By Tom Robotham
Last month, Peter Barbey—the owner of The Village Voice—announced his decision to put an end to the paper’s print edition. “The Voice,” he said, “will maintain its iconic progressive brand with its digital platform….” But for those of us of a certain age, that is small consolation.
Not that I was shocked. The paper’s page-count had been shrinking for years. I continued to pick up copies whenever I visited New York, but I did so largely out of habit. It was always a disappointment to be reminded of how flimsy the paper had become. The July 12 issue, which I grabbed during my most recent visit, was only 44 pages—a far cry from the hefty issues that the paper put out in the 1970s and ‘80s.
News of the paper’s ultimate demise saddened me, nevertheless.
I started reading the Voice while working in Manhattan the summer before I went off to college, in 1974, and by the time I landed my first newspaper job four years later, it had become staple in my weekly routine. I was especially drawn to Nat Hentoff’s columns. (See my tribute to him in the Feb. 2017 issue of Veer, available at veermag.com.) But the paper in those days was filled with great writing from cover to cover: Alexander Cockburn’s “Press Clips,” column, which was a model of no-holds-barred media criticism; investigative journalism by Wayne Barrett, Jack Newfield and others; Tom Carson’s delightful television criticism, and Gary Giddins’ erudite essays about jazz.
When I had only a few minutes to spare—during a quick subway ride, for example—I’d turn to the back of the paper and eagerly scan the jazz-club listings, which were invaluable to me in the early ‘80s. At the time I was writing a weekly music column for The Staten Island Advance, and the Voice’s club listings became a key source of column ideas. It was there in 1982, for instance, that I learned of an upcoming Dizzy Gillespie show at the Blue Note and decided to request an interview. A few days later he and I had a long and memorable phone conversation, and as we were wrapping up he invited me to be his guest at the club. I ended up sitting stage-side with his longtime friend—singer Sylvia Syms—who regaled me with stories about their early years in the business. When Gillespie joined us at the table during a break, I felt sort of like Wayne and Garth when they met Alice Cooper. (I’m not worthy!) But there I was, hanging out with one of my musical heroes. All things seemed possible, and I have the inspiration of the Voice to thank for that.
Other publications were important to me as I was establishing my career, but none of them had quite the same degree of resonance. Indeed, when a friend asked me what I wanted to be doing in five years, my immediate response was, “I want to be editor of the The Village Voice.”
Sometimes dreams come true, but not on schedule and in a different form than we had once imagined. I never fulfilled my dream, per se, but in 1998, when I landed the job as editor-in-chief of Port Folio Weekly, here in Norfolk, I finally came close. Whenever people asked me about my vision for Port Folio, I responded that I wanted it to turn it into this region’s equivalent of The Village Voice. Thanks to an extraordinary stable of writers and fine staff, that dream came to fruition.
During my 10-year stint as Port Folio editor I attended the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and met many other editors of the nation’s best alt-weeklies: The Boston Phoenix, Portland’s Willamette Weekly, and The Washington City Paper, to name a few. But the Voice, founded in 1955, was the granddaddy of them all.
Alas, I realize now that this was already the twilight of an era. Some of these weeklies were being gobbled up by chains, a trend that led to great controversy at those AAN conferences: How “alternative” can a paper really be if it must serve a corporate master, people asked repeatedly. I’d wrestled with that question from the beginning of my tenure at Port Folio, since it was owned by Landmark Communications, publisher of The Virginian-Pilot. My staff and I did our best to retain our independence, but I knew that corporate ownership—especially by a company that published the local daily—would always be a hindrance.
An even bigger challenge, of course, was emerging competition from the Internet. Truth be told, a lot of people picked up the Voice over the years not for the articles but for the classified ads. As The New York Times noted in its article about the demise of the Voice’s print edition, it was through the Voice that many young New Yorkers found their first apartments in the city. The Internet rendered that service obsolete. With the rise of dating sites like Tinder, the once-popular “personal” ads became quaint relics of the past as well.
As a result of all this, some of the great alt-weeklies—the Phoenix among them—met their demise long before the Voice did. With each such announcement, more people began to embrace the notion that print is dead.
The notion is certain understandable. It’s not just the alt-weeklies that are struggling, after all. Many printed dailies around the country have either shut their doors or are holding on a by a thread. The Pilot is a prime example. When I first began visiting Norfolk in the late 1980s, it was a highly respected paper filled with great writing. Today it is a shell of its former self. It still publishes some good articles on occasion, but to my mind our local culture would lose little if anything were the Pilot to abandon its now-tiny print editions and go all-digital.
That said, I firmly believe that print is still invaluable in many cases. For one thing, printed publications have a cultural presence that websites can never achieve, given the clutter of the Internet. VEER is a case in point. Its sidewalk boxes and stacks of issues in restaurants, bars and shops announce to people as they are going about their daily business that there is still an independent voice in Hampton Roads.
Then there is the experience of reading a printed publication, in contrast to surfing the Web. It is a quiet experience—and therefore invites reflection—unlike online publications with their pop-up ads and hyperlinks.
For all of these reasons I will miss the Voice whenever I return to New York. The city has lost so much already. The Village, in particular. Two years ago, I was heartbroken when I learned that a favorite haunt of my since the late ‘70s—the Back Fence on Bleecker Street, which had been around since 1945—was closing. More and more, the city is losing its distinctive flavor as corporate chains replace independent local businesses. The disappearance of those red sidewalk boxes emblazoned with the familiar blue Village Voice nameplate will create another void in the cityscape.
I will find solace in the memories, though. While I was too young to have experienced the Voice during its formative years as an emerging force in the underground culture of the late 1950s and the explosive counterculture of the 1960s, I am profoundly grateful for its impact on my life as I was coming of age. I hope that my 20-something friends will find something comparable, even as it becomes more difficult to do so in this excessively cluttered and fast-paced digital world.