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What Happened to Our Voice?

Sarah Feldman

PopMatters investigates the sad trajectory of the Village Voice after merging with the national-weekly behemoth New Times Media.

Whatever Robert Christgau has playing in the background when he answers the phone in his East Village apartment sounds more hip-hop than classic rock, but when he's asked to reflect on the recent merger of Village Voice and New Times Media, the tune of rock crit’s most famous curmudgeon quickly turns to "Sympathy for the Devil". Christgau, whose 30-year tenure at the Voice came to a sudden halt two months ago, one of a run of dismissals that included some of the weekly's top arts critics, has no interest in trash-talking Michael Lacey, the head of the new conglomerate and the man most visibly responsible for the firings.

“You can bitch and moan about him being a philistine who hates New York City,” he says. “Which he is. But he’s also a writer. He’s not just some guy who makes money off it. He likes writing; he believes in writing.”

Christgau admits, however, that the writing that Lacey likes and believes in is not exactly the kind that he and his colleagues struggled for 30 years to provide at the Voice. The left-leaning, arts-loving audiences that once formed the center of the Voice universe do not, he says, appear on the New Times Media radar.

A chain of 11 newspapers -- the juggernaut jumped to 17 after the merger -- New Times is the monolith of the alt-weekly business, controlling 25 percent of the market, with arts papers in major American cities such as LA, Seattle, and San Francisco. Jeff Chang of Guerilla News Network has called New Times “the Clear Channel of alt-weeklies” after its penchant for cookie-cutter designs that change little from paper to paper. Under Lacey’s guidance, the Voice seems poised to become a cost-effective satellite to such publications as the Phoenix New Times, with minimal connection to the local, often radical cultural scene unique to New York City: Witness recent covers featuring a young local who made the startling revelation that he is both a homosexual and a jock (who knew that New York City, of all places, had an alternative gay community!) and the fifth place runner-up from a recent season of American Idol.

But the most immediate loss to the community will probably be in the area of arts coverage. Some Voice readers worry that the merger will compromise the paper’s political commitments -- Bruce Brugmann of San Francisco’s Bay Guardian has characterized Lacey’s politics as “frat-boy libertarian, leering neoconism” -- but in a predominantly liberal city like New York, it may prove economically savvy for the New Times to toe the left-leaning line.

Still, there’s little doubt that the once extensive, embedded-in-the-community model of the Voice theatre, dance, music, and film sections will take a blow. The new Voice has already taken steps towards centralized New Times arts coverage: a music review by Nate Cavalieri will appear in the Seattle Weekly and the Voice simultaneously; a film review by Jim Ridley initially published in the Nashville Scene will be picked up by the Voice a week later. Recently the New Times sought a film editor who will “cover releases in 17 American cities”; that is, all the cities covered by their chain of 17 alt-weeklies.

That’s a serious blow for a community that, between the closings of the Continental and CBGBs and the latter’s resurrection as a clothing store on St. Mark’s, has had more than enough reason to brood about centralization, lately. It’s too early to say what all this will mean for the young or obscure filmmaker with his first screening at New York's Pioneer Theatre, but we can be sure that from now on, Mel Gibson’s every misstep will receive full and redundant scrutiny in 17 major American cities.

Not only are the critics with longstanding ties to a local arts community disappearing; long-term relationships with freelance writers have also been upset. Freelancers at the Voice used to be some of the highest paid in the alt-weekly business, but in August 2005, a few months before the merger was made official, Village Voice Media announced pay cuts which brought them more in line with New Times rates (a particularly troubling scenario in a city where living expenses are the highest in America). This, in turn, led to a loss of many qualified writers whose freelancing was their livelihood.

But although the New Times takeover provides a well-defined target for readers’ rage, the blame doesn’t belong exclusively on Lacey’s shoulders. Christgau points to a string of changes, all predating the New Times takeover, that suggest that the Voice has long been losing interest in that core demographic Christgau characterizes as “people who come to this city because the arts are the center of their lives”. Take, for example, the “infamous redesign of 2003”, in which management, with Don Forst at the helm, declared that each arts page had to squeeze at least three separate pieces -- effectively eliminating the lengthy critical essays that Christgau had helped make a linchpin of the Voice’s style. The redesign was supposed to make the paper appeal to a younger and more impatient audience; 20-somethings who wanted less analysis and more bite-sized chunks of information. It succeeded in alienating readers of all ages. The Voice kept losing money, and less than two years later, management bailed and the paper was sold.

Robert Christgau

"The Voice serves an audience that isn’t served by anyone else, and Lacey doesn’t understand that,” Christgau says. “But it’s been a long time since the Voice has served that audience with much enthusiasm.”

Whether or not his new charge was already alienating old readers by the time he took the reins late in 2005, Lacey managed to concentrate their ire with a spectacular string of firings that took in some of the Voice’s most respected bylines. In the past year, the paper has dismissed nearly 30 staffers, including three successive editors-in-chief and longtime music editor Chuck Eddy. In weeks since the most recent purges -- which took in Christgau along with seven other noted critics, including dance editor Elizabeth Zimmer and theatre editor Jorge Morales -- the letters page of the Voice has been choked with outraged response from readers who demand to know how management could put the financial bottom-line before decent writing. “As of August 30, the reasons to bother with the Voice dropped to exactly zero,” wrote Tom Hardy. “No Consumer Guide? No Pazz and Jop? No intelligent writing about music? Here’s hoping some other publication has better taste than you assholes.”

But some say that the roots of the changes are more complex than the straight-up money grab. “I don’t necessarily think the choices were made for financial reasons,” says Eric Weisbard, a long-time Voice contributor and one-time music editor who currently works for the Experience Music Project in Seattle. “I think New Times hated what the Voice stood for: the alternative weekly that assumed its left-oriented, educated pop-culture writing has an audience; the idea that you should write about pop music with the same depth and the same number of cultural references that you would talk about a novelist in the New York Review of Books.”

Weisbard suggests that the changes to a more reportorial, daily-newspaper model were as much an aesthetic decision as a financial one. His argument dovetails with one of the New Times' main justifications for the recent spate of firings -- Michael Lacey has claimed that in the online era, with blogs readily available and opinions proliferating, no one needs to read the work of professional critics.

Lacey is right in at least one respect: Arts coverage, particularly music coverage, is changing, with or without his help. Some of these changes are a necessary response to changing cultural output. The sheer quantity of music being released now makes it impossible to achieve anything resembling complete coverage, and the print media has been forced to either to exchange depth for breadth in a multitude of thumbnail reviews, or to focus on a passionate but often hopelessly small niche market. “Pop is so fragmented now,” says Weisbard. “There just isn’t that counter-cultural notion of there being a core group of records that defined a generation.”

Christgau sounds tired as he explains for what can’t be the first -- or second, or sixth -- time, that whatever cultural niche Lacey and his New Times are capable of destroying is dwarfed by the huge and changing landscape of cultural journalism.

“I don’t think it’s such an awful time in art criticism,” says Christgau. He cites publications like Blender, which took the “postage stamp review” (which he admits to having helped invent with his Consumer Guide) and made it work. “Their review section is not only vast, but it’s also intelligently written and edited," he says. He adds, though, that he misses music criticism that delves a little deeper. “I resisted these changes with all my might and main for 15 years, but...” he pauses, “Do you have any more questions?” he asks. “I have to get on with my work.”

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