A newspaper box offering copies of the Portland Phoenix is seen in this BDN file photo. Credit: Jake Bleiberg

The Portland Phoenix has suspended publication and its leaders are seeking ways to reboot the 20-year-old alternative weekly newspaper.

“We’ve got to restructure. We just didn’t have enough ads to support the paper,” said Publisher Mark Guerringue late Monday afternoon, adding: “We certainly don’t like to fail. Whatever we can do to bring it back, we’re going to give it the best effort we can.”

The Portland Phoenix is the last surviving publication of the storied Phoenix family of New England alternative newspapers, which included weeklies in Worcester, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island, in addition to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Phoenix, founded in 1966.

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Guerringue, who is also the publisher of the Conway Daily Sun in New Hampshire, acquired the Portland Phoenix from its Boston owners in November of 2014. The tabloid-style newspaper then survived a short, but furious competition with the startup publication Dig Portland, which Guerringue ultimately bought and shut down in early 2015 to eliminate the competition.

In January of 2018, the Phoenix entered into a partnership with the Portland Press Herald, in which the sales and marketing staff of the daily newspaper would handle those duties for the free weekly as well. The Press Herald ownership group would go on to announce it was acquiring half ownership of the Phoenix almost exactly a year ago.

[Press Herald owner to acquire half of Portland alt weekly]

The Phoenix shifted from a weekly to a biweekly in early 2019, but suspended publication after its late February edition, Guerringue said.

“It’s tougher and tougher in print. We lost a couple of advertisers, including a national account, which had nothing to do with the Press Herald,” he said. “Now we’re trying to reorganize.”

Guerringue said that reorganization could take a couple of different paths. Editor Nick Schroeder said he is exploring a nonprofit, membership-based approach as well as “a lot of different models.”

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“There are a few more adventurous avenues for keeping alt weeklies afloat,” Schroeder said. “I think local journalism is a public good and there are a lot of ways to treat that which are more sustainable.”

Guerringue also said the growth of retail marijuana businesses — which he said have been enthusiastic advertisers in alternative publications in other markets, but which have been slow to open in Maine because of uncertainty about regulations — could help the Phoenix bounce back.

“The successful alt weeklies these days are in states where there’s retail cannabis. That’s their wheelhouse. I was really hoping for that, and it still might come through,” Guerringue said. “And if the nonprofit model works, we could bring it back sooner rather than later.”

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