[25 October 2005]
The Village Voice is not only the publication that got me interested in politics but also music journalism- I’ve been reading it since about 1982. I have them to thank for getting me into freelance writing (like this). I write for them regularly. Thanks to my association with them, I’ve heard and seen a lot of great music. I also have good friends that work there and have been there for a while. All of which makes me very interested and concerned about their takeover by New Times Media.
My first reaction was to call or e-mail my friends who work at the Voice and its sister publications like Seattle Weekly and City Pages but I wouldn’t even know where to start. One Voice writer admitted how angry and scared she is about the whole thing and I’m sure that she’s not alone. The memo that was sent around the Voice was cautiously hopeful and they also tried to paint a rosy scenario in a Washington Post piece.
Ominous things were already afoot recently. Earlier this year, even before this merger, the Voice union had a punishing battle with management which resulted in pay cuts for freelancers. Not long before that, the word count was cut for Voice articles so that the idea of a think piece was now pretty laughable- you had to cram more ideas (or less ideas) in a smaller space. In the last year or two, there were other similar battles that resulted in staff layoff’s. What’s that going to mean when they now will have to butt heads with NMT who don’t know the meaning of the word “union”? More job cuts? Articles syndicated across the board, meaning less writing work for all? And what will happen to the famous bleeding heart editorial slant of the Voice? And what about the whole idea of indie media because a national conglom? Most likely, any changes that come won’t be seen even after the deal is consummated- they’ll likely wait until things have quieted down over time and then slowly implement changes gradually.
Yes, the Voice did survive Rupert Murdoch but while that was a marriage made in Hades, this merger will likely have long-term implications. Village Voice Media and NMT were already closing papers in the Midwest and West Coast recently so that they wouldn’t get hit with any Dept. of Justice lawsuits about getting too big for their britches. One argument that VVM and NMT mount about why they need to expand is the same one that the broadcasters use when they want to expand with the FCC’s blessing- competition from online media and other sources. Of course, having just a few big players mean that the smaller ones that are still around are going to be fighting for an even smaller plate of scraps now.
Not surprisingly, the reaction in other publications hasn’t exactly been enthused. Witness this Boston Phoenix article where several former Voice staffers and media watchers see doom for the alt weekly environs and wonder how this jibes with the whole outsider, indie status that the Voice has proudly manifested for years. Or how about writer/author John Dicker’s blog which predicts that the new M.O. will be : “Cut your freelance staff. Keep the writers in-house, except for the film reviews, which are syndicated chainwide. And most significantly: Shrink The Editorial Content.” Probably the best reaction I’ve seen so far is Jeff Chang’s blogwhere he likens the merger to Clear Channel’s tactics of buying up and turning their properties into soul-less like fiefdoms (i.e. Jack stations).
But is all of this just much ado about zilch? Could it be that the owners’ words can be taken somewhat at face value and that Voice and other publications under NTM will retain not only their unique style and attitude but that the people there won’t have to suffer any further?
Realistically, that’s wishful thinking at best. This is a bruising time for print media. Circulation is suffering, ad revenues are down, cut-backs are ongoing. The idea that a merger like this will mean stronger publications is possible but it also means that it will probably happen at the expense of staff members (literally) and the ever-shrinking content.
Like I said, the real extent of these changes aren’t going to be felt for a while but for anyone who values the Voice or any idea of alt-media, there is something you can do. A merger like this happens not out of love but out of mammon so your input is important. Your support or lack thereof is what keeps them going whether it’s buying any of them that are still for sale or supporting them with ad dollars or any event that they sponser. If the Voice is still the kind of paper that you’ve come to love and value 1, 2, 10 years from now, I urge you to keep supporting them. If it’s not, then you shouldn’t support them.
When an e-mail circulated earlier this year to Voice freelancers about the possibility of an impending strike, they asked us to sign a petition that wouldn’t let the parent company use any of our work for a scab publication that they might try to put out. I agreed with them and said that if VVM couldn’t reach an agreement with the staff, then I didn’t want my past or future work associated with the Voice under such conditions.
If or when the time comes that the paper is at another crossroads, it will be a more slow and insidious juncture but no less crucial. At the time, don’t forget why you read and support a publication like the Voice. If they can’t earn your respect any more, then there’s no reason to keep supporting them. Don’t forget to remind them of that either- you can let them know at firstname.lastname@example.org what you really think.