An ode to the (now digital) Boston Phoenix newspaper

Head of Special Collections and University Archivist at Northeastern University, Giordan Mecagni looks through the Snell library stacks at The Boston Phoenix photo archives. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The Boston Phoenix had a good run.

From the early 1970s to the early 2010s, Boston’s largest alternative weekly newspaper documented Greater Boston with sharp, progressive-minded coverage. Its longform stories were a defining characteristic of the “alt-weekly” format, a much-loved newspaper genre that, with the decline of print advertising in recent decades, has all but vanished from the mediasphere—at least, in print form. 

Touching all corners of culture and society, the Boston Phoenix provided penetrating and slightly off-beat takes on everything from city and state politics, to the latest in rock n’ roll, theater, and classical music. And throughout its various transmutations—from the early days as a tabloid-sized newspaper, to its final months as a significantly trimmed-down glossy magazine—the Phoenix never stopped delivering the news essentials: In-depth local reporting combined with generous, citywide arts coverage, says Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy, a longtime media writer for the Phoenix.

Head of Special Collections and University Archivist at Northeastern University, Giordan Mecagni looks through pages of The Boston Phoenix archives. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“Local media coverage had always been one of the hallmarks of the Phoenix, in addition to its stellar arts coverage,” Kennedy says. 

As with just about every other newspaper anywhere in the world, the Phoenix struggled to make the transition from print to digital, which ultimately led to its demise in 2013. But thanks to a joint agreement by Northeastern University and the Internet Archive, a nonprofit library dedicated to making a variety of media accessible to the public, most of the Phoenix archives now live on the web in searchable form. 

The digital memorialization is significant in that it opens up the Phoenix’s archives—a burgeoning repository of Greater Boston’s recent history—for easy, unrestricted perusal. It also turns the newspaper and its vast history into a teaching tool for journalism and marketing/advertising students, Kennedy says.

“It’s an incredibly important part of the media culture in Boston, and deeply valuable to researchers doing any kind of research,” Kennedy says. 

With Kennedy’s help, Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich donated the paper’s archives, including the physical newspapers and all bound volumes, to Northeastern in 2015. The Internet Archive had purchased the Phoenix master microfilm, making back issues available to readers upon request through a method known as Controlled Digital Lending. You could read the paper for a period of time on the Internet Archive’s website, but you couldn’t download it.

An often costly and time-consuming effort, digitizing the Phoenix archives wasn’t something Northeastern archivists had the wherewithal to do. But upon learning about the digital trove of back editions the Internet Archive had been keeping, Northeastern extended the archival rights to the nonprofit. Almost instantaneously, the defunct newspaper’s archives became available to the general public online, says Giordana Mecagni, who heads the archives and special collections at Northeastern.

So far, more than 2,100 editions of the newspaper are downloadable on the website, with the earliest issues dating back to 1973. There are some gaps to fill in, which will take some time; but now readers can scroll through back issues as they were originally printed in the online scans, search for keywords, or browse and download whole copies. 

“Anyone can download issues,” Mecagni says. “There’s a lot more you can do with the Phoenix now.”

Part of the mission of Northeastern’s special collections archive over the last 20 years has been to collect, preserve, and make available Boston’s “underrepresented histories,” Mecagni says. The archivists have amassed a sizable collection of organizational records from various civil-rights movements and other social-justice organizations that have come and gone. A comprehensive repository of the Boston Globe’s archives also is housed in the Northeastern special collections. 

The shared control over the Phoenix archives will help provide scholars, researchers, and journalists with another access point into the politics, arts, and culture of Greater Boston over the last half-century—a portal to coverage that surveyed regional and national issues through a lens that was radically ahead of the current of news, Kennedy says. Whether it’s the paper’s anti-war orientation in the ’60s and ’70s, or its forward-looking coverage of racial justice and LGBTQ equality, Kennedy says the Phoenix was an alternate voice in local media that enriched the communities it served, providing fuel for social movements and a watchful eye over local pols.    

The paper also served as an editorial check on the city’s two dailies, The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, Kennedy says. Indeed, it may have even beaten the Globe’s Spotlight team to the punch on the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal, a famous touchpoint in the recent history of Boston journalism. 

“Who was holding the Globe and the Herald accountable back then? Only the Phoenix,” Kennedy says. “And now there’s nobody doing that. The ability to hold large media institutions to account is much more difficult” without publications like the Phoenix. 

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