I offered my take on the fall of DigPortland at the start of this week, and Seth Koening wrote this article about the drama. I was interested, though, in what DigPortland Managing Editor Nick Schroeder had to say about all of it. For the paper, Schroeder ran a feature entitled Exit Interview, where he interviewed people who were leaving a larger project, job or endeavor.
There are a few places in this exchange where some background knowledge of some of the details of this drama may be required, so I also encourage reading Koening’s coverage to put it in context. To very [imperfectly] simplify the story, Schroeder was the editor of the Portland Phoenix before its old, crumbling corporate parent sold to Mark Guerringue and the ownership group behind Portland Daily Sun. Meanwhile, Jeff Lawrence and Marc Shepard of DigBoston brought DigPortland to the local market and hired Schroeder to edit the new venture. Along with Schroeder came over a dozen Phoenix writers and staff, including members of its sales team. (I came on as a new writer.) Both papers launched on the same day. Phoenix ownership filed a lawsuit against Dig ownership (Schroeder, a member of Editorial Staff, was not named in the suit) and after nearly two months, DigPortland was bought and shut down by the Phoenix.
In our interview, Schroeder suggests, among many other things, that the angles employed by local journalists in their reportage of the story have missed some of the dynamics regarding why an exodus from the Phoenix to a new venture like DigPortland was attractive for writers and staff in the first place.
We had this conversation on Wednesday the 21st, two days after it was announced that DigPortland would be shutting down.
WARNING: Salty language ahead.
STEED: So… How are you doing?
SCHROEDER: I’m okay. I am a little peeved, but you know—I’m confused and angry about some things but I’m not really directing that anger toward anyone in particular. It’s just kind of a shitty situation. There’s a lot of different feelings I am having, as you can imagine. I feel in some sense frustrated or disappointed or some other similar feeling about the number of writers that I brought along with me to do this venture—because I really believed in it—that now don’t have places to write. There were a lot of people where I was like, “This is going to happen; I am excited about this. It will be a fresh start with a new vision” and everybody I talked to was either on board with that or similarly unenthused about writing for a [Phoenix operated by Portland Daily Sun ownership]. Through some combination of those two feelings, they were very excited about this new venture.
Looking back, I don’t think that was the wrong choice either, given the choice between the two particulars, I still would have chosen this. I like [Dig owner] Jeff Lawrence. I am sure there is stuff about the way everything went down that I don’t understand; I don’t think I was lied to or duped or anything like that, but there is also stuff that I don’t know. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t personally a little excited about what the new thing will be. It’s too early to talk about what that will be in practical terms, but you know, I was getting really, really tired.
The nature of the time I was at the old Phoenix with our crumbling resources and crumbling infrastructure there, and this time with Dig whereby we were constantly constrained because of the lawsuit—time and resources were dwindling by the week. There was more and more I was being asked to do, which included several jobs that used to belong to other people at the old Phoenix—or any normal alt weekly organization. I was partly excited about it, but also my life was suffering in some ways. I am excited in some sense that there is a reset button. I have felt the cortisol draining out of my body over the last couple of days. That’s refreshing.
That’s sort of a long answer.
STEED: I feel like it would have to be. A lot has happened in the past few months.
SCHROEDER: On Monday I talked to 20 freelancers on the phone and then had some conversations with people that night and then got drunk, basically. Yesterday I went out to lunch with my aunt and thought about other ideas and I think today is the first day I am beginning to think in real terms about what is going to happen next. I am angry and I am excited and I am a little wistful and frustrated. It’s a wild mix of emotions.
STEED: Because of the nature of our work, we understand that there is a difference between ownership and editorial. So when there is talk about a “battle” between two papers, it is between ownership in this case and not the staffs, necessarily. It has been awkward for me, I think, because I have wanted to be very clear about that but I don’t think many people actually understand that difference.
SCHROEDER: I think that there’s probably a lot of misinformation from both sides that is hard to see through. I was put in a position where I benefited from exercising a lot of faith in our ownership team and I want to believe that that backfired because of the strains of the legal issue or lawsuit rather than a failure of how to properly plan and execute a paper. Because of that, in my mind, it’s simplified in the sense that we were ended because [the Phoenix’s new] ownership group did not want us around and that had no reflection on the quality of what we were doing whatsoever. It calls into question what a newspaper comprised of. I’ve been doing this for several years. Among those with me, there were people who had been writing for Dig for 10 or 15 years who are entrenched people in alt weekly newspapers. [The Phoenix] ownership group—which goes by Portland New Club and was the Portland Daily Sun ownership group—by suing and ending us, it is as through they are saying they have a greater claim on who to publish in the city. I think that the anger that I will keep from this situation is [about this having been] decided by legal means, and effectively by money. It didn’t even reach trial. Had it reached trial, there would have been a decision, but we had to stop operating because we were not confident that we could pay our writers during those legal proceedings, or pay me probably. From my standpoint, it feels like because they bought this paper, they purchased the right to exist in the city and that’s more meaningful than the work that all of us have done. That’s a little bit of a sentimental way to look at it, and it’s also a naive way of looking at it because money makes things happen.
STEED: I mean yeah, it does, but I don’t know that it’s naive. If we have gotten to this point in our lives having accepted that as the ultimate fate and truth 100 percent of the time—that money is the beginning and end of everything—we would have killed ourselves by now. Had it not been proven to us that there isn’t a glimmer of hope when it comes to beating back the most ugly elements of capitalism, we’d all be fucking dead.
Yes. And it’s a capitalist idea that I am evoking in my defense. “Let’s leave it to the free market to decide which paper is better.” I say that because I firmly believe that our paper was better. In saying that, I don’t mean to discredit Dan MacLeod, who I think is doing a really fine job. I consider Dan MacLeod a friend and he has been fantastic through all of this. Matt Dodge does great work and he has been writing 8,000 words per week. Olivia Gunn is fantastic. It’s not a dismissal—I’ve worked with all of those same people. It’s no slight to the work that they’re doing. It’s a complicated thing. I think that it’s awkward for me to say, “Let’s just let Portland decide which paper is better,” but [let’s do that instead] of strong-arming a paper with money.
STEED: Granted this is when I was much younger, but I have had projects fall through in Portland and because it is such a small, intimate town, I ended up not really wanting to go out because I didn’t want to talk about it or to keep explaining or justifying what happened. That has led to a few agoraphobic periods in my life. How has it been to be in town during the fallout of all of this?
SCHROEDER: It is too soon to say. People have been putting on the drinks, which is nice. [Laughs] And buying me pizza, that sort of thing. I am not going to refuse that! It’s nice. It’s too soon to say. It’s only been two days. I can kind of feel the sense that people may be talking to me a little differently in that I don’t have this narc cloud hanging over me. I think that for the longest time there would be friends of mine who would want to talk to me about their band but have this apprehension to do so because they don’t know what’s going to show up in a publication. People would watch what they’d say, or they might push something they’re saying a little harder.
STEED: I realize it is too early to ask about the specifics of how you will proceed, but how would you like to proceed?
SCHROEDER: One of the things that has been consistent in me putting Exit Interviews together is that I notice that people look back and say they could have done something differently or hit harder. I feel similarly about that. There are punches that I have pulled and stuff that I feel I could have done better. Like I said earlier, I think the Phoenix staff is doing a fine job but I think that there’s room for a homegrown local arts and culture publication. I would love for it to be print and I would love to not get sued because I think that’s a great idea. [Laughs]
I think there are a lot of voices that could be involved. I have butted heads with [The Bollard’s] Chris Busby before and I don’t always love where he’s coming from, but he is a bit of an attack dog in a lot of ways and he goes for that journalism that is very necessary. I think that he represents a certain faction of the city that needs to be there and his voice needs to be there. Similarly with the kids who do River Court, which is that little one-sheet thing. That is a very small scale operation right now, but it kind of echoes Mothers News in Providence, which is a fantastic little paper. I am excited about that too. There is room for something—I don’t know if it is something that networks all of these different voices or different scenes, but there is room for something else that is more of a locally-produced and owned operation. It is an interesting idea, I would need help with it, and I don’t have a ton of financial capital, but there is momentum for it. I don’t feel comfortable with [the Phoenix] being the only alternative voice in town.
STEED: What do you feel you have taken out of all of this?
SCHROEDER: I’ve got more experience, I guess, being a middle manager. Several people haven’t been paid yet and that has been a huge fucking stressor for me. I am not writing those checks, I am liaising, but people know me and the guy who is writing these checks is this guy in Boston that nobody has met, or if they have met him it was over a drunken handshake at a launch party. They’re coming at me [looking to get paid] and a lot of time they’re friends or associates or colleagues and people need to be paid for what they’re doing. That I have a lot of frustration about. Part of it is, you know, “Pay these people, please.” Part of it is that this lawsuit has really fucked up the lives of a few good writers who are now wondering where their thousand dollars are. It is hard to blame Jeff Lawrence for that. I’m sure Mark Guerringue is not directly thinking that he is impacting the lives of these writers, but he wants what he wants which is for us to stop. But it’s created this wave of pressure where a lot of people who have been writing or doing their jobs really well are suddenly two months behind in getting paid and that took up a lot of my time over the past few weeks. That happened while I was writing, doing listings three or four times a week, while I was editing a paper… All of that is really, really hard. And my checks were bouncing. It was impossible.
I think I am pretty naive in how I want things to go. Sometimes the narrative from a sales perspective is this cut and dry thing like, “That’s the way the cookie crumbles. That’s business.” That to me is unsatisfactory.
STEED: I don’t think there is a more fallacious, effusive statement than “That’s business” in business. I own a business and there are a lot of shitty things I could do in the name of them being possible, but there are other decisions and values at play. Saying “That’s business” to rationalize decision making is to ignore all other context with regard to values we’ve otherwise agreed upon.
Is there anything you want to add?
SCHROEDER: I was annoyed a couple days ago by the way this was covered in the press. For a while, the narrative was that Dig started and effectively stole a lot of the Phoenix’s writers.
STEED: Right, which is reflected in MacLeod’s editors note in the Phoenix about the issue. His piece was positive overall, and reflects the sort of guy I think Dan is, but I feel that is a pretty intense simplification.
Note: MacLeod’s statement, which can be found here, includes the line: “It was a battle from the start. Dig went for the jugular, taking the Phoenix’s regular columnists and several high-profile advertising accounts.”
SCHROEDER: From his perspective, that decision had been made before he entered the picture. That ball was already rolling. I didn’t want to work for the Daily Sun and neither did anybody I talked to, honestly. I don’t want to slander them, but nobody I talked to was interested in writing for the Daily Sun. That’s a reflection on that paper. Writers should have a say in that. The choice was between a new thing and something being captained by that ownership group, which to me has totally incoherent politics. I took it as a measure of faith in what I was doing and I think that these people trusted me. They wanted to keep working with me and I wanted to keep working with them. The way that’s been spun, where my name has been omitted in a lot of the reporting on this situation, it’s as if some big shots from Boston—Marc Shepard and Jeff Lawrence—are calling the shots and poaching staff. It’s not the case. [When I was at the Phoenix under its past ownership] it was people asking me daily what the fuck is happening? Do we have a paper tomorrow? Because for me, we didn’t. For a month, we had no idea if we were going to be printing the next paper. And people asked me what was going on and I’d say, “I’ll tell you what’s going on. This paper may or may not fold. It may or may not be sold to this party, this party or this party. And meanwhile, there is another entity that may or may not be starting up and if it does start up, I may or may not be involved and were that to be the case, I’d love to have you aboard because you do fantastic work.” I don’t think that’s stealing from the Daily Sun.
It became very clear to me early in those preliminary meetings with Mark Guerringue that Daily Sun was hemorrhaging money. He was up front about that. And it was obvious to me that buying the Phoenix was a rebranding opportunity. And he had all this staff aboard that consisted of Daily Sun writers and he wanted me to stay editor there but it was clear that he was going to fold in some of those Daily Sun writers and I’d be editing Curtis Robertson and David Carkhuff and whoever else. Would I also be having Pat Buchanan syndicated columns in my paper?
STEED: The return of Bob Higgins, perhaps?
SCHROEDER: Right. I didn’t know. That to me is not exciting. Frankly, offering this new clean slate to people was a way for me to guarantee having [the writers I had talked to] in the paper and that they wouldn’t be replaced by the writers I just mentioned.
STEED: Do you feel good? I mean generally, about everything you’ve said?
SCHROEDER: It’s good to have the tables turned on me sometimes. Yeah. I don’t have all the facts about how it went down. I was naturally insulated from the lawsuit, those details, and the numbers. There are some people who are like, “Why did Dig start something if they didn’t have the proper capital to do it?” I believe that they did, they just didn’t have the capital to weather a protracted legal fight too. Some of that is also the belief in sales decisions and editorial being kept apart. That was a sticking point for me when Dig started. I wanted assurance that we were not going to be running advertorials and we were not going to be operating on a pay-to-play system and we weren’t. I’m not saying that that’s what the Phoenix does—I don’t know their structure. But I was comfortable with ours, and comfortable that I was never told to write something as a sales consideration. Part of that, though, is that I was insulated from a lot of the proceedings that those guys were going through. It was better [in that way] if I didn’t know.
I guess what I am saying—and it’s partly emotional and partly something I am trying to work though—is that I guess I feel okay.