There’s a perfectly valid, if self-serving, introduction I could write here about the importance of alternative weeklies as incubators for up-and-coming disseminators of truth and places for stories too dangerous or weird for the establishment-friendly mainstream to handle. I could also delve into DigBoston’s undernoted influence on this city’s media legacy and, by extension, the entire national ecosystem of news and words and ideas and so on. I could do that, but I don’t think this is a story about journalism.
Don’t get me wrong; I spoke with a whole bunch of journalists for this, but I didn’t ask them about how they prepare for interviews, or their fact-checking routine, or their writing process. I mostly tried to get people talking about their experience working for this specific publication at that specific point in their lives. When you weave all these conversations together, you end up with a story about a company; therefore, I think this is a story about capitalism. In a broad sense, it works as a microcosm for the American economic paradigm. Every subject/character in the tale works, some of them rack up debt, and nobody gets paid enough.
This project started in the spring of 2016, when former Dig Editor-in-Chief Joe Keohane pitched me the idea of composing an oral history of the Dig to commemorate the paper’s 20-or-so-year anniversary. As the project snowballed in scope while deadlines came and went, I had the quixotic notion to turn it into a book. As we see what happens with that, DigBoston has agreed to print the manuscript in serialized morsels. And here we are.
Attentive readers may notice sources contradicting each other now and again. I should explain that I knowingly left a few such discrepancies in the text, because especially with regards to decades-old events that may have occurred in the midst of heavy alcohol and/or drug consumption, sometimes folks simply remember shit differently.
On that note, I hope you all enjoy this first installment of Good Luck In Sicily: The Oral History of DigBoston. If you think this one sucks, maybe one of the upcoming episodes will tickle your fancy. They’ll be running every few weeks, and of course compiled online as well. In my personal favorite, (spoiler alert) celebrated social commentator Luke O’Neil poops his pants, so keep an eye out for that issue.
The ’90z – 2003
Episode 1: Shovelin’
JEFF LAWRENCE (founding publisher): This was never about me. I’m not a writer. I’m not a messiah. I’m not somebody who—you know what I am? I encourage people to do what they should do. And that’s it. Everything else? Fuck that. I don’t give a fuck.
GRAHAM WILSON (founding sales manager): Yeah, CherryDisc Records … my friend John Horton started the label in … probably ’91. We put out Letters to Cleo, Heretix, bunch of other bands. Started getting some decent airplay on ’FNX, and one thing led to the other.
JOE BONNI (founding editor): In ’93, CherryDisc started a really big zine or a very small magazine. I was never quite sure which way to describe it. A buddy of mine asked me to come aboard. I had been writing for the Noise, and the reason CherryDisc started the Pit Report was to cover heavier stuff: straight-up metal, hardcore, that sort of thing.
LAWRENCE: I was working at a print shop and stayed late one night working on a project and ended up finishing the project, but had nowhere to go after. I had a template for a brochure for a medical instrument company and whatnot. So I stripped it of all content, kept the template, saved it under a new file name, and started putting together the pieces. I wanted to design a magazine or a zine, but I didn’t know it would be Shovel at that point.
WILSON: We had a good little run from pretty much ’93 to ’98. We had Letters, Sheila Divine, Tree, Heretix, Tracy Bonham, Semisonic. I think CherryDisc moved to 129 Kingston Street in 1997, and with what was happening to the music industry with digital downloading, the writing was on the wall.
BONNI: I took over the Pit Report and ran it into the ground within three years. We got ourselves up in distribution—10,000 or 15,000 copies a month—and we got political. We covered the whole Northeast for a while, but I definitely didn’t fucking know how to run a business.
TAK TOYOSHIMA (art director): I first met Jeff at a mutual friend’s house, just a random party we happened to go to that we could’ve just as easily not gone to. He said, “Hey, my name’s Jeff! I’m starting a magazine!” I said, “Hey, I do comics!” My wife was doing poetry at the time, so we were all like, “Yeah! Let’s do this thing!” Some hallucinogens showed up, and suddenly we were having ideas about doing this and that.
LAWRENCE: Tak showed me this image of a devil girl that he drew for a concert poster, and I’m psyched to still own the original. I’m like, “That’s our mascot and Shovel is the name!” Like, the devil girl isn’t up, it’s down, and yeah, that’s where it all started.
CRAIG KAPILOW (founding associate editor): I was working at a store on Newbury Street called Boston Beat Records. The owner was advertising in Shovel and contributing a music column. So one week he went away on vacation and forgot to submit his CD reviews before he left. I picked up the phone, and it was Jeff. I can’t remember how the conversation took place, but ultimately I ended up writing the column instead.
TOYOSHIMA: Everybody knew somebody who could throw in to Shovel, so suddenly we had all this content. It was very ziney at first; but not quite a stapled-together-at-Kinko’s kind of zine, since Jeff had access to good quality printing. Most of us had other jobs, so it wasn’t like an everyday we-had-to-go-there job. It was more like an, “Oh, crap, there’s an issue coming out next week. I better draw something!”-type of gig.
LAWRENCE: During the two-plus years of Shovel, we only reviewed one kind of movie—kung fu. So every month a guy named Rob Larsen did a movie review, but it had to be a kung fu movie. The only literature was poetry, and it was focused around astrology, which, y’know, I totally fucking hate, but somebody came to me and said, “I am really passionate about this.” That was also how the kung fu movie reviews started.
BONNI: Jeff looks normal in so many ways, but he’s not. That was kind of how we got along. He can absolutely come off as, you know, Joe Smith, but he is fucked up like I was, and that’s how we clicked through MassCann.
LAWRENCE: My high school English class senior thesis was actually “Why Marijuana Should Be Legalized,” and that was in 1989. Then I sold to an undercover agent in ’92, and after that I became even more vociferous. I think one of the primary reasons was the judge said to me, “You clearly weren’t smoking it. You were just selling it,” ’cos I was a straight-A student, and he said, “You’re too smart to be smoking pot.” I was like, “Fuck you.” So when I got out of jail, I spoke out at Harvard and at the state house about my experience, saying what a lot of people are saying now. “I’m a normal person; I’m a functioning adult; but I smoke weed.” So I spoke at the first two Freedom Rallies, and that’s obviously where I met Joe Bonni.
BONNI: I don’t know if we were both on the board of MassCann at the same time? That would be my guess. Jeff was doing Shovel magazine, and he knew I had been with the Pit Report and briefly with the [Boston] Phoenix, and he decided he wanted to take his monthly and go weekly to compete with the Phoenix.
LAWRENCE: My grandmother died, and she left my father some money. I got $40 grand. So I went swimming at the Somerville YMCA—I love to swim—and then afterwards, I was sitting in a hot tub. I was still really trying to find my place in this world in my mid-20s, and was like, “I need to do something.” Shovel had become successful insofar as people were calling me up and buying ads, but I had no clue in terms of publishing. I had a background in journalism and working for a college newspaper, but I didn’t know the inner-workings. I don’t have a degree in business. But all of a sudden it just hits me; “The fucking Phoenix has no competition! I need to start a weekly!”
TOYOSHIMA: Shovel was around for maybe a little over two years, and then we went weekly.
LAWRENCE: I did some quick math and made some phone calls and said, “Fuck it.” I had enough money to last me three months, and if it didn’t pan out, I would get another job. So I quit the design job and went full-time in.
WILSON: So in ’98, we were kind of shutting down the label. I was still managing Sheila Divine and Staind. I’m not going to go into the fucking Staind story.
LAWRENCE: I don’t know if he mentioned this, but when Graham unloaded Staind, y’know who he negotiated with? Fred Durst, the lead singer for Limp Bizkit. CherryDisc sold Staind to Fred Durst.
WILSON: Then Sheila got signed, and I walked away from that, too. At that point I’m sitting on 129 Kingston Street, booking shows around town, killing time until I find something new to do.
KAPILOW: I was backpacking through Europe after college and I got an email from Jeff saying, “Hey, do you want to start this paper with me?” He mentioned that he was hiring this guy Joe Bonni who used to run the Pit Report. I came back to Boston two weeks later.
LAWRENCE: It was me, Joe Bonni, and Craig Kapilow. There were actually three other people—Alan Strack, Chris DeGaetano, and Tracey Newman—but they didn’t want to jump in full time. Craig was in Amsterdam. He contacted me and said, “I need a job.” I said, “Well, this is what we’re doing.” And I had known Joe Bonni through MassCann/NORML. He and I decided to come together because I was like, “I can’t be the editor. I need an editor”
WILSON: Joe came to me because he knew I was sitting on 2,000 square feet, something like that, of loft space. So when he said, “Hey, what’s up? We need some space in the corner to set up.” I was like, “I need all the help I can get to pay the rent.”
TOYOSHIMA: The atmosphere of Shovel transferred to the Dig, but it was going from this monthly with hardly any rules to suddenly having more advertisers, and that was kind of weird. I think I missed the first dozen issues or so. Then I started hanging out, and after a while, it was like, “Somebody’s got to pay for printing all these things, so why not?”
WILSON: I was in that office every day doing my bullshit, so for the first couple of days, I was just trying to get a feel for them. I was like, “Who’s doing your sales and marketing?” Jeff was like, “I dunno.” I just said “Fuck it, I’ll do it.” He was like, “Okay.”
KAPILOW: Was the quality of writing as good as it should’ve been? No. And the editing was terrible, including the hatchet jobs I did myself. But for a staff making zero money working the type of hours that we did, I think it was pretty incredible.
WILSON: I had never sold advertising, but I knew the game and I knew the background. I basically had this little half-assed database I kept for CherryDisc, just to keep my contacts: retailers, Newbury Comics, distribution people. Those contacts were the base for ultimately building a sales database for the Dig.
TOYOSHIMA: A lot of it was very organic learning by doing. A lot of the time these writers weren’t writers; they were just people who could type. There was me literally learning how to do graphic design on the job, lots of late nights, things like that.
KAPILOW: This was during the days of QuarkXpress. I think Tak figured out how to use the program in, like, 48 hours.
LAWRENCE: There were a lot of 24-hours shifts. It was fucking brutal. The first two years, at least, I drove the van a lot, and sold ads.
BONNI: I was always under the assumption that we were going to burn out and fail miserably, and I was fine with that. I had already done that, so that was perfectly acceptable. I just wanted to tell stories that even the Phoenix wasn’t telling, and we were doing that. Anything we wanted went in that fuckin’ newspaper. It made no sense sometimes, but people responded positively.
Stay tuned for the next episode, in which we find out what happens when you fuck with Phoenix Media/Communications Group.