'Village Voice' Changes with the New Times
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A newspaper that chronicles social change is undergoing some changes itself. The Village Voice is a weekly. It was founded more than five decades ago by the writer Norman Mailer and other leaders of the New York counterculture - who told stories of beatniks and gays and dissenters. It investigated politicians and became a fixture on the left.
Then the Voice was purchased by New Times, a chain of weeklies in a major consolidation of the Alternative Press. NPR's David Folkenflik reports on what happened next.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:
Michael Lacey is the top editor at what was the New Times Company. Now he's the boss over the Village Voice, too. Lacey made a big impression on Voice media critic, Sidney Schamberg, earlier this year, at the first meeting with staffers at the cavernous newsroom in East Greenwich Village.
Mr. SIDNEY SCHAMBERG (Media Critic): It lasted about an hour and a half and it was brutal.
FOLKENFLIK: Schamberg won a Pulitzer Prize for the New York Times in 1976 for his coverage of the carnage in Cambodia and had been at the Village Voice for several years. He says Lacey scorned at the paper's journalism, saying it was dominated by cultural critics and thumb-sucking columnists. Lacey accused reporters of being stenographers and ideologues.
Mr. SCHAMBERG: So I said, don't you think you went overboard and that was unfair? And he said, so I was unfair. He said, I don't care what gets this staff aroused, even if it's the fact that they get pissed off at me. And I just said to him, I'm not pissed off at you. I don't even know you.
FOLKENFLIK: Schamberg quit shortly after the exchange. The paper also fired long time Washington bureau chief, James Richway. Much of the newsroom protested, saying it betrayed the Voice's tradition of keen reporting on national issues. More than a dozen other staffers have also been fired or left. But then, the Voice has always been a fractious place. Take it from a Greenwich Village attorney who's fond of it.
Mr. ED KOCH (Attorney): We represented the Voice for $50.00 a month. (laughter) But it was a labor of love.
FOLKENFLIK: If he sounds familiar, maybe he should. He went on to a better paying gig.
Mr. KOCH: My name is Ed Koch. I'm a practicing lawyer. I was once mayor of New York city.
FOLKENFLIK: When Koch took office in 1978, the Voice gave him its full editorial support. But new owners arrived and Koch came under unexpected fire from the Voice. Still, he always made sure to read it. Now, Koch says, the Voice doesn't have the same impact. He isn't the only one.
Ward Harkavy is the acting editor. He's been on staff since 2000.
Mr. WARD HARKAVY (Acting Editor, Village Voice): I think Lacey's criticism of the paper was pretty much right on the mark that we have more columnists than reporters basically. This is New York City, for God's sakes, there are a million stories out there.
FOLKENFLIK: Harkavy worked for Lacey before, in Phoenix, where Lacey built up the New Times chain on edgy local reporting. And Harkavy says Lacey will make good on his promises to breathe new life into the Voice's journalism and its profits.
Mr. HARKAVY: He isn't a guy in a suit. He's interested in good stories.
FOLKENFLIK: But the Voice's past ability to find new ways to cover the city and its culture, has inspired generations of writers. Tom Robbins is on his second tour as a reporter there and loves the Voice's 50th Anniversary issue. One article reprinted from the early days announced Norman Mailer would be writing a regular column.
Mr. TOM ROBBINS (Author, Reporter; Village Voice): I think that lasted for about a year, and then Mailer denounced the Voice because of the fact that they had changed some of the punctuation in his stories.
FOLKENFLIK: Robbins says for decades, readers turned to the Voice for a mix of pungent cultural criticism.
Mr. ROBBINS: Here's another piece by another rock critic Bob Christgau reporting on punk rock music, a group called the Sex Pistols, in 1978.
FOLKENFLIK: And backstage political deals the major papers hadn't uncovered.
Mr. ROBBINS: ...about a guy named Donald Trump. It was the first substantive piece every written about him. And Wayne's take off, was comparing him to Trump's father. And the title of the piece is Like Father Like Son: Anatomy of a Young Power Broker.
FOLKENFLIK: But the Voice's history hasn't protected it from web based advertising services like Craigslist and Match.com or free sites with criticism and snarky gossip. Two people with direct knowledge of the Voice's finances, say revenues are down and profits are dropping even more quickly. They believe the Voice can't offer new investors promised profits, without deeper cuts in the newsroom.
Lacey wouldn't comment about that. Editors at other New Times publications, say they've prospered under Lacey and CEO Jim Larkin. CJ Janovy worked at the weekly Kansas City Pitch before it was bought by New Times.
CJ JANOVY (Editor, Kansas City Pitch): In those days, I think my salary in the beginning was part movie passes and restaurant trade.
FOLKENFLIK: Janovy says the ambitions were high, but the staff was spread too thin to pay enough attention to the articles.
Ms. JANOVY: They were not as thoroughly reported as they could have been, and they were - certainly we didn't have enough time to think about the writing.
FOLKENFLIK: When New Times took over The Pitch, they made her the editor. Janovy says she has broad latitude to run the paper and break stories. But editors at rival alternative papers in Seattle and San Francisco say there's a cookie-cutter mentality that makes Lacey's papers barely distinguishable.
At The Voice, Lacey has taken a hands-on approach, and there seems to be a cost. Erik Wemple was named The Voice's editor several weeks ago. His starting date was set for July 24th. He's editor of the Washington D.C. City Paper, also a weekly, and was interviewed shortly after the interview was made public. Wemple has never worked in New York, but spent weeks reading back issues of The Voice.
Mr. ERIK WEMPLE (Editor, Washington City Newspaper): And it seemed competent to me, and some of it really good, but not stuff that's going to knock you off your feet. My job at the Voice is to try to produce great journalism as frequently as possible.
FOLKENFLIK: Only that won't be his job at all. Wemple recently reversed course, deciding against joining the Voice. He won't comment other than to say he disagrees with the owners about their management strategy.
Michael Lacey issued a statement suggesting Wemple had been surprised to learn that his new bosses would be so involved in running the paper. But Lacey wouldn't talk to NPR for this story, despite repeated and detailed requests for comment.
Tom Robbins, the Voice political reporter, says he's seen some signs Lacey does value good journalism.
Mr. TOM ROBBINS (Political Reporter, Village Voice): I'm more appreciative of the fact that I've got more elbow room. And perhaps these guys, when they came in, they said we believe in a good read. We think that we're looking for pieces that people want to read.
FOLKENFLIK: But he says the Voice can't be shorn of its ideological identity.
Mr. ROBBINS: I think that the Voice has always been placed on the left side of the spectrum, and that's not a mistake. That's where it is. But I think it gets there for good reasons. I don't think the Voice works at a place that's deneutered of its politics.
FOLKENFLIK: The Voice hasn't totally changed its ways, at least not yet.
A recent cover depicted President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney locked in romantic embrace.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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