A trio of odd developments have dropped in the world of print an online media over the last day or two, and none of the three were even conceivable five or 10 years ago. First, magazine giant Conde Nast – which publishes Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker – has bought the music website Pitchfork. Second, Playboy will no longer print photographs of nude women, conceding the role to the Internet’s ample offerings. Third, the Village Voice, the New York-based symbol of the American alternative press, has just been purchased by a man whose flagship publication is a 50,000-or-so daily newspaper in Pennsylvania’s fifth-largest city.
Given the heft the Voice still occupies in the imagination of bohemians, lefties, and writers who came of age from the ‘50s through the ‘90s – as opposed to the paper’s 21st century reality -- this one may be the most startling of them all.
Here’s the New York Times:
The Village Voice, the storied alternative weekly newspaper that helped usher in a new era of journalism after its creation 60 years ago, but that has been struggling to find its way in an era of declining circulations and ad revenues, was sold on Monday to a scion of one of America’s wealthiest families with a long history in newspaper publishing.
Peter D. Barbey, through his investment company Black Walnut Holdings L.L.C., bought the paper from Voice Media Group, which owns a string of weeklies around the country.
Now, there are reasons to be shocked and appalled that the mighty Voice -- which once had a circulation around 250,000 – was sold to the Berks Co.-dwelling publisher of the Reading Eagle, a paper you probably haven’t heard of unless you live in southeastern Pennsylvania. How can some provincial rich guy, who comes from an old family with no apparent ties to bohemianism – you might be asking -- take over a publication that’s served as an important forum for Beats, hippies, radical feminists, early hip-hop culture, identity politics, avant-garde fiction, and lots of other stuff?
But as seemingly straight as Barbey and his company may be, this is about as good an outcome for the Voice as I can imagine in 2015.
Print publications of all kinds have had a tough time in the 21st century, but alternative weeklies have been especially hard hit. The demise of the record stores and video shops where people used to pick them up hasn’t helped, but it's mostly been about advertising leaving print, and the inability of these (mostly) free publications to raise their cover prices to make up for declines in ad revenues has limited their options.
The Los Angeles weekly I once worked for (owned by the company that just sold the Voice) folded in 2002, and things never really got better for the field after that. During and after the economic crash, the extinctions increased, and the papers that survived got thinner.
The once-robust Boston Phoenix died in 2013 after losing roughly $1 million per year. The same year, the Voice’s two leading editors resigned rather than layoff a large proportion of the staff. The collapse or shrinking of other alt-weeklies has continued on schedule; the Philadelphia City Paper printed its final issue last week.
So why does the Voice news make an ink-stained wretch like me uncharacteristically hopeful?
First is that the company that has owned the Voice for the last decade (once called New Times, now, confusingly, called Voice Media Group) was not quite the ideal owner. I worked with talented and serious journalists at New Times, but these guys never really got the Voice (which, admittedly, had been drifting even before the purchase.) The New Times gang let go countless gifted writers including Robert Christgau, who helped invent rock criticism. “They seemed motivated by hatred of everything the alternative press stood for,” former Voice culture-and-politcs writer Tom Carson told me when I wrote a story about trouble at the paper two years ago. “The leftwing politics, the countercultural sensibility, the value placed on intellectualism. These guys were just aggressively demolishing everything that weeklies were good for.”
This is the paper that had once published Jane Jacobs writing on urbanism, Nelson George on "post-soul culture," Manohla Dargis and J. Hoberman on film, as well as pioneering work on the AIDS crisis and the rise of the paranoid right.
I don’t put all the blame on the ownership; market forces were tearing the Voice, and other weeklies, apart as well. These are not likely to abate.
By comparison, some dailies have had better luck through owners that do not require them to make quarter profit reports. Britain’s Guardian became the most credible source of news in the English-speaking world during the years it was owned by a trust. The Boston Globe, which almost collapsed not long ago, seems stable and healthy under the ownership of businessman John W. Henry. Whatever damage he’s done with Amazon, Jeff Bezos has in most ways been good for the Washington Post, and under his ownership that paper has hired rather than fire journalists.
So when Barbey – who has been reading the paper since he was in prep school -- says he’ll invest in the Voice and bolster the staff, it’s worth taking him, for now, at his word. Can he make the paper as vital as it was in its heyday? No; the times are too different. Would it be better if publications of all kinds were supported by ad sales and paid circulation, like most of them used to be? Sure.
Even with the huge number of online outlets, the Voice can still be important. At its best, the alternative press was often sharper at pop culture coverage than mainstream dailies. And while online sources cover some things well, they tend to ignore local reporting and subjects like theater, classical and experimental music, architecture, the coverage of arts institutions and other things not directly tied to celebrities and commerce. There is absolutely a need for a smart and vigorous paper, with a print and web presence, paying attention to overlooked subjects.
Let’s call this unlikely purchase, then, the first good news that this decimated sector has heard in years. Readers – and writers too – could be better for it.