strike, and retired Barnes Barnes and a small group subsequently raided the Phoenix composing room and stole the pages for the forthcoming edition, hoping to obtain the remainder of the union's demands. But Missner apparently didn't like that idea either; he fired Barnes once again, suspended the comptroller and demoted the associate publisher.
It was the union's turn to be upset, and they were. A few days after Missner's action, about 25 union members again raided the Phoenix composing room and destroyed the pages for another edition. Five drew and assault charges from non-union employee. Nobody was happy.
Then, apparently, deciding that the survival of The Phoenix was more important than either of their individual jobs. Harper Barnes and Mike Pogodzinski--Richard Missner's hand-picked replacement for Barnes--both withdrew from contention for the editor's slot. The union returned to work, and Carol Eron, former Phoenix managing editor, took the position on a temporary basis. Missner praised the courage of Barnes and Pogodzinski, and said the settlement "could be a milestone in American journalism."
Carol Eron's tenure as editor turned out to be more temporary then anyone had expected, however, as Missner marked another possible milestone in American journalism: In late July, only two months after the settlement, the Phoenix publisher dissolved his corporation and sold for $320,000 the name, subscription list and week's classified advertisements to its competitor BAD giving the Phoenix employees three hours' notice to pack up and leave.
Missner, who during the strike had justified his actions by saying that he had to take steps to provide security in the future," now excused the sale by saying that the publication of two weeklies was no longer financially viable. At that point, it seems, "security in the future" dissolved for The Phoenix.
People who went to their corner newsstands and asked for a copy of The Phoenix received the new Boston Phoenix. People who went to their corner newsstands and asked for a copy of Boston after Dark received the new Boston Phoenix. Which would lead one to assume that the staff of The Phoenix, after cleaning out their out their at Richard Missner's offices, headed with few regrets to new positions on BAD publisher Steven Mindich's combined publication.
That is what many people have believed since the "merger" occured. The assumption is totally unfounded. From the day of Missner's surprise announcement, the Phoenix staff has for the most part maintained its solidarity under a new name--The Real Paper--and only one member of the old staff, columnist George Kimbell, has seen fit to move his writing to The Boston Phoenix. Robert Rotner, former circulation director of The Phoenix and now publisher of The Real Paper, said he "would prefer not to speculate on why Kimbell did that." Rumors that Jon Landau, Phoenix music columnist, had deserted proved unfounded when his byline appeared once again in The Real Paper last week--discussing none other than those rumors.
Only two days after the sale of The Phoenix to BAD, the displaced staff met in the hellway outside its locked Cambridge offices and decided to publish their paper as usual the following Monday, and voted to refrain from accepting job offers for at least two weeks. That policy has continued. Rotner said, and "a lot of people have turned down some incredible offers from Mindich."
The day after the decision to continue publishing, the two papers began filling lawsuits. Attorney Stephen Domesick, on behalf of the Phoenix Employees Union, filed suit charging that Missner had breached
his contract with the union by firing his staff after agreeing in May that no changes in employee status would occur until a final contract had been negotiated. No contract had been settled when the sale was announced.
A second action charged Missner with fraud and deceit for withholding the information that he was contemplating selling The Phoenix when he was bargaining with his employees during the strike. "He settled with us," Rotner said, "but on the intention of getting The Phoenix back on its foot long enough to sell it out from under us."
The third legal action was in the form of a temporary restraining order to prevent Missner from using the proceeds from the sale of The Phoenix until the first two suits are decided. That order was granted; the other two actions are still pending.
On the same day as the restraining order was granted, Boston Phoenix publisher Mindich counterfiled against Phoenix staff members to enjoin against their use of the name "Phoenix" on any new publication. That case, along with a controversy over use of the Phoenix format and typefaces, was settled out of court. The Real Paper retained the right to the Phoenix format; The Boston Phoenix took full rights to the use of the Phoenix name.
As promised, the former Phoenix staff released its first issue of the Real Paper on the Monday after the acquisition. The 24-page issue was financed by an anonymous $200 contribution and by advertising. Hawkers reported sales of The Real Paper's first issue outpacing those of The Boston Phoenix by a three-to-one margin. Coples have been selling out, and last week's press run of The Real Paper reached 70,000--a figure close to that of the old Phoenix. A major difference, however, is that both The Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper will be distributed free to area colleges and universities--a policy formerly followed only by BAD--making the paid circulation figure somewhat lower. The subscription list is up to 1000, one-fifth of its previous size, and Rotner predicts that "it's just a matter of time" before things are completely back to normal.
For The Real Paper, finances have been good and bad simultaneously--but improving. "We've actually made money each week since we started The Real Paper," Rotner said. But this was achieved only through a staff that sacrificed pay until things got off the ground. Now, Rotner reports, "80 per cent of the staff is being paid. There's enough money to pay the whole staff, and those who are working for free are doing so by their own choice."
Aside from the $200 original contribution, The Real Paper has not had to go to outside backers for financial aid--although there have been offers. One came from an associate--but not a representative--of New York magazine, acting on his own behalf "We turned two down." Rotner said, "and the rest weren't really serious. We're hoping to make it for at least a year without selling to outside backers."
The Real Paper has been able to stay in the clear on advertising alone, but not without problems. Chuck Fager of The Real Paper staff charged after the first issue, that "BAD intimidation" existed, and Dick Reitman another staff member, said that BAD advertising salesman had been calling advertisers and telling them that "they had no alternative but to sign with BAD."
BOSTON Phoenix publisher Mindich denied those accusations, saying that "we are only telling advertisers the truth about what has happened." Nevertheless Mindich, while predicting last week that his advertising would increase in the near future, seemed to indicate that the increase thus far has not been up to his expectations.
But on the whole, Mindich said, the acquisition of The Phoenix has been "about 99 per cent positive in every way." His paid circulation is now ranging between 55,000 and 60,000 as compared to 30,000 before this summer, and his press run in up to 110,000.
Mindich said that he feels them is not a market for two weekly newspapers of the same exact type" in the Boston area. But he doesn't consider The Real Paper of the same calibre as The Boston Phoenix, and therefore no longer considers it significants competition. "I just don't think they have it together," he said. "Quite frankly, it's not as good a newspaper. The Real Paper is not the old Phoenix--I don't care how you compare it."
Real Paper publisher Rotner disagrees. "It's the same paper with the same staff. They just took away our name. And I don't think it'll make any difference," he said.
But there may, indeed, be a difference. Mindich claims that despite The Real Paper's early edge, The Boston Phoenix is now outstripping The Real Paper early edge. The Boston Phoenix is now outstripping. The Real Paper four to one is hawker sales; in the Square any they're running about even. Rotner attribution the slow pickup of Real Paper sales to an identity problem, which he plass to counter with an extensive promotional campalgs.
No matter how it all turn out, this should be the year when Boston and its publishers find out whether this area can support two weekly journals.