Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Alternative Media: The Phoenix & Vanguard

The growth of local and regional newspapers was the leading alternative press development of the 1970s. By the end of the decade there were several statewide weeklies, strong city papers, and smaller weeklies that had outgrown their original campus audiences. They varied widely in style and tone – from the soft features of the Chicago Reader to the rough investigative journalism of the Bay Guardian – but shared a preference for the local slant, occasionally reflecting the global in smaller forms.


No paper exploited the new commercial-friendly formula with more success than the Boston Phoenix, which was reaching over 100,000 readers by the end of the decade with fat, multi-section, ad-packed editions. The paper’s story began back in 1965 with a former MIT student newspaper editor, Joe Hanlon, who had the idea for an art insert to the Harvard Business School’s paper. Within a year it became an independent publication called Boston After Dark. Partners came and went, and by 1969 it was owned by Stephen Mindich, a Boston U grad who had started by selling ads. After Dark built its circulation by giving away papers on campuses and selling them elsewhere.


There was a brief challenge. Vietnam vet Jeffrey Tarter saw the chance to combine arts coverage with local muckraking and started The Cambridge Phoenix, tapping into the area’s deep talent pool. But he couldn’t make it viable and soon sold to two local entrepreneurs. They hired a professional, beefed up the paper editorially and financially, and got vendors to hawk it downtown. It didn’t take long for the Phoenix to outclass its predecessor.


Mindich adjusted, adopting the competition’s design and edgy style, even hiring his own vendors. He also added local news. Both papers prospered, packed with free classifieds and youth culture “guides.” It was a perfect market, half a million young people in the metropolitan area, and they had captured it by keeping the content sharp – but not too radical. The object was to be both hip and mainstream.


Ultimately, Mindich bought the competition and took the name. The Phoenix staff got word in a brief announcement from publisher Richard Missner, a wealthy Harvard Business School grad. They were all fired. No notice, no severance pay, nothing. It was therefore no surprise when former Phoenix staffers started a paper of their own, The Real Paper. Theirs would be a staff-owned business, operated by consensus, giving everyone a vote in major decisions. The experiment lasted nine years, but in the end The Real Paper folded while the Boston Phoenix became Phoenix Media/Communications Group, a New England mini-chain with radio stations and similar papers in Providence and Portland.


By 1977 the Boston Phoenix was already a prime example of how hip design, youth-oriented content and ruthless determination could capture a market. The lesson wasn’t lost on Steve Brown, one of the former Vermont Cynic staffers who’d dreamed of starting their own paper. After finishing school he had worked for Mindich, absorbing the lessons and working out how to apply the Phoenix formula to Burlington and Vermont.


The Eclipse, founded by UVM grad Peter MacAusland earlier in the year, was a long-shot from the start. It had talent – especially ace reporter John “J.D.” Dillon and photographer Ron “RoMac” MacNeil – but not enough money to pay for it and nothing for promotion or decent management. That fall we put out a dozen strong issues, writing the first local investigative features the city had seen in years. We exposed environmental threats and government corruption, watchdogged officials, and gave voice to the emerging progressive agenda. But MacAusland’s limited capital wasn’t enough to sustain it. The paper had been launched on faith, on the passionate belief that it needed to be done and would somehow work out. It probably would have failed anyway. But two things hastened it – Steve Brown’s arrival and an unexplained fire in the production office.


The fire hit hard. The previous year The Frayed Page had moved from its second floor walk up to a newly renovated building nearby. We’d decided to co-locate with Bookstacks, a local independent bookstore. They handled new book sales, we bought and sold used editions, and had special sections on leftwing politics. The Eclipse eventually took over the old location. It felt familiar attending meetings there. Now it was a charred ruin.


Steve’s message was less devastating but just as disorienting. He had enough money to start a viable weekly, with paid staff and a sales strategy based on the Phoenix model. There would be both local news and a strong arts section. He already had some staff picked out but there was room for more, especially in the editorial department.


Why not throw in with The Eclipse? The question was asked, repeatedly. But Steve had a vision and wanted to start fresh. No need for excess baggage, either image or people-wise. He also had a name in mind – The Vanguard.


As it worked out, Steve couldn’t have the exact name he wanted. A handicapped access group already owned it. Instead he went with Vermont Vanguard Press. In the end, most people called it the Vanguard anyway. But he did get several Eclipse staffers – J.D., RoMac and me. In December The Eclipse released its last issue, a full eclipse on its cover. A month later, in the middle of a brutal storm, the first issue of the Vanguard Press hit the street.


A decade later, in a book on Vermont’s progressive revolution, I looked back at it this way: “Editing the Vanguard Press was the job I had been waiting for all of my adult life. From the time I had landed in Vermont, a wide-eyed hippie, in 1968, to that snow-covered day in 1978 when we distributed the first copies, I’d been thinking about the potential of an “alternative” newspaper to change the consciousness of the state.”


Becoming editor took a year, however, and wasn’t achieved easily. Despite my “advanced” age – compared to the rest of the staff – and experience, Steve didn’t know me well or completely trust my intentions. His idea, he explained, was a hip paper that didn’t take sides. There wouldn’t even be an editorial page. Instead, he would showcase various columnists, mixed with some “straight” news. The job offer was Staff Reporter, including a weekly column, news items, and at least one cover feature a month.


Chapter 14 of Prelude to a Revolution. Photo above: In the Vanguard Press office are original staff members, from left, Jeffrey Polman, Arts Editor; John Dillon, Associate Editor (seated); Ron MacNeil, Photo Editor; and Carlo Wolff, first Editor-in-Chief.


Next week: Spooks, Nukes, and Counterterror

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