The ’90z – 2003
Episode 2: The fight for free
In our previous episode, Shovel ditched its monthly zine format and rechristened itself the Weekly Dig. In doing so, the fledgling company injected fresh competition into a market entirely dominated by the venerable Boston Phoenix. And so began the battle for Boston alt-weekly supremacy. But as for the precise nature and degree of that battle, well, those are matters of relativity…
The Dig goes to war with the Phoenix, or something like that
JOE BONNI (founding editor): The Phoenix went to a lot of advertisers and said, “Hey, we’ve been giving you a great rate for years because you’re a small business and we’re not going to charge you like we’d charge Budweiser and shit like that. But if you advertise in the Dig, you can forget that fuckin’ cut rate.” They did this shit.
JEFF LAWRENCE (founding publisher): The way that I remember it was I had a conversation with the owners of the Middle East, and they’d been contacted by one of the higher-ups at the Phoenix. I don’t know who it was. And they basically gave them an ultimatum and said, “Oh, we’ve held your ad rates at ‘x’ for so many years. Now you’re advertising with the Dig as well. Clearly, you have enough money. Maybe we’ll raise your rates unless you stop advertising with the Dig. And it was one of the brothers who own the Middle East who called me and said, “We’re in. Fuck the Phoenix.”
GRAHAM WILSON (founding sales manager): When we got our first street boxes, we had three of ’em. One in Allston, one in Harvard Square, and one on Newbury Street. We probably debated for a whole day where to put these two or three stupid street boxes. But we were so happy to have them; metal, orange, old school street boxes that were like tanks. All we could afford were three, but we could go to our advertisers now and say, “We’ve got street boxes!”
BONNI: Some-fucking-how we did a thorough listings section. That was one of the great things about alt-weeklies before the internet. Craig [Kapilow] did the listings of every-fucking-thing going on in every club and every gallery. And that’s what made people pick you up even if your content was sketchy or not proofread very well. People were fuckin’ leaving us on subway trains.
MIKE CANN (Blunt Truth columnist): I used to do a lot of benefits for MassCann, booking the shows and stuff. I used to send the Dig a lot of info, and they would always print it. When print was still the only game in town, you needed the Phoenix and the Dig if you had an event to promote.
BONNI: The thing about the Boston Phoenix in the 1990s was it was part of Phoenix Media/Communications Group, which had four newspapers, their own printing press, and a couple of other companies. We were making the case that we were truly independent media and the Phoenix had long since slipped away into a corporatist mentality of, like, “How much advertising can we bring in while nominally covering what’s cool?”
DAN KENNEDY (former Boston Phoenix media columnist, Northeastern University journalism professor, and longtime Boston news media commentator): For many years, the Phoenix had huge cash machines that had nothing to do with the paper. You go back to the ’70s, and they had this huge business typesetting and printing college newspapers. We used to do the Northeastern News and the Suffolk Journal and a bunch of others. Then desktop publishing came along, the college kids started doing it themselves, and that was the end of that. At the same time, the Phoenix came up with voice personals, and, again, the company’s making a fortune that has nothing to do with the Phoenix.
BONNI: Back in the ’90s, before online dating was popular, you might remember seeing 1-900 number dating ads. They might say, “Single white male, blah blah blah.” And if you’re like, “I’m interested in this fucking person,” you call a 900 number for like a dollar per minute, and you leave a voicemail in their mailbox. The newspaper makes money off that shit. And the Phoenix didn’t just do this for themselves. One of their subsidiaries handled, if I remember correctly, the personals sections for almost 200 newspapers.
KENNEDY: Stephen Mindich, who I think was a brilliant businessman, could never really figure out how the Dig could stay alive. He’d look at it and he’d say, “Well, you look at the ads, you look at the fact that it’s free … I don’t know how this stays alive.”
LAWRENCE: We were often treated as an afterthought. From what I’ve heard from Phoenix personnel, the attitude was, “the Dig isn’t serious; We don’t have to worry about them.” And when the Phoenix went free, the Globe asked Mindich, “Are you going free because of the Dig?” And he said we were going to be gone in six months. That was a rallying cry to me and the entire staff. We were like, “Oh, so we’re just going to die?”
WILSON: Before that point, the Phoenix was [$1.25], so my pitch to potential advertisers was, “Listen, we’re free. We’re in the pubs. You’re a rock club? My newspaper is free in all the rock clubs. The Phoenix isn’t.” So when we launched, Mindich puts out this friggin’ internal memo about about how the Dig will be done in six months. Six months after he sent out that memo, the Phoenix went free.
KENNEDY: What we were told internally was we had a free website and a paid paper. And we were constantly going through these debates of, “Oh, we don’t want to put this or that story on the website, because we want to charge for it in the paper.” And people who at the time seemed like they were more rational and forward thinking—looking back, maybe they were the ones who were wrong—were saying, “We’ve got to end this stupid debate. Let’s just make the website free, and paper free, and the paper’s the website and the website’s the paper.” That’s what I heard. I never heard it was about the Dig.
WILSON: Of course Mindich played going free up like, “We’re doing this for the people and for society, maaaan. We want our work to get to the people,” and it was such bullshit.
BONNI: We came out with a Monopoly board centerfold for one issue. All the traditional Monopoly squares were taken up by a company in the Phoenix Group, and there was a very sarcastic piece of text that had some guy named “Stephen Inditch” going through his day using every friggin’ product. If you worked in a cool place in or near Boston, the amount of influence the Phoenix Group had on what we could call the “hipster” culture of the ’90s was monstrous, and it was homogenous. They were adjusting to the role of having another player in town, and they weren’t happy about it.
Keep your eyes peeled for the next episode, in which the difficulties of urinating with a Prince Albert piercing are revealed, at long last.
Barry Thompson lives next to a highway in the Allston/Brighton vicinity. He has written for a whole bunch of places, enjoys caffeine, and appreciates a good, hearty anxiety attack every now and again.