Will someone please buy ‘The Village Voice’ back from Phoenix?

Some Village Voices of yore. ()
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The Village Voice is not for sale. But somebody needs to save it, and that means somebody needs to find a way to buy it.

It needs to be saved from its disastrous involvement in the adult-services advertising business. Perhaps more importantly, it needs to be saved from the "alternative press" culture at its Phoenix-based parent company, a culture that in a vacuum is noble and out in the world is broadly successful and even journalistically sound, but which doesn't work for the city or for the Voice.

The Voice has always been a problem child for its owner, Village Voice Media, which acquired the paper and several others it owned and operated back in 2005. It's the marquee title in the company's stable of newspapers—the buyers, New Times Media, even changed their name to emphasize the Voice brand.

It's often said, carelessly I think, that the Voice is the grandfather paper of the "alternative newsweekly" tradition in American journalism. In fact, the purposes and character of the Voice have always been subtly different from the purposes and characters of "alt" papers like the Twin Cities' City Pages, Chicago's Chicago Reader, the City Papers of Washington and Baltimore, and the New Times papers of Phoenix and Miami. (To a greater or lesser degree, these have all also been subtly different from each other; but our topic here is New York.) It's a subtlety that makes a difference, and that has been the source of much of the internal tension at the paper, at which tumult has been a rule since its founding, but which has become a particularly nasty place to be these last seven years. 

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LET'S START WITH THE CURRENT PROBLEM: Backpage.com.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's January 25 column, "How Pimps Use the Web to Sell Girls," established pretty convincingly that the erotic-services advertising website owned by Village Voice Media was used to promote prostitution, and often violent and usurious forms of the practice.

Kristof's column came late in the game: Interest groups and nonprofits that fight sex trafficking had been complaining about Backpage.com for some time. But Kristof's column became a sort of crusade for the paper, and it had legs.

Kristof subsequently investigated the ownership of Backpage.com, and when he began asking questions of Goldman Sachs about their ownership stake in Village Voice Media, they abruptly unloaded their $30 million, 16-percent share in the company.

Goldman's shame had chiseled away one chunk of V.V.M.'s financial security.

But that's the thing: V.V.M., which owns and operates more than a dozen alternative weekly newspapers in cities across the country in addition to Backpage.com, isn't that secure anyway. The reasons for this are much bigger than The Village Voice itself. Yes, it was outside the offices of The Village Voice that local protesters, including a son of Voice co-founder Norman Mailer, congregated to protest the continued operation of Backpage.com. But the business is controlled by Village Voice Media, and for them, unloading Backpage.com is not an option. 

According to AIM Group, a media consultancy, Backpage.com earned $23.9 million in revenue in the 12 months ending in December 2011. That's revenue the company needs to stay in business. That's especially true after the company's crushing 2010 loss in a California appeals court on an antitrust judgment; the verdict compelled the company, with legal fees and interest, to fork over an estimated $22 million. (It's not clear what the company will actually end up paying, or when.)

Village Voice Media needs Backpage.com, but that doesn't mean it's clear whether the website will continue to earn the company what it does now.

Consider the fact that most of Backpage.com's business arrived after the popular city classifieds website Craig's List dropped out of the adult-services classifieds business in the fall of 2010. That year, Craig's List was on track to earn $44.6 million in revenue from those ads. It appears that Backpage.com only captured about half that in 2011. Combine that with the fact that Backpage.com reportedly accounts for a full 70 percent of the total business in the United States, and the incredibly lucrative business actually looks a lot less promising. Expansions increased revenue in the last half of the last year, but apparently this is just not as big a business as it was two years ago.

The considerable moral campaign against Backpage.com for its alleged role in trafficking minors can't be a help. The campaign was strong enough to make Craig Newmark walk away from nearly $45 million in revenue. Already, it has cost the Voice a major investor and some advertisers for its newspapers and websites.

Pressure is mounting on the political side, too. The National Association of Attorneys General has issued a letter signed by the top prosecutors of 48 states asking Village Voice Media to drop Backpage.com. In Washington State, a bipartisan bill has passed that makes it illegal to knowingly publish advertisements for adult services that result in the exploitation of minors. There is every reason to believe that, should it come to it, the constitutionality of that law and others like it will be questioned; the First Amendment is, after all, sacrosanct. But the political fights that the website will create for the company come at a high price both in terms of the continuing stability of its alternative weekly brands and real money and time, and make me worry for the future of the Voice.

OF COURSE, ALL THIS STARTS FROM THE ASSUMPTION that the Voice is worth saving. 

It was November of 2005 when New Times Media, as it was then called, completed its merger with the company that owned The Village Voice and six other weeklies in a $400 million deal that gave New Times shareholders 62 percent of the company and five seats on its board, forming a giant chain of 17 alternative newsweeklies with a combined circulation of 7.6 million, giving the new company, which took the name Village Voice Media, 25 percent of the total number of alternative weekly titles in the country. 

At the time, Mike Lacey, the top editorial guy for the new company, told The New York Observer he was searching for a new editor; he or she did not have to be a New Yorker.

"That would be a real plus, but ultimately, it’s the writers who have to know New York City," he told Gabriel Sherman. "It’s not like any city is unknowable, or unlearnable. The question is: Will they put in the effort to work all the time to grasp this place?"

To many of us in local New York journalism, Lacey's critiques, if a bit macho and not quite idiomatic to New Yorkers, were at least bracing at a time when the Voice seemed to need it somewhat.

But really, the first things to drop out of the paper were among the most beloved and important. The interview was conducted five months after the merger, at which point 17 of The Village Voice's 60-person staff had quit or been fired. Media columnist Sydney Schanberg had just quit, and music editor Chuck Eddy and Washington correspondent James Ridgeway had been fired.

Sherman described a pitched battle between the Voice and its new management. In interviews with Lacey and others, the differences are pretty clear. They are the same things that had always been different about the Voice, different from the alternative newsweekly cultures of other cities. Phoenix-based Lacey knew what he was about: reporting. And he thought the idea of an alternative newspaper was to report things other people weren't interested in reporting.

That's not what the Voice had been. And New York isn't Phoenix. 

Most people would agree it's the job of a newspaper to speak to its readers. What sometimes gets lost is that it is the job of some newspapers to speak for them, too. That's the case with the Voice.

The Village Voice was founded in 1955 by a bunch of nonprofessionals and one real journalist (John Wilcock: he's the one whose name you never hear over the noise of Ed Fancher, Dan Wolf, and, especially, Norman Mailer, who brought money to the deal as well as his name as a novelist; read an excellent comic about it here.) The objective, according to Wolf's introduction to The Village Voice Reader (1962), of "[jamming] the gears of creeping automatism." (Hat tip to Louis Menand, whose 2009 piece about the Voice in The New Yorker is available online and a must-read, for this and much else here.)

There is much romance around the founding of the Voice, but very little of the 1955 version of the newspaper survives today. It's not actually a tragedy at all. There have been several Village Voices over the years; many histories of the paper stop around 1978, and that's when, one way or another, the Voice starts looking like the one we know now.

But one thing about the Voice has never changed: It has always been a retort to pisse copie, as the writer Boris Vian put it. Menand identifies the pisse cope of the Voice as one Mary McCarthy:

In 1950, McCarthy needed money, and, through the good offices of her friend Arthur Schlesinger, she contracted to write a ten-part series for the New York Post on “Greenwich Village at Night.” McCarthy had lived in the Village in the nineteen-thirties, and she found, upon revisiting, that the place wasn’t what it used to be. She felt comfortable in the San Remo, which she called “the Café de Flore of the Village,” but most of her reports were about (to use her terms) the fairies, the pansies, the rough trade, and the dikes. The Village of her pieces was a louche and depressing sexual playground. Nothing could scandalize McCarthy, of course: to promote the series, the Post reprinted her short story about casual train sex, “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt.” But she expressed well the sensation of having been slumming, and her series performed the same function that “Sex and the City” did later on: it brought in the tourists.

The Village Voice was the voice of the Village, and the voice of the village carried far north of 14th Street, across rivers and mountains like the ones in that famous New Yorker cartoon that maps out the world as parochial New Yorkers see it. It was the authentic voice of New York nonconformism, the adolescent id of the city. 

It was not leftism (in fact, certainly not leftism, in the early days); just a certain discomfort with the state of the discourse, its disingenuousness to lived experience, its lack of nuance and its false objectivity. The official voice of New York is a lot like the rest of the world: Sententious, brokered to death, calculated to persuade, shallow. Automatic.

The mainstream media was not much different. (And in fact, for a period, neither was the Voice, because success always makes you a grown-up: By the late '60s the Voice had become identified with Village Independent Democrats—the home political club of Ed Koch—and the Lindsay administration. "Koch and Lindsay," Menand writes, "were not men looking to overthrow the system.")

It's the post-Koch New York that formed the basis for the best version of the Voice in the last three decades. All that history with the beatniks, the folkies, the hippies, the downtown New School smart set, were part of the formation of the paper's personality, but it was under the ownership of Carter Burden and afterwards that the Voice becomes the hometown paper of the downtown club scenes, the practitioners of experimental theater, the Soho galleries, the Christopher Street gay scene (only after protests, though!). Those strands joined Andrew Sarris' highbrow film criticism, Nat Hentoff's eccentric beautiful harangues, Jules Feiffer's soft lacerations of New York speech acts and national policy both; together, they became something exciting, rebellious and different.