Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Whatever Happened to the Village Voice?

When I was growing up in NYC, The Village Voice was profoundly relevant. And in 1989, when I went to a progressive liberal arts college in New England I found to my insular surprise that its relavance went beyond the mean streets of New York City. The Voice was sex positive, urbane, left-libertarian with great cartoons -- Matt Groening, pre-Simpsons, started there -- not entirely lacking in sharp elbowed columns on city and state and national politics. The Village Voice was like a younger, cooler Nation magazine with a sense of humor and a more sophisticated and nuanced attitude about sexuality and society. It was the perfect publishing antidote to the Reagan era of "Moral Majorities" and goddamn fucking big har. And in this digital age with the globe open to it, the Voice is but a shadow of its previous influence ....

What happened?

After losing such stellar talent as Nat Hentoff, Jules Feiffer, Lynn Yaeger and Tom Robbins the paper was never quite the same. Still, even with the amazing Michael Musto, Freewill Astrology and even the decent Running Scared blog the paper is not navigating the new digital universe well.

To illustrate my point here are two examples of very awkward, very recent cover stories that are entirely unworthy of the Voice that I remember growing up with:

Ashton Kutcher vs. Village Voice

"Real Men Get Their Facts Straight" is the Village Voice's Most Commented, Most Emailed and Most Viewed story. Then there is the social media component: It was liked 822 times on Facebook; it was re-Tweeted 222 times; it has 86 Digg mentions; It drew 1041 passionate comments. So in that sense -- getting eyeballs, gaining media traction -- the story was a no-brainer. I, cynically, get that.

But it was also a moral loss for the nation's oldest and largest alternative newsweekly. I can understand the editorial-publishing rationale for publishing such a story. But that rationale rings hollow, particularly when it then becomes a cover story, squandering the reputation of the Voice. The story was essentially that Ashton's figures -- 100,000 to 300,000 child prostitutes -- were inflated and, further, his ad campaign is really silly. Quite frankly that's a Twitter post, not a cover story.

And then there are the social media realities. Attacking a man with an astronomical amount of Twitter followers, goading him into a Twitter war is a win -- however Pyrrhic -- for the Voice. If Ashton's numbers are inflated, his cause was in earnest. And the Voice itself inflates their one sentence argument -- with lots of charts -- into a cover story for the express purpose of garnering social media attention. That came across in the Twitter war where the Voice, which profits off of escort ads in their back pages, came across as profoundly awkward.

The Village Voice founded by Norman Mailer, the Village Voice that I read in the 80s would never ever lose anything to an Ashton Kutcher. And yet it did.

Village Voice vs. Bloomberg

This week's Voice attacks NYC Mayor Bloomberg for, essentially -- after ten years in office -- not having a central animating principle to his Mayoralty. I don't get it. Michael Bloomberg is not a bad Mayor, not a crypto-fascist like Rudy Giuliani, the central animating principal of his Mayoralty being taking a sledgehammer to crime, civil liberties be damned! Bloomberg came on after September 11th, after the economy tanked, after the city's deficit skyrocketed and after Giuliani had left gaping wounds in the relations between minorities and whites. Putting all of that into perspective, Bloomberg's Mayoralty has been all about healing a tired and wounded city.

Okay -- Bloomberg wanted his Mayoralty to be about Education. Bloomberg wanted to be known as "The Education Mayor." And by his own measure he failed on that one. Got it. But what Bloomberg has done for education in New York, with charter schools, is a radical transformation of a moribund institution. And the jury is still out on how that transformation affects public education. We really won't know for at least a decade. Further, New York under Bloomberg has won $113 million in federal charter scool grants -- who knows what its effect will be on future generations?

In other words, I don't get the rationale for this story, much less why it is taking up prime cover real estate. Still, like Ashton, it gets eyeballs. "Citizen Bloomberg" is the second most emailed story (after Ashton) and it has only been online for a week. So I guess I have answered my own question.


The era of cover real estate controlled entirely by well-intentioned editors that eschew the influences of the bottom line are over. The opposite cynical extreme is to program covers wholly by what gets eyeballs, what causes social media chatter and what gets pageviews that can be turned into ad revenue. That way leads to porn, gossip and snark. The descent into the cultural lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, Norman Mailer's baby is moving steadily in that direction and it is not alone in journalism.

The answer, as always, is somewhere in between the two extremes. The Voice should be aware of its history, its prestige but also push stories that are acutely aware of the splash they'll make on social media. Balance.

It's not that hard -- at least it shouldn't be -- for an institution as culturally important as the Voice. But as a a Realist I am not confident that this obvious fact will be attended to.

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