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Remembering Clif Garboden

The life and times of an alternative-media true believer
By PHOENIX STAFF  |  March 4, 2011

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AL GIORDANO (School of Authentic Journalism, Narco News):
A colleague from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) once wrote that Clif Garboden was "as prickly as a porcupine on the outside, but he's a real softie underneath." Phoenician Peter Kadzis, remembering our fallen comrade this week, wrote that Clif "was, perhaps, the world's best loved pain in the ass." Maybe so, but that was a side of Clif that I never saw.

In four years of working under Clif at the Boston Phoenix newsroom on Brookline Avenue, having him edit many of my stories, spending hours a week, cumulatively, with Clif in the smokers' lounge, I can honestly say that Clif was never, not once, "prickly" nor a "pain" to me. And since I'm the sort of prickly pain of punk rock tendencies that revels in pissing people off, and I tend to provoke that kind of behavior out of others more than most, I've had to wrap my little pea brain around such characterizations of Clif and try to figure out what they might possibly mean.

I conclude that Clif was never annoying, nagging or bullying to me for one reason: I was his subordinate. In the newsroom pecking order, I was the lowly political reporter to his managing editor. It wasn't in Clif's DNA to pick on someone less powerful than he. In fact I can't remember any time that Clif berated, tortured or made life difficult for my colleagues or me at the worker-ant desks. To the contrary, he was our advocate with his and our superiors. If I wanted to report a story that executive editor Kadzis or news editor Dan Kennedy didn't see as interesting enough, I'd go to Clif, and he would act as my attorney, taking my case up the ladder, arguing it, getting my arguments the attention I wasn't always able to get for them myself. The more radical or unconventional my proposal, the more enthusiastic Clif would be in promoting it with management. The more controversial or discomforting to those in power a story proposal would be, the greater Clif's determination to shepherd the project through to publication. At times I sensed he won the day for me simply because he exhausted any resistance through sheer persistence. In the newsroom, Clif was the watchdog for the underdog.

In that context, I can see how those on the receiving end of Clif's advocacy might have remembered him differently than I do. I'm heartened to know that he could be "prickly" or a "pain" when acting as our attorney. Now I know why he was so successful in carrying the day for some of my most radical or unconventional proposals. He'd been navigating newsrooms for almost 30 years already, and he hadn't turned 50 yet. He knew what it took to get things done.

Clif had been around alternative newsweeklies since the era when they were born. He was witness to the dawn of "market research" and "targeting" and "word processors" and other technologies around which the genre evolved and changed, and not always for the better. The Phoenix newsroom of 1993-96 had the true believer in investigative journalism Tim Sandler, the artful, humorous and angst-filled creative writer (now the late) Caroline Knapp, the roustabout Mark Jurkowitz who rewrote the book on how to do media criticism, the young longhaired rock critic Carly Carioli (who would stroll into the office the next morning in the same ratty T-shirt that I had seen him wear at the Morphine or Dambuilders show the night before), the aforementioned Kennedy and Kadzis, the superb arts and music writers Brett Milano, John Garelick, Peter Keough, Jeffrey Gantz, and more. Henry Santoro was over at WFNX and Sue O'Connell was co-hosting the One in Ten radio show there between selling ads for the business side of the paper. Robert Bernstein and Robin Lapidus at Stuff magazine, keeping intellectualism alive. The food critic known as Robert Nadeau, who got me more than a few free meals on his tab and ushered me into the Internet. And Clif was our big brother, even to those who were chronologically his senior, our guide, our Yoda, the one who had seen it all, who had been at this work longer than all of us, who knew alternative news inside and out and would do anything for the sake of the project, especially when it involved making the newspaper better.

When the Phoenix opened a newspaper in Worcester, it was Clif who went out there to set it up. Want to do it in Maine? Send Clif. Is there some kind of grunt work job that nobody really wants to be the one to do? More often than not it would be Clif who ended up with the gig. He loved the newspaper, and especially the journalism part of it.

The last time I saw Clif was in Tucson, Arizona in June of 2009. He had convinced the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies to fly me up from Mexico and to listen to what I had to say about authentic journalism. And there were a few true believers left, like Tim Redmond of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. But for the most part, hanging around the happy hour tables with the publishers, the editors, the ad sales reps, the corporate representatives from the chains that have gobbled many of the AAN newspapers (Stephen Mindich's Phoenix and Bruce Brugmann's Bay Guardian are among the survivors), I was struck by how much everything had changed. The few remaining journalists attending the affair would huddle around Clif, wherever he was seated, asking him to tell war stories of the early years of alternative newspapers, jaw agape at the glory days, and I realized at that moment that my newsroom big brother was the conscience of an entire industry, the one who kept reminding everyone that there is, or ought to be, more to newspapers than mere business.

Now that conscience is gone. We don't have Clif anymore to remind us of the right thing to do or of the higher callings of journalism. All that's left of him are his countless works of writing, editing, and photography, and those visions of him that remain in our memories. The only path that conscience of journalism has now is through all of us. That's the part of him that still lives. Keep Clif alive.

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