Portland Sun group buys Phoenix, Dig Portland hires away Phoenix staff

(BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

(BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Rumors of the Portland Phoenix’ death have been greatly exaggerated.

There was a prevailing feeling that a proposed sale of the 15-year-old alternative weekly to a local buyer a few weeks ago was the Phoenix’ last hope of survival, so when that deal fell through, many believed the Phoenix would soon close up shop.

dig 2In the meantime, Dig Boston announced plans to branch out to Portland.

Fast forward to today: Dig Portland is gearing up for its inaugural issue a week from today, and the Phoenix has, appropriately enough, risen from the ashes with a new ownership group and editor.

Portland, you are officially a two-alt-weekly city again.

What makes this story even more intriguing are the players involved. The ownership group behind the Portland Sun, a free daily that in recent months cut production down to three editions per week, bought the Phoenix. So a regional group with local ties and an existing city product is doubling down on the market, even after it found it couldn’t fully support the free daily.

The newly hired editor of the Phoenix under this ownership group is none other than Dan MacLeod, a Bucksport area native who has a great reputation in Maine journalism circles. He returns to his home state after a recent stint working for the New York Post — more from him in a moment.

MacLeod’s bona fides are important, because Dig Portland is coming hard for Maine’s largest city. Dig announced today it has hired Nick Schroeder, who is notably MacLeod’s immediate predecessor at the Phoenix.

In fact, Dig announced it has signed a whole bunch of familiar Phoenix names. Phoenix General Manager John Marshall, reporter Caroline O’Connor and columnists Sam Pfeifle, Shay Stewart-Bouley and Al Diamon are all moving across town to Dig.

That’s a significant haul of writers who are well-known and well-connected on the Portland scene, and provides Dig Portland — which may have otherwise come across as an out-of-state intruder — immediate hometown familiarity.

So what can we expect from this all-of-a-sudden hypercompetitive corner of Portland’s media market?

Well, some form of competition, of course. MacLeod retains staff writer Matt Dodge, a respected alum of the widely read industry magazine MaineBiz, and like I said before, brings New York Post experience to the job.

“I come from a more hard-news background,” MacLeod admitted during an interview today. “I’d like to sharpen the paper a bit and be more ambitious about the stories we cover. The paper has been great, but I’m always interested in finding ways to improve.”

The Phoenix has maintained a strong reputation for advocacy journalism in the city over the years, and MacLeod said he wants to build on that. For what it’s worth, the Phoenix has long seemed the most stable in the regional Phoenix network of papers if you look at page counts and ad lines, and the die-off of Worcester, Boston and Providence Phoenix papers over the past several years shouldn’t be taken to mean the Portland Phoenix wasn’t successful.

“[The Phoenix] always has been, is and will continue to be the source for knowing what’s going on,” MacLeod said. “I feel a big responsibility to keep that going. The Phoenix has been an incredible voice in southern Maine, and it’s necessary.”

MacLeod also said he thinks competition is healthy, and suggested Dig and the Phoenix will push each other to do exemplary journalism.

Over at Dig Portland, Marc Shepard, who will co-publish the weekly alongside Dig Boston owner Jeff Lawrence, said he was quick to hire so many Phoenix writers in part because of his own history at the Phoenix, where he was associate publisher for a decade.

“I worked with most of these people, so my knowledge of their work and professionalism helped bring them to the front of the [hiring] line,” Shepard told me.

For its inaugural edition next Wednesday, Dig Portland will be distributed at usual newspaper drop spots, like grocery stores and market places, and paper boxes will likely be set up streetside by the end of the month, he said.

Shepard said the Dig Boston staff is excited about the expansion and the statement it makes about the health of the alt weekly industry.

But when Dig announced in late October it would make a move into Portland, it looked very much like the Phoenix might be closing down and leaving a void in the alt weekly market. Now? Both publications will have to jockey for position.

“I don’t know if it’s a strong enough market for two alt weeklies,” Shepard said. “We’re going to focus on what we do and do the best we can. … I think we’d have to find separate niches in order to co-exist.”

Pfeifle, who was one of the Phoenix’s first hires when it began publishing 15 years ago, said it’s shortsighted to think of it as a two-horse race. The longtime music columnist said Dig won’t be just competing with the Phoenix, it’ll be competing for advertising revenues with Portland’s three television stations, at least two talk radio stations, a growing number of glossy lifestyle magazines and a plethora of other media outlets, including the daily Portland Press Herald and Bangor Daily News.

Pfeifle noted that the Phoenix and Casco Bay Weekly co-existed for a number of years.

“There’s definitely a finite amount of marketing dollars in Portland, but I don’t think there’s anybody out there who has a dedicated budget for alt weeklies and now has to split that budget in two,” he said. “Both papers have to make the case that they deserve a share of those market dollars.”

Pfeifle worked with Shepard — as well as Marshall, Schroeder and others — at the Phoenix, making the move to Dig a comfortable one. But he also worked with MacLeod back at the University of Southern Maine’s student newspaper the Free Press, and with such a long history with the Phoenix, he acknowledged that making the jump “was a really hard decision.”

“I was immediately kind of excited about working with [Shepard] again on another project,” he said. “He really has a vision for diverse revenue sources and really understands an alternative weekly’s place in the community.”

But, Pfeifle added, “I have a really deep respect for Dan as a journalist.”

For now, both MacLeod and Schroeder are focused on putting out next week’s editions. MacLeod said he held a story meeting this morning and is excited to be back in Maine.

“They’re going to be under the gun,” Shepard said of his newly hired Dig Portland team. “They have a week to put out a great first issue, and I’m confident they’ll be able to do that.”

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.