Phoenix exec: We helped kill CBW
I thoroughly enjoyed your stroll down memory lane with the Casco Bay Weekly [“Casco Bay Weekly,” June 2014] and wanted to add a couple of thoughts from the perspective of someone who worked at the CBW, as well both the Boston and Portland Phoenix.
In regards to your comments about the “cultural differences” between the Boston Phoenix and the Casco Bay Weekly, you say the Phoenix staff were all “stuck up and pissed off,” but I found the staffs to be almost identical (i.e., smart, talented, passionate, and underpaid!). I enjoyed both cultures immensely and know I speak for hundreds of former Boston Phoenix employees who loved the atmosphere there and miss it greatly. I found it interesting that you chose not to mention your time doing freelance work for the Portland Phoenix, over a six-month period in 2003, in your cultural comparison. It seemed that you enjoyed yourself when you were at the Phoenix office in Portland, anyway.
As for your contention that the Portland Phoenix was not responsible for the Casco Bay Weekly’s demise, you are right in saying that Dodge Morgan could have afforded to cover the CBW’s growing losses for decades (though it’s hard to understand why you think he should have). You are also right in saying that the Phoenix alone wasn’t responsible for the fatal, double-digit revenue decline the CBW suffered from 1998 to 2002. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but CBW’s editorial tone also played a big part — mostly by forgetting that when you live and work in a small town, there are only so many bridges you can burn before you find yourself on an island.
When the Portland Phoenix launched in 1999, many local businesses called us saying they “just wanted the CBW to see their ad in the Phoenix.” (Ironically, it could be said that the general consensus around town seemed to be that the editorial staff at the CBW was “stuck up and pissed off”!). The fact that the editorial staff came to be dominated by straight white men with similar views was also commonly cited by businesses as a reason for the decline in the CBW’s appeal (a contention I personally found invalid, but of course had no reason to debate).
All that being said, of course the Phoenix had a huge negative impact on the CBW. By closely analyzing their ad pages and the rate of attrition caused by having two alt-weeklies in the market, we knew that Morgan’s claim of revenue only dropping 20 percent was hollow PR bravado. A 20-percent revenue drop during that time was a catastrophe for a paper that size and, worse, our analysis made us confidant that the real loss was at least 30 percent.
I admit I’m totally confused by your contention that “The Portland Phoenix was hatched in a spirit of greed, to boost circulation figures in a bid to attract more national advertisers to the chain.” I have no idea where you came up with that theory, but having been part of the team that “hatched” the Portland Phoenix, I can tell you it’s 100 percent false. National ad revenue for the Portland Phoenix was never budgeted to generate more than $300,000 in new revenue for that paper in any given year, and it had no impact on revenue for the other papers in the chain. Since the operating expenses for the Portland Phoenix at that time were about $1.2 million annually, revenue from national advertisers didn’t cover more than 25 percent of the cost. I’d hate to think I helped hatch a plan “in a spirit of greed” that required I spend $1.2 million to bring in $300,000 in revenue. That’s a pretty epic greed-fail. Was the Portland Phoenix launched in order to make money? Fuck yes. Does that make it inferior to the Casco Bay Weekly? I don’t see how. Call me obtuse, but I don’t equate the lack of a business plan to moral superiority.
Truth is, the idea of the Phoenix operating an alt-weekly in Portland originally came from Dodge Morgan himself. According to Phoenix Media owner Stephen Mindich and then-Phoenix President Barry Morris, Dodge approached them in the ’90s about the possibility of the Phoenix buying the paper from him. With Stern Publishing (owners of The Village Voice, in New York, along with LA Weekly and three other alt-weeklies) rumored to be eyeing New England, it seemed to make sense for the Phoenix to block them from acquiring a foothold in Maine. There were negotiations, but the results of a business analysis the Phoenix performed on the Portland market at the time influenced their decision not to meet Dodge’s asking price, and the chance of a deal died. It was reborn in 1999, when the Phoenix acquired the 92.1 FM signal in Sanford as part of a plan to make WFNX into a four-state station. That purchase, coupled with steady growth in the local arts-and-entertainment and food scenes in Portland, led the Phoenix to re-approach Dodge and see if he was still willing to sell at his original asking price. According to Morris and Mindich, Dodge’s response was a resounding “no,” and he added that if the Phoenix came into the Portland market, the CBW would “bury” them.
Thanks again to Chris for keeping the spirit of the Casco Bay Weekly alive, and to everyone else in Portland (and beyond) who make the world a better place by dedicating themselves to the vastly underappreciated job of investigative journalism.
North Attleboro, MA