EPISODE 1 (2004 – 2007)
The gang finds a dead body
A few media business big shot types I interviewed for this project cited Joe Keohane as the primary architect of the Dig’s mid-2000s period of serious prosperity. When asked, if I’m remembering my notes correctly, he said it was actually him and, like, 15 other people.
Of course it’s ludicrous to drop all the credit on the lap of one guy. Furthermore, factors well beyond the control of anybody on East Berkeley Street also played a role in the ascendancy to the status of bonafide thing. Digital wouldn’t completely crush print media for another few years, and the much larger rival Boston Phoenix at the time seemed totally obsessed with the ’90s in a manner that felt closer to complacency than retro cool, leaving the door for a brasher alternative to the alternative wide open.
As early twenty-something readers had come to believe that the world belonged to Dick Cheney, Fred Durst, and Tila Tequila, we were eager to hear voices that reflected our indignation and, perhaps, inflated sense of our own cleverness.
We were angry, but probably not as afraid as we should’ve been—of a looming rapid gentrification, the inevitable decline of all media, and so on.
Also, a bunch of us were on drugs. Which was helpful. I think.
SCOTT MURRY (art director): There was this time I went over to a salesperson’s desk. There was powder everywhere, and this salesperson was passed out in the middle of it. I shook them, because this person wasn’t moving. Then I slapped them, and nothing happened. I was like, “Oh, great, I found a dead body.”
SHAULA CLARK (managing editor): Um, well, Joe Bonni was a tremendous stoner and the Dig was a pot rag with other stuff going on, but it had that ax to grind. And when Joe Keohane came in, he turned it into something else entirely. Not that it didn’t have some sense of snark before, but Keohane really turned the paper upside down.
MURRY: But then I felt this salesperson’s neck, and there was a pulse, thankfully. I didn’t know what the fuck to do, so I grabbed Craig Kapilow … and they said, “Thank you, S’murry. You did the right thing.” I don’t know what happened after that, but the salesperson was up and well within a few hours and apologized for scaring me.
JOE KEOHANE (editor-in-chief): When I went in, I thought people weren’t doing a great job of capturing the spirit of the city. The Globe has not been great about that. Yeah, they’ve been great about covering the city, but not about conveying a sense that they live there and understand it.
LISSA HARRIS (staff writer/managing editor): I ended up in Boston because I had nothing better to do with my life, and was like, “Why not? I’ll try Boston. See how this goes.” I think I’d been there no more than a couple of weeks, and I’m walking down the street, I see a Weekly Dig box, and I was like, “What the fuck?” I picked it up and read through it, and it was half-terrible and half-demented and wonderful. I said, “I could write for these guys.”
KEOHANE: Trying to capture that spirit, for us, often took the form of observational stuff: savage complaints about things that no one outside of Boston would ever care about, and a lot of inside references that only people who lived in the city would understand. I wanted the Dig to be really, really Bostonian. I wanted to capture the neurosis, the pride, the stupidity, the vulgarity, the priggishness, all that stuff.
HARRIS: Keohane really enjoys mayhem, but he wants things to be smart. We were all trying to outdo each other in an effort to be wicked, but not indiscriminately wicked; not just being hooligans for its own sake. We had to be clever about it.
DAN KENNEDY (former Boston Phoenix media columnist, Northeastern University journalism professor, and longtime Boston news media commentator): You have to remember how huge the Phoenix was in the early days of the Dig. We [The Phoenix] had, like, four or five sections some weeks. We had a huge staff. And then you’d look at the Dig, and it would be this very thin, small thing. I don’t think that any of us—I’m not speaking just for [Phoenix Publisher Stephen] Mindich—I don’t think any of us thought the Dig was something we had to be concerned about. And then, over time, of course the Dig stayed around and the Phoenix started to shrink.
KEOHANE: Lissa Harris won an award for religion coverage. It was a story on, like, a reverend or something who hung out outside … What was the old goth club in Cambridge? ManRay. So she wins this thing, she shows up to the awards dinner. She’s wearing these 1930s-style two-toned black and white shoes and some kind of fur coat. She wanted to look like an actress from the ’40s. We got extremely drunk at this thing.
HARRIS: What the heck was it called? The New England Newspaper and Press Association. I won that award for the story I wrote about failed seminarians. I set out to find some people who had bombed out of seminary and interview them about it. I met this guy completely by accident outside of ManRay who had some sort of religious tattoo and I asked him about it. Turned out he was a failed seminarian. I was like, “You are exactly who I’m looking for!” So I won an award for religion reporting. I had never won an award for journalism before in my life, so I was hyped up to go to the NENPA Awards. It turned out to be a sort of interminable rubber chicken dinner you had to pay to get into, but I did not care.
KENNEDY: There was a period of time when Joe Keohane was there, Lissa Harris was there, and you’d look at that and you’d say, “Jesus Christ, the Dig has some pretty talented people writing news these days. We’ve got to up our game a little bit.”
KEOHANE: At one point we started harassing Dan Kennedy, and we were just staggering around with this “precious” award that doesn’t mean anything. Everybody got a medal at that thing. Harris and I went on this tear where we drank from Downtown Boston to Davis Square. She would take this wooden award plaque and slam it on bars and demand free beer because she was an award-winning journalist. She is a maniac.
HARRIS: Keohane and I went on this pub crawl through Cambridge, and I’m teetering down the street in my ridiculous high heels. We got into the People’s Republik, and there was a bunch of regulars, crusty old dudes, and I slammed my award on the bar. Keohane started telling people I have a glass eye. I rolled with it. It was beautiful.
KEOHANE: Lissa Harris also punched me in the face once. Maybe twice.
Next episode: Lissa Harris continues to punch Keohane, and other coworkers, in various sections of their anatomy, including their faces.
EPISODE 2 (2004 – 2007)
It was kind of like the movie Fight Club, except with an irreverent, anti-establishment sensibility
In a general sense, most people agree that violence is bad. But how we interpret violence as witnesses and occasionally as participants hinges entirely on contextual, case-by-case circumstances. Compare the curb stomp scene from American History X with one of the several bloodthirsty rampages depicted in Deadpool, for instance. The first horrifies us. The second fills our jaded hearts with childlike joy and wonder.
I point this out because when an authority figure beats the snot out of their subordinates, in normal settings, it makes for an upsetting situation. In fact, one such event occurred a few episodes ago in this very oral history. The way it unfolded was, indeed, rather upsetting. But that outburst required years of pent-up frustration before it bubbled over into a moment of serious malice, and this was an exception to the standard of the company culture. Truth be told, most Dig-related slobberknockers from the mid-’00s are remembered fondly by all parties involved.
Then again, a whole bunch of stuff that we all thought was hilarious at the time wouldn’t fly at all these days. Can you imagine the backlash if we published a graphically rendered fantasy in which the writer seduces Ivanka and/or Eric and/or Don. Jr. while disguised as, ah, geez, what’s the Trump era’s answer to Osama bin Laden? Who’s their boogeyman and embodiment of foreign menace? … A half-starved, helpless Latin American refugee kid, I suppose?
Our mailbag would explode.
But this bygone epoch was one of whimsy that, now and again, crossed the threshold into madness. Around this point, the Dig even hired a teenager to write its advice column, which sounds like a terrible idea, but it actually worked out pretty great …
M.D. SAUNDERS (advice columnist/teenager): I remember hearing Harris talk about how at editorial meetings, they would just get drunk and go to Foley’s and get into fights. You put that many Irish sarcastic Boston-area writers in a room, and it was this United Nations of wackiness. I would pay good money to see Jeff Lawrence and Lissa Harris fight. I’d be the ring wench or card girl or whatever they call it. Also, I would fight Jeff Lawrence. I don’t have anything against him. I have issues with his flip-flops, but he’s earned the right to do his thing with footwear.
JENNA SCHERER (editorial assistant/theater critic): For New Year’s Eve of—I wanna say, 2006? —all the Dig people, we went to Johnny D’s in Somerville. Everybody was hilariously blasted. I had heard rumors that Harris punched people when she got wasted. So I went up to her and said, “Hey Harris, I hear you punch people when you’re drunk.” She said, “Yeah,” and then she punched me in the stomach. Like, hard.
LISSA HARRIS (staff writer/managing editor): I think Jenna was an intern at that point. I hauled off and I totally punched her in the stomach. She’s like, “Uuuuuugh,” and I’m like, “C’mon, man. Seriously.”
CHRIS FARAONE (eventual co-publisher/editor-in-chief): I showed up in 2004 during the week of the DNC. But I really wanted to write for the Dig long before that, because when I was up here for a couple of months, I picked up an issue that coincidentally had an article written by a friend of mine about trying to have sex with the Bush twins while wearing an Osama bin Laden mask.
DEREK KOUYOUMJIAN (freelance photographer): The first time I worked with Faraone was an abortion protest at the State House. He’s this hyper guy, and he’s like, “Hey! Let’s go do this!” I never really liked the pro-life people very much, but going into these things, I try to keep up an impartial attitude. So I go, and I’m getting up into people’s faces with my camera. Faraone’s mentioned that he was impressed with my ability to go up to these pro-life people and say, “Hi, I’m with the Weekly Dig. Can I photograph you?”
JOE KEOHANE (EiC): We used to go to these Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) conventions. You’d drink all day and get horribly fucked up. There’d be the more earnest old guard alt-weeklies having very earnest panel discussions, and me and Jeff would just be getting shitfaced. I remember Jeff threw a glass of red wine at me from across a hotel room. This was the Peabody Hotel in Little Rock. It’s a nice hotel. I also remember a knock at the door at some obscene early hour, and it was Faraone standing there with a can of beer, ostensibly back because a strip club refused to serve him breakfast.
FARAONE: Little Rock is crazy, man. Everybody you meet in Little Rock has a story about Bill Clinton getting a blowjob somewhere. It’s pretty remarkable. But they scheduled that convention for the same weekend as Juneteenth. So all the white liberals from all the alt-newspapers were, like, quarantined in this hotel while Little Rock was taken over by African Americans. But yeah, AAN conferences; Jeff Lawrence is kind of the king of those things. He’s always buying out the bar. Everybody’s like, “Where’s Jeff? Where’s Jeff?” You could never live up to Jeff’s reputation when you were representing the Dig at one of those.
KEOHANE: There was another AAN convention in San Antonio. We did a panel, said, “That’s all the work we’re going to do today,” and went to one of these old school San Antonio bars. We start drinking and playing pool, and the bar starts filling in with day laborers. We start playing pool with these guys, and Jeff is drinking more and more, and he’s just kicking the shit out of them, murdering these guys, mowing them down. He’s not aware of his surroundings because he’s been drinking for hours, so he’s being really showy, slapping these guys too hard on the back, not being a dick or anything, just being vainglorious Jeff. You can feel the air in the place start to cool. These guys are getting annoyed, and Jeff is oblivious to the fact that they’ve turned against him. So at a certain point when it started to feel like we might have an actual problem, I go over to Jeff and I say, “Boss, it’s time to go.” He’s like, “Yeah, all right.” So he throws the last game, and then he’s standing at the bar. This guy comes over and says, “Hey, you’re leaning on my cousin.” Jeff turns around, and he’s got this other little guy pinned against the bar. Jeff sees him and goes, “Shit! I’m sorry!” All those AAN conventions were totally out of control. That was my idea of what journalism was. Boy was I disappointed when I left the alt-weekly world and found out it wasn’t all like that.
Next episode: It keeps being like that for a while longer, questionable behavior is rewarded with corporate sponsorship, and Jeff Lawrence bashes his own head through the wall of his office.