The Phoenix's Role in Climate Coverage

I seem to be one of the few people in journalism who never worked or wrote for the Boston Phoenix. I certainly read and admired it, and feel the same general malaise at news that it is gone.

Wen Stephenson, an Atlantic veteran who was closely involved in our first online versions (called "Atlantic Unbound") nearly 20 years ago, says that the Phoenix has played an increasingly important role in climate coverage, and thus its absence will be felt there as well as in other fields. I turn it over to him:

A Death in the Family
By Wen Stephenson

We got the news, of course, on Twitter: "Thank you Boston. Good night and good luck."

That tweet came yesterday afternoon from the Boston Phoenix, the storied but struggling alt-weekly, for which the current print issue will be its last. There will be an online-only issue next week, containing an important piece by my friend and fellow climate activist-journalist Bill McKibben. And then the rest is silence.

But a lot of us can't stay silent, and won't. There are a great many people in Boston right now, and around the country, who care deeply about everything the Phoenix has always represented, right down to the end -- smart, fearless, fiercely independent journalism -- and want to say a few things about what this means for our impoverished media landscape.  Many thanks to Jim for lending me this space to offer a few words of my own.

PhoenixCover.jpegI was proud to be associated with the Phoenix, even if briefly. My cover story last fall, called "A Convenient Excuse" (right), took serious issue with the way our mainstream media has covered -- or failed to cover -- the climate crisis. One of the places I criticized was The Atlantic (though I spent seven years as an editor at the magazine, from 1994 to 2001, and still have friends there). [JF note: see my discussion of that piece.]

The Phoenix has run three more of my pieces on climate and the climate movement in these past four months (you can find them, for now at least, here); the last one was just this week, an online piece about a stunning student-led protest against the Keystone XL pipeline at the TransCanada office in Westborough, MA, in which 25 (mostly young) climate activists were arrested for peaceful civil disobedience (a remarkable local story, with national resonance, that the Boston Globe, incredibly, has failed to cover).

There's a reason I'm mentioning these pieces, and it's not to promote my own work (ok, maybe just a little; I'm a freelance writer who just lost my main outlet!).  In all sincerity, it's to pay heartfelt tribute to my editor, the guy who commissioned and expertly edited these pieces -- the last editor-in-chief of the Boston Phoenix -- Carly Carioli.

To put it simply and bluntly: Carly championed not only the climate issue but, equally important, the young and increasingly powerful grassroots climate movement, at a time when virtually no one else (outside of environmental blogs and magazines) could be bothered to give them a serious thought. Those pieces of mine -- to my utter amazement -- went somewhat viral, garnered national attention to the Phoenix, and put the climate movement on the map for a lot of readers. I know an awful lot of people right now who feel a piercing sense of loss, and powerlessness, and quite frankly, real anger, knowing that the only widely-circulated publication in Boston paying serious attention to climate change has gone away.

In today's paper, the Globe's editorial page had an eloquent euology for the Phoenix, where editorial page editor Peter Canellos, like a long list of other accomplished journalists, spent some formative years of his career.  Acknowledging the Phoenix's "proud journalistic tradition," the editorial notes that the alt-weekly's audience "was anyone who believed that powerful institutions and other engines of society deserved a kind of scrutiny that went beyond mere reporting, and who wanted to see the fundamental ills of the social order exposed." And it concludes:

Now, with Thursday's announcement of the Phoenix's demise, much will be written about the paper's impact on local politics, music and film criticism, and the various journalistic careers it launched. It's a substantial legacy, by any measure. But better to focus on the careers that might not be launched, the questions that might not be asked, and the stories that might not get told.

Yes, it's a little ironic to read that on the Globe's editorial page, in whose offices (as I described in the Phoenix) I protested the paper's lack of climate coverage.  We can only hope that the Globe -- or somebody -- will fill the void now left on Brookline Ave. in Boston.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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