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The Life & Death of a Newspaper

After 62 years in print, America’s preeminent alternative weekly is ending its print edition

Steven Wishnia Sep 20

Issue 228

When I got out of journalism school in the late 1980s, working at the Village Voice would have been my dream job.

The Voice, founded in 1955, defined the format for the “alternative weeklies” that would appear in most of the country’s major cities over the next 50 years, from the Boston Phoenix to the L.A. Weekly: A mix of news, investigative, and arts coverage with local entertainment listings, left of the mainstream both politically and culturally. They weren’t as militantly radical or hippiefied as the “underground” papers that proliferated in the late ’60s, but their writing and editing was much more professional. Few of the undergrounds survived past 1972. (The Indypendent has lasted 17 years.)

As a weekly paper in the pre-Internet era, it could do stories more in-depth than a daily newspaper and more timely than a monthly. The Voice tracked how South Bronx landlords sold buildings to shell companies to pump up their value before torching them for insurance money. Jack Newfield and Paul DuBrul dissected the “permanent government” of finance and real-estate interests that came to dominate the city after the 1975-76 fiscal crisis, and Newfield and Wayne Barrett chronicled the corruption of Edward Koch’s administration. Barrett’s 1979 piece on a certain loudmouthed real-estate scion wangling government subsidies to build hotels and towers in Manhattan, despite his family business’s history of discriminating against black apartment-seekers, was particularly prescient.

The Voice gave writers like Jill Nelson, Greg Tate, and Nelson George the freedom and resources to write in their own styles and do long, in-depth stories, earning it the reputation of a “writers’ paper.” When four teenagers in a New Jersey suburb committed suicide in 1987, writer Donna Gaines spent weeks hanging out with the town’s “burnouts” for a piece titled “Teenage Wasteland.” On the lighter side, there was Michael Musto’s gossip column, with its blind-item specials like “What ostensibly straight Broadway producer…?”

Equally important, it was rigorously edited. One writer praised music editor Robert Christgau as “someone who has never let me get away with a lazy thought.”

The Voice’s arts editors were all deeply steeped in the scenes they covered — film, theater, dance, music, art, books. In contrast to today, when performers seeking an audience either have to keep dragging their friends out or spend hours promoting themselves online, a mention in the Voice would mean lots of strangers knew who you were. Off-off-Broadway theatre and the  late-’70s Lower Manhattan music scene would not have developed the cultural legs they did without the exposure they got in the Voice.

This cut both ways. People who didn’t get covered often resented arts-section editors for excluding them; Sonic Youth once recorded a song joking about killing Robert Christgau. The post-modernism fad of the ’80s meant a lot of insufferably pretentious and incomprehensible prose made it in, like a music piece that talked more about Jacques Derrida than the band at CBGB it was reviewing.

There were several reasons for the Voice’s decline. The archetypal readers it imagined — bohemian and educated enough to go to foreign films or catch Cecil Taylor at the Knitting Factory or Patti Smith at the St. Marks Poetry Project, and who also cared about politics and could afford to buy unfinished bookcases and platform beds — gradually disappeared as Manhattan gentrified.

Competition from the New York Press forced it to go free in the early ’90s, cutting off its newsstand revenue. The Press at first gave an outlet to good writers who couldn’t find room at the Voice, but by 1994 or so, it had adopted a pre-Internet form of flame bait as its business model: Publish something obnoxious, like their rock critic saying he didn’t give a shit about rich rock star Kurt Cobain killing himself, and get enough articulate angry letters to fill eight pages without having to pay writers. The Press’s political writers often came off like minor-league right-wingers trying to snark their way onto the New York Post’s op-ed page, but between gentrification and the number of people who didn’t want to pay a dollar to get the club listings, it ate into the Voice’s circulation.

The internet and concentration of ownership decimated alternative weeklies. Classified ads moved online, from apartments (the most avid and savvy apartment-seekers would grab the Voice the minute it came off the first truck at the newsstand in Cooper Square on Tuesday night) to personals to musicians (“Health Hen seeks drummer. Rude, obsessive, with a feel for tribal meters”). The paper got thinner and thinner, with the phone-sex ads in the backfilling more pages than the news and cultural coverage. When the Phoenix-based New Times chain took over the Voice in 2005, the paper dumped many of its remaining staff — and advertised for a film writer who preferred Hollywood blockbusters to foreign art movies. The layoff of Wayne Barrett in 2011 may have been its nadir.

New owner Peter Barbey, who acquired the paper in 2015, tried to rejuvenate it, beefing up news coverage and bringing back book reviews, but eventually decided that print was not sustainable. The decision to go web-only was preceded by the layoff of almost all the remaining union staff.

I got a chip of my dream job when I got a feature published in 1994, breaking the story that the city planned to evict five squats on East 13th Street and give them to a housing-development nonprofit formerly run by the Lower East Side’s Giuliani-Democrat City Councilmember. (It was a little incestuous: The squatters I interviewed for it were mostly friends from the neighborhood.) My editor, Andrew Hsiao, spent four hours going over the story with me line by line, and I got paid more than a month’s rent for an 1,800-word article. That seems like an unimaginable luxury in today’s media world.

It didn’t last: I did several more articles for them over the next year or so, but then both of the editors I was working with left, a perennial peril in the life of a freelancer. I didn’t get back in until last year. Now I have the historical footnote of being one of the writers in Sept. 20’s final print edition, with stories on the history of landlords harassing tenants as a business model and on local Virgin Islanders and Antiguan-Barbudans organizing hurricane-relief efforts.

The Voice follows the San Francisco Bay Guardian to online-only publishing. The  Boston Phoenix folded in 2013, and the Philadelphia City Paper in 2015. The L.A. Weekly and the Chicago Reader have survived, but suffered severe layoffs. The few alternative weeklies still going strong include the Austin Chronicle, the St. Louis Riverfront Times and the Seattle Stranger.

Publishing on the web is much easier and cheaper than print. All you have to do is upload content to a server, and there are no worries about space. You don’t have to worry about how to fit and fill and lay out a designated number of pages, print and collate thousands of copies, and truck them to distribution points — all long after similar material is available online.

But something is irrevocably lost for that cheapness and instantaneousness. People’s attention spans, and arguably the way their brains process information, are different on a screen, snipping quick bits off the chyron instead of slowing down to concentrate on a long-form story with nuance and detail. The lack of revenue and demand for immediacy online mean writers usually don’t make enough money to research in-depth stories, and they are often posted with minimal editing. For all the “you can be the media” rhetoric and complaints about “gatekeepers,” there’s value in an article that’s been knowledgeably reported, written well, and professionally edited and fact-checked.

More important socially, print provides a common, public point of reference. Like it or not, agree or disagree, you see the headlines on the subway, and people you know and many you don’t know will be talking about it, far more than in the morass of myriad niche markets and insular subcultures on the web. The difference is akin to that between the specialization of a website for gay men who like Asian bears, and the catholicity of a small-city queer bar that draws in both gay men, lesbians and the artier local heteros.

That’s what the Village Voice was to New York City for decades. It will continue to publish online, and I hope it succeeds — not least because I hope to continue writing for it regularly — but its end as a printed newspaper is a tragedy for the city.

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Photo: TURNING A PAGE: The Village Voice published its last print edition on Sept. 20. Credit: Mike Ackerman.