The Lives and Deaths of ‘The Village Voice’

The Lives and Deaths of ‘The Village Voice’

The Lives and Deaths of ‘The Village Voice’

After 62 years, the alt-weekly has stopped its print run. But some still see life in it yet.


Last week, after 62 years as a presence on the streets of NYC, The Village Voice published its final print issue. On the cover was a 1965 black-and-white photo of Bob Dylan saluting, taken by a legendary Voice photographer, the late Fred McDarrah. Is Dylan there to reassure us that he who isn’t busy rebranding as a digital-only platform is busy dying? By that measure, the Voice is alive.

Readers who loved the Voice—including me, and I got to work there and ultimately write a column from 1985 to 1997—have needed reassurance that the paper wasn’t dying dozens of times over those six decades. The Voice was always dying, if only because the street life of any creative ethos in New York is so short.

But this death feels different.

In August, when Voice owner Peter Barbey announced that the storied newspaper would henceforth publish only online, he was greeted with headlines like “The Village Voice As We Knew Her Is Dead (For Real This Time).” The death knells only grew louder with the news, about a week later, that Barbey—a very wealthy liberal who was regarded as the Voice’s savior when he purchased the paper in 2015—would lay off 13 of the remaining 17 Voice union members, effectively busting the union.

And so when 300 former (and a few current) Voice staffers and freelancers gathered for the first-ever Village Voice reunion in early September, it did at times feel like a wake. But the party was planned long before the news of the paper’s folding. In fact, the former Voice writer Mike Tomasky had been batting around the idea of a reunion with some of us other ex-Voice-ers for a few years. But after the deaths, last January, of two Voice pillars, Nat Hentoff and Wayne Barrett, there was a new urgency to get together before, frankly, more of us died.

Maybe it’s true of all reunions, but inevitably the theme was mortality—of the old Voice, of print journalism, of ourselves. But, if this makes sense, it was a good mortality. “I’m really glad we’re doing this,” former managing editor Dave Herndon shouted from a stage, as he and other formers took turns reading the names of the 130 Voice people who had died—“because we’re all going to be on this list some day! And we’ll be lucky to be on this motherfucking list!”

However, many attendees did not expect that we’d be joined by Ed Fancher, 94, who founded the paper with Norman Mailer and Dan Wolf, the first editor, in 1955. In his brief remarks from the stage, Fancher seemed to bring it all home. He said that the three Voice founders were all World War II veterans, and that the Voice was a result of that war, of “a feeling that there should be an open society, and that would require an open sort of newspaper, which The Village Voice was.”

When it started, the Voice was a kind of weekly criticism of the sponsored journalism that dominated both the tabloid and the broadsheet newspapers (there once were so many!) in the city. It was an open paper, as Fancher later told me by phone, in that you could pretty much write about whatever you wanted—not so unlike social media today. “The whole idea of the Voice,” said Fancher, “was that people on the street could come and write articles, and if the editor was impressed with their sincerity and intelligence,” the Voice would publish it. If you could stack side-by-side the ironies of the Voice’s many lives and deaths, this would probably rank as one of the greatest: The Voice’s sensibility has over the years so thoroughly infiltrated most contemporary journalism that it no longer stands out in the marketplace.

The Voice was an original, but it wasn’t unprecedented. More than two centuries ago, French newspapers began printing a feuilleton—a supplement, or “leaf,” attached to political or business pages—that talked about the arts, literature, culture, fashion, and, of course, gossip, in a personal style. Later, especially in Vienna, the feuilleton became a form of journalism in which coverage of the arts and fashion was informed by politics, and vice versa.

It’s a little hard to imagine today, when the most linked-to piece on might be a recap of Game of Thrones, but that kind of journalism was once frowned upon in America—or at least relegated to the supermarket tabs. Before World War II, there were the “little magazines,” aimed at a small, discerning class of serious readers. But there was nothing like the Voice, a pop tabloid that often gave the impression that it was being written at ground zero of the postwar cultural shift.

At a time when editors at other newspapers frequently trimmed and rewrote whatever a journalist submitted without fear of argument, the Voice let writing breathe and individuals find the space to be heard. That’s what made the paper both ahead of the establishment rags on major cultural trends and so frequently rent with bitter in-house feuds: The kids ran the school.

When I called Fancher at his Gramercy Park home, I also asked him to explain why he linked World War II to the Voice. “For a long time, I felt people didn’t appreciate that The Village Voice was a really a product of World War II,” he said. “Mailer wrote a novel about it, Dan Wolf was in the Army under General MacArthur. I was in Italy fighting the Germans in the 10th Mountain Division.

“I can’t speak for Norman very much, but we felt we should make the world a better place. The world was a wild and insane place then; more than 60 million people were killed. To have an open newspaper was a contribution.”

We should pause here: This being the Voice, even the number of founders is in dispute. Fancher told me he counts as founders only the three men who put up money to create the paper, meaning Wolf, Mailer, and himself. But you’ll sometimes see references to five founders. The fourth would be early Voice editor, theater critic, and creator of the Obie Awards Jerry Tallmer, who died in 2014 at age 95. The fifth founder would be British journalist and travel writer John Wilcock, now 90 and living in Ojai, California.

“I was the one newspaper-experienced founder who persuaded Fancher and Dan Wolf to actually found the paper,” Wilcock e-mailed me last week. “Mailer, who provided the title, dropped out after three or four issues.”

As he details in the “comic book history of the rise of the 1960s underground media,” John Wilcock: New York Years, Book One, by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall, Wilcock said that, soon after arriving in New York, he put up a notice in a Sheridan Square bookstore asking who wanted to start a community paper that wasn’t as stuffy as The Villager, then the only newspaper in the neighborhood (he says it’s changed for the better since). Wilcock talked up the idea with Fancher and Wolf, and about a year later the Voice was launched. Wilcock wrote a column for 10 years, and then left to edit the new East Village Other; he later went on to start Interview magazine with Andy Warhol.

“I haven’t read the Voice in years,” Wilcock wrote in his e-mail. “Over the years it became increasingly tame (as it seemed to me) compared with the more ‘revolutionary’ world in which I was working. ”

“Wilcock felt we didn’t love him enough,” Fancher told me. This surely qualifies as the Voice’s longest-running feud, and has the hallmarks of the genre (a dispute over credit or blame, hurt feelings, and some ideological head-butting). It was longer even than that infamous fight over a typo. Tallmer had accidentally altered that most Maileresque of words, “nuance,” to “nuisance.” Mailer had a fit and quit. But, says Fancher, “Years later when we were selling the Voice, Norman said, ‘You and Dan were right and I was wrong. You did a terrific job.’”

Tallmer “really had the right to be considered a founder but wasn’t technically,” Fancher says. “He came from The Nation.” (There’s a long line of NationVoice and Voice-Nation crossovers—including Don Guttenplan, Joe Conason, Esther Kaplan, the late Alexander Cockburn, and myself—that continues to this day. The Nation Institute, where Wayne Barrett became a reporting fellow after being fired from the Voice in 2010, is now launching a Wayne Barrett Investigative Fund.)

“Tallmer’s mission was to put the ‘I’ in newspaper criticism,” Louis Menand wrote in 2009. “Impersonality and objectivity are part of the ethic of journalistic identity,” yet the “Voice showed that you could disrespect these idols and still sell newspapers.” And really sell them. “Between 1955 and 1962,” Menand adds, the Voice “lost nearly sixty thousand dollars; the combined salaries of its editor and its publisher, for that entire period, was eighteen thousand dollars. But, when it hit the black, it got very fat very quickly.” By 1968, the “typical issue was eighty pages; two-thirds of the book was advertising.” Suddenly, a paper written by scamps was a commodity, worth many millions.

In the early years, says Fancher, they tried to keep editorial and advertising separate, but only in a typically ad hoc, Voice-y way. “We didn’t let salesmen bug the editorial writers.” Yet, he admits, “We had a food writer who wrote reviews of restaurants, and the salesman who sold the advertising for a particular restaurant told Dan, ‘You have to tell that writer to take it easy on us.’ Dan said, ‘Fine, we’ll fire him,’ and he did, because he didn’t want to be bothered with ad people.”

In 1977, Rupert Murdoch bought the Voice (it was extra baggage that came with the purchase of New York magazine). Soon after taking possession, Murdoch fired one of the paper’s best-loved editors, Marianne Partridge, for running a Joe Conason cover story about a dodgy Tribeca loft landlord. “See,” Joe wrote in a recent Facebook post, “‘The Loftlord Tapes’ clashed with that week’s loft advertising supplement.”

Around that time, publishing was undergoing major changes, which had the effect of turning papers and magazines away from competing for readers toward competing for advertisers. By then, the Voice specialized in (at least) three types of stories that you’d rarely find elsewhere: unique personal accounts, like Karen Durbin’s “On Being a Woman Alone”; investigative reporting that the mainstream media would not touch, either because it might offend advertisers or the powers that be; and original, boundary-busting music, art, and culture criticism.

I started writing about advertising for the Voice in 1985. The longtime editor Richard Goldstein had not only “invented rock criticism,” as Bob Christgau said recently, he dreamt up the idea of weekly ad criticism outside of a trade publication like AdAge or Adweek. When they critiqued an ad strategy, it was usually to judge if it “worked” (did it sell the product or did its message “cut through the clutter” of other ads?). The Voice allowed me—expected me—to do something different, to use ads as a lens to look at society and politics.

For the most part, I felt free to say what I wanted—the bulk of Voice advertisers were small businesses, like futon shops or record stores, and I usually focused on big, national TV campaigns. If a Voice advertiser complained (as I later heard some beer and cigarette companies did), the top editors kept me in the dark. I had the chance to dissect and play with the very thing that fueled most media, the thing that was shaping the national discourse and even people’s private dreams. No one else was doing that. Only the Voice.

At one point in our talk, Fancher read me one of Wolf’s first lines in The Village Voice Reader, published in 1962: “We wanted to jam the gears of creeping automatism.” Advertising is the lifeblood of American popular media, especially print publications, and especially those handed out to readers for free. (I left in 1997, shortly after it went free, to have a baby and to write a book.)

The current Voice owner, Peter Barbey, argues, in his statement about the paperless future, that when the paper went free in 1996, Craigslist had just started, and Google and Facebook “weren’t yet glimmers in the eyes of their founders, and alternative weeklies—and newspapers everywhere—were still packed with classified advertising.”

Since then, “The newspaper business has moved online—and so has the Voice’s audience.” The medium, he’s saying, is less important than the brand. “The most powerful thing about The Voice wasn’t that it was printed on newsprint or that it came out every week,” Barbey said. “It was that The Village Voice was alive, and that it changed in step with and reflected the times and the ever-evolving world around it.” The Voice, he assures us, will “continue as a brand with its digital platform as well as a host of new events, products, and initiatives.”

And, well, what was so special about printing words on paper? Words are words; does it matter if you read them in ink on dried wood pulp instead of on a screen?

As far as words alone go, maybe not. Most of the former Voice-ers who bemoan the loss of paper spend much of their time online. (How did I ever write without linking?) And for two years, our Voice alum Facebook group has been lobbying for the establishment of a digital archive before the yellowing pages of bound copies turn to dust. (In the last issue, the current editor, Stephen Mooallem, made news by saying the Voice would create digital archives “in the very near future.”)

But the paper was a lot more than just words. It was a living gallery for cartoonists, photographers, and artists of all kinds. Sure, their extraordinary work—some of it featured in the last issue here and here—will still appear online, but because their art was printed on paper it could be clipped and hung on refrigerators, telephone poles, and doors throughout the city. And it was.

No paper also means no covers. Covers can have impact like nothing else. Did Donald Trump lie about how many times he’d been lead story on the homepage? No, he lied about how many times he’d been on the cover of Time magazine.

Still, a newspaper can live without paper. It’s much harder to live with a dispirited staff. In 2015, when Peter Barbey bought the Voice, he was seen as a deep-pocketed, liberal savior who actually liked the Voice. He brought back some of the staffers, like critics Michael Feingold and Elizabeth Zimmer, who’d been fired under the previous owner, Michael Lacey, and Barbey raised the print distribution of the paper from 65,000 to 120,000, back to where it had been before it went free.

But in August 2016, Barbey fired one of those staffers he had brought back, the widely respected editor-in-chief Will Bourne. “From my perspective, [the Voice] died when he fired Will Bourne,” a former employee told me. “Will was the guy you’d go through a wall for if he asked you to.” When it came time to renegotiate the union contract, this past June, management proposed a set of union givebacks that stunned people. This was a proud and pioneering union—for instance, it won benefits for same-sex domestic partners long before anyone else did. According to Splinternews, management’s proposed changes included: “Eliminating any effort at affirmative action; slashing child care leave, benefits to pregnant women and parents, and educational assistance; eliminating all severance pay; eliminating any ability of staffers to negotiate for their own health care; barring new workers from joining their colleagues in the union; and stopping union employees from visiting workers at work.”

In August, the Voice stopped the presses and laid off the bulk of the union members. “We think it’s union busting,” Maida Rosenstein, president of UAW Local 2110, which represents Voice union members, told me earlier this month, adding, “We will fight it.” Since then, the union and the Voice have agreed to go to mediation, and are not commenting to the press.

The Voice isn’t necessarily dying without paper or a healthy esprit de corps. But without them, it’s more hastily being reduced to a mere brand. Of course, the Voice has always been one—its perceived resistance to being branded has always been part of its brand.

Andy Hsiao edited my column for much of the ’90s. We’d work together at his Atex terminal, and we never found nuance to be a nuisance. The Voice “died a long time ago,” he says now. He wants to make clear that there are still great writers there. But, he says, it has been “so downsized and cannibalized and muddled and denuded of specific gravity that it really does seem true that the new Voice is merely trading on the concept that all these waves of bohemians created for them, and Barbey’s blunderbuss invocation of the Voice ‘brand’ just makes that clear with magnum force.”

Barbey declined to be interviewed for this piece.

But not everyone is sad that the paper is gone or even believes that the Voice is facing another death. The great cartoonist Jules Feiffer worked at the Voice from 1956 to 1997. “I don’t lament the paper, because I think that it’s alive in many other places, and journalism as we know it today would be very different had the Voice not influenced us in the way we talk, in the way we think, and, God knows, it meant my career and actually my life,” he said in a video message shown at the reunion. “I think that the sensibility of the Voice has permeated so much of professional journalism these days that it exists everywhere.”

And now, a dance to Spring…

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that the Voice ran a Mark Jacobson article about taxi-driving, when in fact New York magazine published it. This article now cites a Voice story written by Karen Durbin. 

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