Obituaries

Stephen Mindich, longtime Boston Phoenix owner and publisher, dies at 74

Boston Phoenix owner-publisher Stephen Mindich, shown in a 2012 file photo.
Dina Rudick/Globe staff/file
Boston Phoenix owner-publisher Stephen Mindich, shown in a 2012 file photo.

One of many legendary stories about Stephen M. Mindich involves him using his 5-foot-5 body to block a financial rival’s much-taller emissary from entering a room to make a counteroffer when Mr. Mindich was buying his first alternative newspaper.

“It was a matter of survival. This was not casual,” Mr. Mindich recalled years later. “This paper is my guts.”

The media empire he went on to build became an essential part of Boston’s cultural identity, and its award-winning flagship weekly, The Boston Phoenix, was the place where an array of prominent writers began their careers.

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Mr. Mindich, who was the owner and publisher of the now-closed Phoenix, died of pancreatic cancer Wednesday while in hospice care. He was 74 and lived in Newton. Mr. Mindich’s daughter-in-law, Rachael Mindich, announced his death Thursday in an online post.

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“He had a vision and really made the Phoenix succeed in embodying what he wanted a newspaper to do,” said Lloyd Schwartz, who was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for his music criticism in the Phoenix.

The weekly became the foundation for a network of businesses such as alternative papers in Providence, Worcester, and Portland, Maine, along with alternative rock station WFNX-FM, and later the publications Stuff and Stuff at Nite.

After starting out more than 50 years ago at a four-page arts weekly, Mr. Mindich soon cut an outsized figure in New England media. In 1975, when the Globe placed him on its list of those on “the threshold of leadership,” he tooled around in a used Rolls-Royce and sported a diamond pinky ring. Mr. Mindich was 32 at the time.

“What I dream about is getting better and better and better and better,” he said then of the Phoenix.

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Along with encouraging groundbreaking reporting and writing during the golden era of the alternative press, and turning the Phoenix into a model that was imitated across the country, Mr. Mindich expanded the scope of New England media in other ways, among them One in Ten, which pioneered coverage of gay and lesbian issues as a section in the Phoenix and as a talk show on WFNX.

“He was a man of vision, passion, and intense loyalty,” former Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy, who now teaches at Northeastern University, said in a tweet.

And while Mr. Mindich fought harsh battles to keep unions out of his media endeavors, he inspired fierce allegiance among many who worked for him over the years.

“When I was 20 years old and a college dropout, Stephen Mindich gave me a shot when nobody else would,” tweeted former Phoenix editor Carly Carioli, who added that Mr. Mindich “kept giving me chances” even though Carioli occasionally made mistakes.

Journalists whose careers Mr. Mindich nurtured, Carioli noted, can now be found around the world — a legacy “more powerful than anything he could have imagined.”

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Mr. Mindich traced his own media roots to 1966, when he was a graduate student at Boston University — an aspiring actor turned aspiring theater critic. He worked for WBUR-FM and began writing reviews for Boston After Dark, a four-page weekly that focused on arts coverage.

He soon was a 50 percent owner of the paper, according to his biography on a website at Northeastern, which holds the Phoenix’s archives. Mr. Mindich became Boston After Dark’s sole owner in 1972, thanks in part to his body-blocking maneuver. That same year, he bought The Cambridge Phoenix and merged the two to become The Boston Phoenix.

“The people around him and the company became what they became because of his relentless nature to do what he wanted to do, with the goal of making a difference in every aspect – in culture and politics and social initiatives,” said Brad Mindich of Needham, who is Mr. Mindich’s son and formerly was president of the company. “He had a relentless desire to achieve and do good. It’s a very powerful legacy.”

Under Mr. Mindich’s stewardship, the Phoenix was the go-to read for Greater Boston’s college students, and the weekly expanded its audience with extensive arts coverage, political muckraking, and in-depth reporting on topics that at times ranged to the arcane.

“For those thinking more in terms of long-form journalism, the Phoenix was the place to be in Boston,” Mark Jurkowitz, formerly a media critic for the Phoenix and then for the Globe, said in a 2012 Globe interview.

The Phoenix’s roster of well-known alumni includes the likes of Janet Maslin, Joe Klein, Sidney Blumenthal, Jon Landau, and Susan Orlean.

Writing for the Phoenix about topics Boston’s mainstream newspapers would never touch “felt mischievous and disruptive and nimble, and it was as close to feeling like I was in a rock band as I’ll ever get,” Orlean wrote in a 2013 New Yorker tribute, when Mr. Mindich announced he was shuttering the publication.

For Mr. Mindich, meanwhile, the biggest challenge was “overcoming the vestiges of the image of an underground paper,” he told the Globe in 1974. He did so by fielding a talented staff.

“He never interfered with the opinions of his writers. Even if he disagreed with something, he didn’t feel that was his role,” Schwartz recalled. “He trusted his writers.”

Schwartz added that “one of the most serious ways of exhibiting that trust was that he had an amazing team of editors. I’ve written for a lot of different places, from The New Yorker on down. I have never had better editors than I had at the Phoenix.”

Mr. Mindich’s insistence that many voices be heard in the chorus of media outlets — a philosophy that found a secure home in the Internet age — meant “he was legitimately thinking five to 10 years ahead of where everybody else was at,” Carioli said in an interview.

Ultimately, however, the Internet’s impact on print publications helped turn the Phoenix from a fat, multisection paper into a smaller tabloid. In March 2013, Mr. Mindich informed the staff that he was closing the publication. Afterward, he told the Globe simply: “I’m numb.”

The older of two brothers, he grew up in New York in the Bronx and in Hempstead, on Long Island. His father, Abraham, was a Ukrainian immigrant who ran a dry-cleaning business. His mother, the former Etta Greenhaus, also worked at the family business, as did Mr. Mindich and his brother.

After graduating from Hempstead High School, Mr. Mindich went to Boston University, where in 1965 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the School of Theatre in the College of Fine Arts. He was a graduate student at what is now BU’s College of Communication when he started working in radio and writing reviews.

Mr. Mindich, whose first two marriages ended in divorce, married Maria Lopez, a former state Superior Court judge, in 1995.

In addition to his wife, son, and daughter-in-law, Mr. Mindich leaves two stepsons, Michael Michaud of San Diego and David Michaud of Chicago; his brother, Bruce, of Ridgewood, N.J.; and two grandsons.

A celebration of Mr. Mindich’s life will be held at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Pine Brook Country Club in Weston.

In 2016, Mr. Mindich was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame for having “shaped the course of New England media, culture, politics, and civic life.”

Over the years, Mr. Mindich was often a fierce presence in Boston media, waging battles with other publications — notably Boston Magazine — that were as legendary as his mentoring. “He could be a Teddy bear,” Schwartz recalled, “but he could also be a grizzly bear.”

For many writers and editors, though, Mr. Mindich “was an incredible mentor” who showed how to keep the powerful accountable. Carioli said. “He was stubborn in the best way. He was principled and itching for a fight, and the fight was always with the forces in power.”

Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.