I guess I should probably comment on this Phoenix v. Dig legal spat

As my Bangor Daily News colleague Seth Koenig reported on Monday:

Less than a month after Portland officially became a two-alternative-weekly city, those two alternative weeklies are engaged in a legal dispute.

The new publisher of the Portland Phoenix has announced his newspaper will sue the nascent Dig Portland over what he calls breaches of contract by two former Phoenix leaders now working for Dig.

The Press Herald followed up on Tuesday:

The new publisher of the Portland Phoenix says its competitor, a new weekly called DigPortland, looks just like the Portland Phoenix. It’s the same size, with the same content, the same ad layout and the same advertisers, said Mark Guerringue, the Phoenix’s publisher.


Because I write a column for Dig, I have been contacted by a number of people who are looking for my insights on this contention. It is important to underscore that I am a freelance columnist for Dig, yes, though responsibilities at the paper go no further than turning in a column every week. I have not discussed these legal issues with the editorial or managing staff there. I am much more of a consumer of Portland media than I am as a contributor and it is in that capacity that I comment on this mess.

What most bums me out about this turn of events is that I was very legitimately excited for what I believed the emergence of a two paper market would mean for local alternative news. Over the past few weeks, positions for writers have increased significantly. A few years ago, I never thought I would see something like that happen. This amounts to more coverage of the arts, more great comprehensive reportage through lenses outside of the mainstream, and the amplification of more voices. It was an overall win for everybody.

I very much appreciate and respect the editorial staff at the Phoenix. It is a great group of very talented writers and journalists and Portland is lucky to all of them working here. Daniel MacLeod is a top notch dude and newsman. Before this drama began to unfold, I was readily sharing Phoenix stories and links and suggesting people go to check out the new incarnation. I don’t know if Mark Guerringue, the new publisher of the Phoenix, understands as much, but this move really sours the punch. I still love the editorial staff at the Phoenix, no doubt, and they remain an amazing group that I appreciate and respect, but how likely am I to continue shining light on all members of this “big tent” while one of those members is going on the legal offense? And now speaking as a writer at that paper, how likely am I to continue encouraging others to do the same? It is not very bright move.

Because they are about the legal developments themselves, the articles about this emerging spat don’t clearly convey that Dig is a publication and format that has existed in Boston for 15 years. It feels somewhat serendipitous that I am now writing for the paper, as I credit Tak Toyoshima, the Art Director of the Boston Dig, as the person who turned me on to publishing my writing (a story that predates the paper itself and thus Toyoshima’s involvement with it at the time). As a publication, Dig has thrived and survived by remaining on the cutting edge and focusing as much attention to its visual presentation as it does its compelling content. The Phoenix brand has existed for nearly 50 years, emerging from a Boston publication that folded earlier this year. To employ the phrasing Guerringue used when comparing Dig to his paper, over time Phoenix came to become or less a “clone” of Village Voice. In other words, it is an alt weekly, a form which owes a great deal to the Voice, an aesthetic standard-bearer to said form.

The Phoenix is skittish, perhaps understandably, as previous management has blamed instabilities on wavering markets and a dwindling advertising revenues. And in that context, in a previous turf war, Dig survived while the Phoenix (ironically) fell. If, however, the past 10 years are any indication, news organizations do not survive by acting like their prehistoric predecessors. Offerings of quality content, reportage and fresh perspectives—not legal action—will win the day and while the Phoenix has a fresh opportunity to flourish by offering the former, it appears to be overplaying its hand by relying on the latter. It is sort of embarrassing to watch.

In a town like Portland, coexistence is the best way to survive and thrive, especially when competing for ad dollars. Papers can appeal by sharing one large audience instead of splitting audiences into two and pitting them against each other.  With the management of the Phoenix appearing to lean to this tactic, it appears desperate and unsure of its own abilities. It says little of its confidence in its own staff. Again, the Phoenix is at graced with a fantastic hand by way of a dynamic creative and editorial department, and that is the one they should play.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.