The Real Paper

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Bob Oliver's 1972 logo

The Real Paper was a Boston alternative weekly newspaper with a circulation of 50,000. It ran from August 2, 1972, to June 18, 1981, often devoting space to counterculture issues of the early 1970s. The offices were located on Mt. Auburn Street off Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Cambridge Phoenix began October 9, 1969, founded by Jeffrey Tarter. In the summer of 1972 editor Harper Barnes was fired in a journalistic dispute with owner Richard Misner. Most of the staff went on strike. During the second week an agreement was made which resolved the strike without Barnes being reinstated. Soon afterwards, on a Friday, the staff was ordered out of the offices and informed of the purchase of the paper by Stephen Mindich, owner of the more established (and more commercial) competitor Boston After Dark. Mindich purchased the title to publish as The Boston Phoenix with his staff (few Cambridge staff were retained, the notable exception being sportswriter George Kimball) hoping to eliminate his direct competition. Because of the solidarity developed during the strike, the Cambridge group immediately went into meetings and decided to continue the original aims and objectives of The Cambridge Phoenix by creating The Real Paper as an employee-run collective. Bob L. Oliver, The Real Paper's founding art director, was responsible for editorial and advertising graphic design from July 1972 to July 1973. Oliver designed the paper's logo based on the original Phoenix type style.[1]

Le Anne Schreiber, writing in The New York Times (January 3, 1983) described the internal conflicts:

Paul Solman and Thomas Friedman are in the business of providing alternatives. In the early 1970s they were among the founding editors of the now-defunct Real Paper, Boston's well-regarded alternative newspaper. Later in the decade they both became producers at WGBH-TV, Boston's alternative to the networks... Lessons emerge from case histories of actual companies and individuals. Although it is told without hand-wringing, the saddest of these stories is what happened to the staff of The Real Paper when the associate publisher's wife moved in with his best friend and colleague, the publisher. Lines were drawn, and suddenly everybody was a close friend of somebody who was now the enemy of another close friend.
In a traditional organization, the conflicts that arose would have been solved by firings or resignations; but at The Real Paper, which had been set up as an egalitarian business - with every employee holding an equal number of shares as long as he or she worked for the paper - there was no way to settle or to escape internal conflict. The fact that the paper had become profitable meant that no one wanted to leave and relinquish shares; but by staying together, given the bitter factionalism that had developed, the staff insured that the paper would become progressively less profitable. [2]


Ad from The Real Paper (June 13, 1973).

By the early- to mid-1970s, The Real Paper served as a springboard for a number of journalists, including music critic Jon Landau and film critic David Ansen, who left to write for Newsweek. Theater critic Arthur Friedman, who moved on to the Boston Herald, died February 18, 2002. Time columnist and TV commentator Joe Klein reported on Cambridge politics during the turbulent 1970s. Mark D. Devlin, who was first published in The Real Paper by editor Mark Zanger, later wrote the critically acclaimed memoir, Stubborn Child (Atheneum, 1985).

In September, 1978, Gerald Peary moved from New York City to Cambridge to become a first-string film critic and staff member for The Real Paper, continuing to review for The Real Paper until it folded in June, 198l. Stephen Schiff covered films for The Real Paper and the Boston Phoenix before moving on to Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and then establishing a career as a screenwriter (Lolita, The Deep End of the Ocean, True Crime). Other film critics contributing to The Real Paper included Stuart Byron, Kathy Huffhines (later with the Detroit Free Press before she was killed in a parked car by a falling tree limb), Patrick McGilligan (who later wrote biographies of Alfred Hitchcock, Jack Nicholson and others), David Rosenbaum, Bhob Stewart (later film critic for Heavy Metal magazine), David Thomson and Michael Wilmington (later film critic for the Chicago Tribune). This team of critics provided a total coverage, reviewing everything from major openings in Boston to the local Orson Welles Cinema (located one block away) to film showings in churches, coffeehouses, museums and college auditoriums.

Like Ansen, food historian and dance critic Laura Shapiro also moved on to Newsweek after writing Real Paper pieces such as "Books and People: The Cambridge Ladies" (October 17, 1973), as noted in a 2004 interview by Alison Arnett:

Shapiro is a child of the '50s. She grew up in Needham, the daughter of a good cook and caterer. Her father, Harry, who lives in Boston, played French horn for the Boston Symphony and at 90 is the manager of the Tanglewood student orchestra, Shapiro says. After graduating from Radcliffe, Shapiro planned to get a degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley. Biding her time, she took a summer job at the former Cambridge Phoenix (later The Real Paper) and soon decided she was having too much fun to go back to school. Shapiro was hired by Newsweek in 1984 as the dance critic and later began writing about food. Her first book, Perfection Salad, chronicles the beginnings of the food industry. [3]

Rock and roll's future[edit]

In addition to Landau, The Real Paper featured music reviews by James Isaacs, Jim Miller and Mark Rowland. Landau's prophetic 1974 article in The Real Paper in which he famously claimed that "I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen" is credited by Nick Hornby [4] and others with fostering the artist's popularity. Landau wrote:

But tonight there is someone I can write of the way I used to write, without reservations of any kind. Last Thursday at the Harvard Square theatre, I saw my rock and roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the first time.[5]
When his two-hour set ended I could only think, can anyone really be this good; can anyone say this much to me, can rock'n'roll still speak with this kind of power and glory? And then I felt the sores on my thighs where I had been pounding my hands in time for the entire concert and knew that the answer was yes.
Springsteen does it all. He is a rock'n'roll punk, a Latin street poet, a ballet dancer, an actor, a joker, bar band leader, hot-shit rhythm guitar player, extraordinary singer, and a truly great rock'n'roll composer. He leads a band like he has been doing it forever. I racked my brains but simply can't think of a white artist who does so many things so superbly.[6]

Between the lines[edit]

Harper Barnes, the 1970-72 Phoenix editor, was a book columnist for The Real Paper and The Chicago Reader in the late 1970s. After writing for The Real Paper, advice columnist Monica Collins wrote for local and national newspapers and magazines; she currently does the syndicated column "Ask Dog Lady." [7]

In 1975, The Real Paper was purchased by Ralph I. Fine, David Rockefeller, Jr., and others, taking a more commercial slant; in competition with the Phoenix, the publication began to distribute a free edition at Boston-area college campuses under the nameplate "The Free Paper." After a 1978 peak, money from investors slackened, and the publication began to lose steam with a $250,000 loss in 1980, followed by many staff changes before the 1981 collapse.

Jeff McLaughlin, describing the 1981 Boston arts scene in the Boston Globe, (January 4, 1982), wrote:

Hardest hit was journalism. Financial problems caused The Real Paper to cease publication, silencing a voice that was devoted to community-based efforts in the arts as in other cultural fields. The Phoenix won new readers with The Real Paper's demise, but its arts focus is more national than local.

Fred Barron, who had written for both The Phoenix and The Real Paper, used his alternative newspaper experiences as the basis for a screenplay, Between the Lines, filmed in 1977 by Joan Micklin Silver. The success of that film led to a short-lived TV sitcom, also titled Between the Lines.

The Real Paper has been issued on microfilm by Bell and Howell.



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